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Thursday, 5 November 2009

Books – Muriel Spark – The Biography by Martin Stannard

Star rating – 7/10

The name of Muriel Spark will evoke for most people thoughts of her most best known and well loved novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a character so memorably brought to life on film by Maggie Smith. But most of her other 21 novels remain in relative obscurity today, which is odd for such a previously celebrated and talented writer.

This new biography by Martin Stannard helps to throw some light on the elusive author, and was written with her blessing and help, although would undoubtedly have suffered more from her desperate need to tightly control her privacy and public image if she had not died whilst it was being written. This is a very sympathetic telling of her story, and does in places feel a little too subjective for its own good because of this.

Her early story is fascinating. She comes from a relatively poor but stable and happy family in Edinburgh, and makes an early disastrous marriage to a man who takes her to Africa and turns out to be mentally very unstable and very unsuitable. After having her son, Robin, she manages to break away from her husband, but at the expense of leaving her son behind. When he finally does come to live in Edinburgh, he does not settle with his mother, by now a committed but penniless writer doggedly pursuing her craft, but with her parents. The reasons for this are somewhat glossed over here by Stannard. What seem like basic child abandonment and selfishness on Spark’s part are portrayed as reasonable and normal behaviour for a struggling young writer. Later in her life she tells one interviewer that her mother just seemed to take Robin from her, and to take over. She certainly didn’t put up much resistance, and her resulting relationship with her son is inevitably very strained at best throughout her life. At one point she says of him ‘He has never done anything for me except for being one big bore.’ This culminates in her disinheriting him totally in her will, due we are told to a disagreement over their Jewish heritage, which Spark is not as keen as her son to own and embrace.

This selfishness as a mother aside, her early story is told well and her other human relationships reveal a fear of closeness and opening up to others that perhaps leads to her spending her whole life basically on her own, with a series of transitory relationships, most of which seem to be platonic. One very interesting part of her make up is her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s. Her religion becomes a theme running through many of her novels, although it does not really seem to effect her life in a very practical way. Spark does not feel the need to attend Mass on a regular basis, and even then allegedly always leaves before the sermon, not wanting to be told what to think by anyone. She does not really relate to the Catholic Church as it changes and modernises after the 1962 second Vatican Council, which opened up the Church and tried to make it more accessible to its worshippers.

She lives for her writing, and is prepared to sacrifice and suffer personal hardship to make it as a writer. But it is her relationships with others that reveal so much about her. She is always falling out irrevocably with friends, lovers, agents and publishers. It certainly seems that she was a very difficult woman to get on with or get close to. She guarded her public image fiercely, and loved the dramatic and theatrical gesture whenever the opportunity presented itself. ‘I like purple patches in my life. I like drama, but not in my writing. I think it is bad manners to inflict emotional involvement on the reader…’ But she does have many close relationships, mainly via letters in the written medium she was most comfortable with, with famous poets and authors such as Auden, and Greene.

She comes across through these pages as a brilliant, intelligent, but insecure, unhappy, and vain woman. The detail of her later life are not as interesting as the early part of the biography, as Stannard just seems to relate an endless stream of trips abroad, meetings and illnesses. But essentially this is an interesting read, and should tempt readers to explore more of her works than they already know, if not persuade them of the essential goodness of Spark herself as a human being. Do good writers need to sacrifice themselves for their art? On this evidence it would certainly seem that Muriel Spark did so.

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