Another Spark review from me – three books reviewed in one day, gosh! Although this one I actually read during Muriel Spark Reading Week, and I’m writing about it down in Somerset – where the book group my Mum runs have all been reading Muriel Spark. I joined in their lovely lunch, chatting about Spark – everyone enjoyed reading her, although one lady (who had read The Abbess of Crewe, apparently one of Spark’s weirder novels) was rather bemused. I’m hoping Mum will write some reviews of the Spark novels she’s read this week… hint hint…!
Once I’ve read a lot of an author’s novels, I like to look into their life a bit. (You can do the same, very quickly, with Katherine’s piece.) I prefer doing it that way around – so that I have formed my own opinions from the books, and can use biographical information to augment my interest, rather than act as a starting point. Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark was looming in one corner of my room, but it’s enormous, so I went to the horse’s mouth – Spark’s ‘fragments of an autobiography’, Curriculum Vitae (1992).
I had been curious to discover quite how Spark would write an autobiography, since her novels so often eschew normal narrative structures and the reliable narrator. Not that her narrators are particularly unreliable – just the question of reliability seems to be rather sidelined. Well, in Curriculum Vitae she is very concerned with reliability (I’ve typed that so often it doesn’t feel like a real [reliable] word any more…) and refuses to trust her own memory: ‘I determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses’. But there are definitely signs of Spark-the-novelist in the structuring of the autobiography. Her usual trick of playing around with time makes an appearance, but it’s the enticingly disjointed beginning which made me realise Spark-the-autobiographer was no real distance from Spark-the-novelist. She starts by writing about bread, under its own little subheading. And then butter. And so on. It’s an interesting way to structure a childhood, but I don’t think any other method would suit this most unconventional of novelists.
Spark grew up in beautiful Edinburgh, amongst family and neighbours who were fairly poorly-off, but with many strict manners and customs – although her own parents seem to have been pretty fun. I can’t summarise Spark’s many details about this upbringing, but it demonstrates how incredibly observant she was from an early age – and who knows what she left out, because she couldn’t find corroborating evidence? There are definite signs of the latent novelist in Spark:
I was fascinated from the earliest age I can remember by how people arranged themselves. I can’t remember a time when I was not a people-watcher, a behaviourist.
A while later, whilst completing her education at Heriot Watt College, she notes:
I was particularly interested in precis-writing, and took a course in that. I loved economical prose, and would always try to find the briefest way to express a meaning.
There, I think, you have the two keystones of Spark’s novelistic power. She is endlessly perceptive, and always concise.
In the early section of the autobiography, the part which was of most interest to me (and might well be to others) was on Miss Christina Kay (‘that character in search of an author’) whose teaching inspired Spark, and helped inspire her most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie. Of course they are not the same – Spark is too good a writer to lift people straight from life, even if that were possible – but they shared a love of educating girls, of Mussolini, and art. Spark shows how she used Christina Kay, and where she invented. Indeed, Spark often finishes an anecdote by mentioning which short story or novel the event helped influence. The following excerpt is an example of this, but also of the way Spark writes her autobiography with the same unusual, out-of-kilter twists she presents so often in her novels:
Just round the corner in Viewforth lived Nita McEwen, who resembled me very much. She was already in her first year at James Gillespie’s School when I saw her with her parents, walking between them, holding their hands. I was doing the same thing. I was not yet at school. It must have been a Saturday or Sunday, when children used to walk with their parents. My mother remarked how like me the little girl was; one of her parents must have said the same to her. I looked round at the child and saw she was looking round at me. Either her likeness to me or something else made me feel strange. I didn’t yet know she was called Nita. Later, at school, although Nita was in a higher class and we never played together, our physical resemblance was often remarked upon. Her hair was slightly redder than mine. Years later, when I was twenty-one, I was to meet Nita McEwen in a boarding house in the then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. There, our likeness to each other was greatly remarked on. One night, Nita was shot dead by her husband, who then shot himself. I heard two girl’s screams followed by a shot, then another shot. That was the factual origin of my short story ‘Bang-Bang You’re Dead’.
Perhaps I should elaborate on the self-confessed disastrous marriage which led to her life in (then) Rhodesia; her cunning escape back to Britain during World War Two; her hilarious account of working for the Poetry Society (which helped inspire Loitering With Intent); the various dramatic and often calamitous personal and professional relationships Spark had… but I want you to read Curriculum Vitae yourself, so I shan’t.
Spark finishes this autobiography at about the time her first novel, The Comforters, was published. She talks of a second volume, and it is such a shame that this volume never appeared – I would love to see her take on literary circles and the trappings of fame – but what Spark has written is wonderful enough. Curriculum Vitae has all the energy and unusual qualities of a Spark novel, with the added joy of acting as a centre from which all her other works are spokes. Once you’ve read three or four (or so) Spark novels, I recommend you hunt this down and see her bizarre take on real life – it’s further evidence of her claim (I believe) to being one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, and certainly one of its most original.