Muriel Spark Centenary
This year marks the Centenary of Scottish writer Muriel Spark, and February 1st is the 100th anniversary of her birth. A writer of originality, depth, and scope, she has an interesting and unusual bibliography well worth exploring. Here, we look at five novels to recommend to a Spark novice.
The Driver’s Seat (1970)
Utterly bizarre and completely brilliant, The Driver’s Seat is the starkest evocation of Spark’s narrative confidence. A hallmark of her work throughout her career was her employment of the flash-forward as a narrative technique, and that can be seen in her earliest works. Never is it as visceral and shocking as in The Driver’s Seat, where she gives away the fate of the main character as early as the third chapter. Spark matches the mental deterioration of the sad, bereft Lise with her choppy, uncharacteristically imprecise prose, which is often made up of “maybe she thought this” or “she might have done that.” There is an inherent melancholy to Lise’s humdrum, bland life, and a sadness in her desire for new experience, however misguided. It’s the kind of book you have to read more than once, to check if what you think happened really happened.
The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
Somewhat anomalous in the Spark canon is this fabulous adventure story set in the infancy of the new state of Israel. It’s a strange concoction of spy thriller, subterfuge, Barbara Pym-esque whimsy, and romance, all delivered with Spark’s inimitable, keen eye for human foibles and her expert analysis of inter-personal relationships. The second half is particularly entertaining. It’s a vivid representation of an arid Israeli summer, and Spark’s descriptions of the curious fusion of cultures in Jerusalem and her portrayal of the barren but beautiful Judean Desert is pitch perfect. The Mandelbaum Gate is, at heart, a great story, full of plot twists and solid Sparkian characterisation.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1960)
This splendid novel just shows you what Muriel Spark can do in the space of less than two hundred pages. She makes the novella an art form, and nary a word is out of place. The prose is pared down, the descriptions are incisive, and Jean Brodie, the Scottish schoolmistress with a taste for the avant-garde, is one of modern literature’s most memorable and complex creations. As with many of Spark’s books, I finished it unsure of my opinions – what exactly do I make of Miss Brodie and her unorthodox methods? It’s this subversion and confusion (compounded by a narrative that flashes both backwards and forwards) that makes Spark so thrilling to read, and difficult to describe.
Memento Mori (1959)
A group of elderly friends in 1950s London receive sinister prank calls from an anonymous voice, which prompts them to examine their histories, possibly for the first time. A simple premise becomes an exquisite black comedy; Muriel Spark was barely forty when she wrote this novel, but her acute perceptions of the geriatric and of the vagaries of life keep her prose taut, sincere, and richly humorous. Like the best of Spark, it is unsentimental and intelligent.
A Far Cry from Kensington (1988)
Of Spark’s most well-known books, A Far Cry From Kensington, published in 1988, is certainly one of her most charming novels. Mrs Nancy Hawkins, a consummate storyteller, relates a curious tale to us. Years back, while living in London, Nancy and the rest of her household are mystified by an anonymous threatening letter addressed to the Polish dressmaker, Wanda, with whom they lodge. It is even more extraordinary because Wanda seems so very normal, but the letter devastates her – what is she hiding? Meanwhile, Nancy continues to climb the career ladder in the publishing houses of London, but her progress is continually stymied. Could it be her treatment of the slimy, talentless hanger-on Hector Bartlett, is causing all her problems? Or are her frustrated attempts at success something to do with Wanda, who seems to have turned on her since her own problems began. Often amusing and never dull, this is a book about stories themselves, and about a woman not afraid to speak her mind.
Matthew & Ruth.