She loved lightning. It wasn’t her favorite weapon—fire was, or knives. But lightning has a brutal, beautiful efficiency, and she used it to good effect, once frying alive a pair of lovers. Lightning seemed to seek her out, too. It struck her houses repeatedly, and on one occasion caused a nearby bell tower to come crashing down into her bathroom. The lightning entered her bedroom, she said, and danced across her upper lip.
To her readers, Dame Muriel Spark arrived aptly named and like a bolt from the blue in 1957, with her first novel, “The Comforters,” published when she was thirty-nine. She went on to produce at least a book a year with a facility that even she found bemusing. Writing novels was so easy, she said, “I was in some doubt about its value.” Rumor has it her drafts were pristine—no strike-throughs, scant revisions. It was as if she were taking dictation, faithfully transcribing those rawboned stories of blackmail and betrayal in her schoolgirl script. When she died, in 2006, she left twenty-two novels, poems, plays, biographies, essays, and a memoir—a body of work singular in its violence, formal inventiveness, and scorching opening lines. “He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” one story begins.
But her reputation has never been secure. Once considered a peer to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Spark is now regarded as a bit of a curiosity, the chronicler of kinky nuns and schoolgirl intrigue, exemplar of the “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish” women’s writing that Norman Mailer derided. But lightning, in this case, strikes twice. Several of her books are being rereleased in America. We have a chance to reconsider the prime of Ms. Muriel Spark.
The bad news first. The nonfiction, it seems, has gone off. “The Informed Air,” a collection of book reviews, “pensées,” and various exhalations, feels lumpy and slightly stale. And save for a weirdly mesmerizing section on watching a dairymaid cutting up a slab of butter, her memoir, “Curriculum Vitae,” is a work of almost sinister dullness—a shame, since her life was anything but, what with a stint in military intelligence, amphetamine-induced madness in her thirties, public betrayal by her lovers, public quarrels with her son. But the novels astonish, even now. All thanks, as it happens, to their “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish,” morally dubious glory; their kinky nuns and schoolgirls; their meddlers and murderers; a grandmother who smuggles diamonds in loaves of bread; a young woman on holiday who meticulously plans her own murder, down to picking out the tie she intends to be strangled with.
What hash Spark’s characters make of those eternal debates over unlikable characters or unlikable women. These women aren’t unlikable, these women are monstrous, and what’s more, Spark behaves monstrously with them. There’s a nasty little scene in her novella “The Girls of Slender Means,” in which a group of women struggle to escape a burning building through a small window. The window can accommodate hips that are at most thirty-six and a quarter inches, “but as the exit had to be effected sideways with a maneuvering of shoulders, much depended on the size of bones, and on the texture of the individual flesh and muscles, whether flexible enough to compress easily or whether too firm.” (Flexible enough to compress easily: Spark looks at her women like a wolf.) The skinny women have slithered through to safety; only the larger or pregnant ones remain. A tape measure is produced. As the room fills with smoke, the women present their hips for measurement. It’s a sweaty, agonizing scene. Once you’ve read it, you’ll remember it like some awful moment from your own life, with odd details taking on a terrible vividness—the way, for example, one trapped woman’s freckles seem to darken as the blood drains from her face. It’s also a deeply silly scene, if that can be believed, with women popping out of the window like corks and randomly disrobing. This is Spark’s particular genius: the cruelty mixed with camp, the lightness of touch, the flick of the wrist that lands the lash.
Spark was fond of pointing out that as a child she never mothered her dolls. They were puppets, at her command; so too are her characters. They are broad types, complete with catchphrases: “I was Mrs. Hawkins,” “I’m in my prime.” We cannot “enter” them, as the dreadful phrase goes. They don’t excite empathy. They don’t, in fact, differ much from one another. With a few variations, your Sparkian heroine will be a large, intensely clever woman, an editor or a writer, a bit lonely, a bit criminally inclined. Above all, she’s a superb “sighter,” as Spark would say. A watchful woman talented at teasing out secrets. Put simply: imagine the young Muriel Spark.
These characters, these editors and writers, frequently call attention to their implausibility—that is, if they don’t discover that they’re characters in a novel and stage a mutiny, as in “The Comforters,” in which a young writer realizes that Muriel Spark intends to make a fictional character out of her and tries to leap from the frame by changing her travel plans at the last minute or missing appointments she thinks are important to the narrative. To read Spark is always to read about reading. By populating her novels with memoirists and poets, cranky publishers, well-connected hacks, all of them arguing about what makes a character, what propels a sentence, and did you hear about so-and-so’s advance, she draws our attention repeatedly to the artifice of the novel. She loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure. That’s the point of all those catchphrases. Every time Jean Brodie tells us that she’s in her prime, it’s Spark’s voice we hear, and we’re reminded of who wields the puppet strings.
But why torture these poor puppets so voluptuously? Spark loves to make us watch, and we feel that she wants to make us better at watching, so completely must we surrender when we read her. She makes sighters of us, too, Sparkian solitary sighters stuck at the margins, growing gravid with everyone else’s secrets. We learn how powerlessness can make you an expert in the art of appraisal—in assessing someone’s market price down to the penny. Think of how the women in the boarding house in “The Girls of Slender Means” memorize each other’s measurements: they literally have each other’s numbers. In this world, everything is transactional, and everything is currency. The girls of slender means keep a careful accounting of their assets, from their faces to the last nub of rationed soap.
Spark set these imbroglios in female-only spaces: boarding houses, girls’ schools, abbeys, the ladies’ wing of a nursing home. “The strongest men on all fronts were dead before I was born,” she told her biographer, Martin Stannard. (Not that she was ever at ease with her own sex—or, for that matter, her species. “She went through people like pieces of Kleenex,” the writer Ved Mehta said. Like Patricia Highsmith, with whom she shared a healthy interest in sadism, and, briefly, a little black cat named Spider, she was a creature apart, not of us but living among us with lively disdain and mistrust—rather like, well, a cat.) Women were just where the action was, but to be “womanly” was another matter. “There’s something a bit harsh about you, Fleur,” a character says to our heroine in “Loitering with Intent.” “You’re not really womanly.” This irritates Fleur, who tells us, “To show her I was a woman I tore up the pages of my novel and stuffed them into the wastepaper basket, burst out crying and threw her out, roughly and noisily. After that I went to bed. Flooded with peace, I fell asleep.”
Spark was fascinated by suffering—and even tried writing a critical study of the Book of Job—but it was an active, robust kind of suffering that she liked, whereby hunger whetted one’s wits. Her women are not enamored of their anxiety, of their moods and wounds. If they’re poor and powerless, it’s in the way of a junkyard dog, with a restless, scavenging instinct, a loyalty to no one and breathtaking cunning. Spark simply seemed to find no romance in female abjection, the fashion for which Susan Sontag describes in “Illness as Metaphor.” “Sadness made one ‘interesting,’ ” Sontag writes. “The melancholy creature was a superior one: sensitive, creative, a being apart.” It was “the ideal look for women.” Compare that to these most Sparkian of sentiments: “He actually raped her, she was amazed”; “Filthy luck. I’m preggers. Come to the wedding.” Or, from Spark’s own description of her brief marriage to the much older and very violent Sydney Oswald Spark (she called him S.O.S.), who went insane: “He became a borderline case, and I didn’t like what I found on either side of the border.”
Spark is being glib, of course, but in that glibness is a kind of laconic dignity and an instinct for privacy. It’s gallows humor, wartime humor that tacitly acknowledges the prevalence of pain and posits that, in times of tragedy, the inventive and interesting use of language can confer a kind of sanity. So it did for Spark, who knew hunger, humiliation, and madness, but also made nine lives for herself in Edinburgh, Rhodesia, Milton Bryan, Kensington Aylesford, Camberwell, New York, Rome, and Tuscany.
But I presume too much. Spark insisted upon mystery. “You have to live with the mystery,” she said. “That’s the answer in my books.” If we insisted upon interpretations, however, she’d supply them herself, and she had very clear ideas about what the suffering in her novels was meant to signify. Like Flannery O’Connor, she was a passionate Roman Catholic (if a delightfully idiosyncratic one: she was a vocal champion of birth control) and given to gnomic pronouncements on her work. “I’m often very deadpan,” she said, “but there’s a moral statement too, and what it’s saying is that there’s a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They’re not important in the long run.” If only she weren’t so fine a writer. In her telling, those events take on terrific importance, so pungently does she bring the London of her lean years to life, with the lonely bedsits and blackouts, the drownings and parties, the scheming girls, the ambitious girls. A blackmailer meeting a marshy end. A terrifying old woman in chinchilla furs. A naked young woman rubbing rationed margarine on her skin so that she might slip through a window and sit on the roof. Let Muriel Spark keep the next life in mind, we’re tempted to say. Let’s think about that buttery girl in this one.