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Still Burning Brightly: Spark at 100

Posted on 26th January 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Funny, acerbic, astute and endlessly readable, Muriel Spark's novels are peerless in their ability to hold a mirror up to humanity in all its joy and frailty. As part of 2018's landmark, year-long celebrations of the centenary of Muriel Spark, Alan Taylor - a friend of Spark's and author of an intimate new memoir of her life, Appointment in Arezzo - looks back on the life and work of Scotland's greatest twentieth century novelist.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Scotland’s greatest twentieth-century novelist, Muriel Spark. It is an opportunity to celebrate her genius and explore her evergreen oeuvre. People know, of course, of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, often through the Oscar-winning movie starring Maggie Smith, but much of  the rest of her work remains unexplored. Why this should be so has long bemused the legions of us who are her fans. It may simply be because she did not live here. Out of sight and largely out of mind, Muriel was often labelled an English writer to her intense irritation. For, as she never tired of saying, not only was she Scottish by birth, she was Scottish by formation. To the end of her long life – she died, aged 88, in 2006 – she spoke with a marked Morningside accent and always referred to Edinburgh, the city where she could “never hope to be understood”, as her home. 

She was born on 1 February, 1918, as the carnage of the First World War was coming to an end. The Cambergs lived in a flat in Bruntsfield, overlooking the links across which Muriel walked to school and in summer played golf. Her father, Bertie, was an engineer while her mother, Cissy, was a housewife, albeit an unconventional one. It was Cissy who told Muriel that if she never learned to do certain things, such as how to iron clothes or peel potatoes, she would never be asked to do them. Muriel took this to heart and avoided many of the chores which the rest of us take as our lot. 

She was a great reader and haunted the local well-stocked public libraries, supplementing her supply of books by borrowing the tickets of her parents and her older brother, Philip. The Cambergs  were not poor but neither were they well off. Though Muriel was academically able and could have gone to university, that appears not to have been an option. Instead, she found a job as assistant to the owner of Small’s department store in Princes Street, which allowed her to indulge her love of fashion. 

When she was nineteen she met a man more than a decade older than her called Sydney Oswald Spark. He was about to leave Scotland for a teaching post in Rhodesia. He proposed marriage and Muriel, keen to travel and see the world, impetuously accepted. Thus, in the summer of 1937, she set sail for Africa where the couple were married and soon had a son, Robin. But what ought to have been a joyful period turned into a nightmare when her husband began to show signs of erratic, violent behaviour. Divorce quickly followed and eventually, in the midst of the Second World War, Muriel returned to Britain. She could, she supposed, have reverted to her family name but she stuck with Spark because it seemed perfectly to suit her personality, as indeed it did.

Living in blitzed London, Muriel began to make her way as a writer. She wrote poems and produced studies of writers she admired, such as the Brontës, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and the Poet Laureate John Masefield. In 1951, a short story, ‘The Seraph and the Zambesi’, which drew on her experience of Africa, won a prestigious short story. Having never previously regarded herself as a writer of fiction, Muriel now realized that this might be her métier. Her first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957, at the relatively late age of 39, and was rapturously received by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.  Others, including Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, swiftly followed at the rate of around one a year, enhancing her reputation.

Muriel was that rare creature, a popular and critical success. The New Yorker magazine, which published the whole of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in a single issue, gave her an office and a contract. For a while she lived in Manhattan but when she found life there too distracting she moved to Rome. Like Jean Brodie, Muriel – a convert to Catholicism – felt a special affinity with Italy, its art and history. But Rome, too, eventually palled and she made her final move to Tuscany where her companion, the painter and sculptor Penelope Jardine, had bought a property in dire need of renovation.

It was in this rather remote and beautiful spot that I got know Muriel well. Then in her seventies, she was content. In the cramped kitchen we would talk for hours over a glass or two of local wine.  From her study window she looked out over a landscape like those painted hundreds of years earlier by Piero della Francesca, hillsides covered by regiments of vines and gnarled olive trees and dusty, narrow roads bordered by dry stane dykes. There was usually a novel or a story in the pipeline and she always had a poem “on the go”. Her last novel, her twenty-second, was aptly-titled  The Finishing School. In it, one of the characters is writing a story about Mary Queen of Scots. Muriel Spark, the greatest Scottish writer since Robert Louis Stevenson, may have lived far from the place she called home but it was rarely out of her thoughts.

Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark by Alan Taylor is published by Polygon, which is also publishing all twenty-two of Spark’s novels in a special edition to mark her centenary.

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