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Muriel Spark by Martin Stannard

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MURIEL SPARK: THE BIOGRAPHY

By: Martin Stannard.

Publisher: W.W. Norton, 536 pages, $35.

Review: A massive and engaging account of a great novelist, which seamlessly weaves the details of her life into a deft exploration of her work.

Muriel Spark, in her prime

  • Article by: CARL ROLLYSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • April 17, 2010 - 2:11 PM

Muriel Spark (1918-2006) is probably best remembered for the heroine played to stunning effect by Maggie Smith in the 1961 movie adaptation of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Like Miss Kay, one of Spark's own teachers in Edinburgh, Miss Brodie brought up her pupils to believe in their own genius, a pedagogy that meant thwarting social conventions and thinking for oneself -- and doing it all, as Muriel Spark did, with panache.

Spark, a true British eccentric, Martin Stannard reports, was given to visions and hallucinations. During one delusional period, she believed that T.S. Eliot was sending her coded messages through his play "The Confidential Clerk." No wonder she treasured both the absurdity of life and her characters' efforts to find meaning in the strange happenings that haunt them. In "Memento Mori" (1959), perhaps the best book ever written about old age, a phone caller harasses an elderly group of characters with the same message, "Remember, you must die." A retired police inspector eventually concludes it is the voice of death itself -- a not uncommon conclusion in a Spark novel, which often conflates the rational with the supernatural.

Half Jewish but a devout Catholic, Spark wrote metaphysical novels that relished human peculiarity. She is never preachy, but always funny. Character triumphs over plot, as it often does in Dickens.

Stannard had the good fortune to receive Spark's cooperation -- although that cooperation did not mean she was easy to deal with. Still, her opening gambit to him was irresistible: "Treat me as though I were dead," she told him. Unlike many writers who look upon biographers as biografiends, Spark did not destroy her papers -- indeed, she seemed to keep every scrap for posterity.

Why? Early in her career, before Spark became a famous and best-selling novelist in this country as well as her own, she wrote biographies, immersing herself in particular in studies of the Brontës. Although Stannard does not say so, it seems that this work endowed Spark with an appreciation for biography as the extension of a writer's life and as a way of continuing the writer's legacy.

Like the Brontës, Spark labored for many years in obscurity and hardship before she achieved renown in her 40s. In all likelihood, she saw a substantial biography as her due. Given her attraction to the supernatural, who knows? She may have thought she could in some sense remain here to enjoy Martin Stannard's graceful transit through her life.

Carl Rollyson is a biographer and professor of journalism at Baruch College, the City University of New York.

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