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10 Reasons to Love Muriel Spark

3rd Feb 2014

Muriel Spark
The award-winning Scottish author is best known for her 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but there's many other reasons to love her too. Here's ten of ours to add to your lists...

1. Her Sparkian women

No one writes women quite like Muriel Spark. Characters such as Abbess Alexandra in The Abbess of Crewe, Annabel Christopher in The Public Image and the famously Machiavellian Miss Jean Brodie are all unmistakably Sparkian, each weaving intricate plots while sidestepping those spun by others.

A consummate performer, the Sparkian woman is eternally aware of her public persona. On the rare occasion that the mask does slip, however, readers may be unprepared for the woman that hides beneath.

2. Her serious take on satire

‘The art of pathos is pathetic, simply; and it has reached a point of exhaustion,’ Spark told the audience during her speech to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1971, arguing that ‘ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left’.

In place of ‘exhausted’ pathos, Spark’s short, biting novels take aim and fire at all manner of contemporary evils, from victim-blaming (The Driver’s Seat) to celebrity obsession (Not to Disturb) and political scandal (The Abbess of Crewe).

3. Her love of a good ghost story

Ghosts abound in Spark’s fiction. They avenge past crimes in The Portobello Road, go shoe-shopping in New York in The Hothouse by the East River and even haunt their own books in the poem Author’s Ghosts. Strange, mischievous and sometimes deeply disturbing, Spark’s band of ghouls stay with you long after reading.

4. Her excellent time-management skills

Never one to stick to the straight story, Spark tells tales in whichever order she pleases. A novel’s ending might be given away near the beginning, as in The Driver’s Seat, or a character’s fate revealed far in advance of its arrival, as in The Girls of Slender Means.

By playing with time, Spark produces an entirely different type of suspense; rather than anticipate what will happen, she compels us to wonder why and how it already has.

5. Her drama

While celebrated for her novels and short stories, Spark’s dramatic works haven’t received much in the way of popular or critical attention, and the time is ripe for a reappraisal.

Her play, Doctors of Philosophy, baffled audiences and critics alike when it was staged in 1962, but remains a scathing and relevant satire of the social pressures that force women to choose between careers and families.

She insisted on numerous outfit changes, before hiding her face behind a plastic skull (complete with an inbuilt cackling sound effect, naturally)...6. Her short stories

Spark was living in poverty until she won a short story competition in The Observer with The Seraph and the Zambesi in 1951.

Lucid and inventive, unsettled and frequently unsettling, short fictions like Bang Bang, You’re Dead, The Pearly Shadow and The Girl I Left Behind Me are beguiling, addictive treats. Go on, there’s time to read just one more…

7. Her work’s weird and wonderful adaptations

Elizabeth Taylor throwing crazed tantrums in a changing room. Glenda Jackson playing a surveillance-savvy nun. Andy Warhol as a British nobleman stomping around an airport.

Spark is responsible for some of the strangest images ever committed to celluloid, though you’d be forgiven for not having seen them.

Maggie Smith’s Academy Award-winning turn as Jean Brodie aside, many film and television adaptations of Spark’s fiction have flown deep under the radar.

That doesn’t mean that obscurities such as Identikit (based on The Driver’s Seat) and Nasty Habits (The Abbess of Crewe) aren’t worth seeking out to enjoy in all their bonkers glory.

8. Her thrill of the chase

Be it Fleur Talbot’s quest to reclaim her stolen manuscript (tellingly titled Warrender Chase) in Loitering with Intent, or Caroline Rose’s attempts to escape the grand designs of her own author in The Comforters, the intertwining themes of writing and pursuit are central to almost all of Spark’s novels.

Spark’s critical study of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reveals her early interest in the strange tension between a creation and its creator.

9. Her many lives

An unhappily married mother in Rhodesia, a spinner of black propaganda in wartime Britain, a starving artist in London, a successful writer with an office at the New Yorker and a vibrant lifestyle in Rome, a secluded later life with a female companion in Tuscany – Spark’s personal life is every bit as compelling as her fiction.

She writes about the years before her career took off in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, but it’s Martin Stannard’s excellent biography that tells the whole story.

10. Her idiosyncratic interview style

It’s a shame that a personality as entertaining as Spark didn’t appear on more television programmes. She chose to conduct her interview for the BBC’s Bookstand not in a study or library – places favoured by the show’s other guests – but by a graveside.

When filmed in her Rome apartment for the book programme Scope, she insisted on numerous outfit changes, before hiding her face behind a plastic skull (complete with an inbuilt cackling sound effect, naturally). We can only speculate how a stint on Come Dine With Me would have played out…

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