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The Goal Was Greatness

When you are an inarguably excellent novelist of the mid-twentieth century, with a solid trans-Atlantic reputation among critics and readers and steady paychecks from new books and film rights and journalistic commissions, there seems to come a decisive moment when you buckle down to write your Great Book, and the outcome either makes or breaks you. In either case, the experience appears to be harrowing. While writing Brideshead Rivisited, according to Martin Stannard’s biography, Evelyn Waugh took bromide and chloral at night to sleep and drummed out thousands of words a day in a five-month sprint, complaining to his agent that his “Magnum Opus is turning into a jeroboam.” But Waugh at least achieved his Great Book. What happens to those authors who approach the threshold but do not quite cross it? 

Muriel Spark has now received the Martin Stannard treatment. His second exhaustive biography of a Catholic British literary superstar tells the story of what happens when an extraordinarily gifted writer fails to lay down the cornerstone of her genius: Spark created characters that outgrew the bounds of their text, and wrote a bedside-table-high stack of novels on topics both sacred and profane (usually both), but today she is barely remembered for any of them, except the one that got turned into a Maggie Smith movie.  

In fact Spark’s own preoccupation with writing a Great Book led to a mediocre novel with far less substance than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, that “vaguely symbolic portrait of a memorable eccentric lady of the 1930s,” as the Times Literary Supplement put it dismissively in 1961. Some writers slice with an axe, others with a penknife. Spark always managed quite all right with a needle. If she is read less today because of this, then the fault is ours.

Spark was born Muriel Camberg in 1918 in Edinburgh, into a lower-middle-class family. Her Jewish father was a factory worker, while her mother, Cissy, was a rather silly and anxious alcoholic. Spark left school at sixteen—the cost of university precluded it as an option--but she took a typing course and found a job as a secretary in an Edinburgh department store, where she met her husband, Sydney Oswald Spark. Muriel does not seem to have loved Spark, who was thirteen years her senior, and—according to Stannard—“small and nervous.” (Their wedding night, she said later on, was “An awful mess. Awful. Such a botch-up.”) But she wanted to get out of Edinburgh, and he was about to move to Rhodesia. In 1937, she followed him.

Like the other white colonists there, who mostly disgusted Muriel and became figures of dumb menace in later short stories, Sydney was a racist and fond of guns, and he added an element of manic violence, hitting Muriel, threatening to kill her, and proving incapable of holding down a job (the reason he had had to leave Scotland in the first place, as she learned too late). Within two years, Muriel, now the mother of a young son, moved out. Once free from her husband, she extricated herself first from Africa and next from motherhood with startling competency. Finalizing her divorce in 1943, she obtained berth on a troopship to England. Robin, her son, was not on the boat. Transporting children overseas was an impossibility at the time. Muriel’s plan was to establish herself in London, where she could make a living as a writer, and then find a way to bring Robin to her. 

The first half of the plan went off brilliantly: she secured herself a job as a typist in the Foreign Office in London, and a series of other temporary wartime gigs followed, while she dodged doodlebugs and learned about death: “Understanding the proximity of death, the brevity of life, the absurdity of humanist rationalism, was, she felt, the first stage in saving one’s sanity.” (As for the second half of the plan, once Robin showed up, in 1945, she lodged him with her parents in Edinburgh, spent a few weeks there to see him “through the transition,” and then mostly faded out of his life, except for financial support and occasional visits.)

Chopping her way through London literary society with the fervor of an outsider—a Scottish-Jewish-African divorcée with no family money, no name, and a small child to support—Muriel was living at fever pitch. She worked her way up through the mostly male ranks of the Poetry Society and then tried to stage an editorial putsch that eventually failed, costing her the editorship of the Poetry Review and also her married boyfriend. But she launched into a frenzied phase of writing that included mostly poetry and a critical biography of Mary Shelley, along with essays and reviews. The period, glossed years later in a rather triumphalist semi-autobiographical novel called Loitering With Intent, clearly had its thrills: “… I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more.” The publication, in 1951, of a short story called “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” in which a six-winged angel appears to a washed-out group of colonials in Zimbabwe on Christmas Eve, marked two turning points: a switch from mainly poetry to mainly prose, and a first step in her conversion to Catholicism, a process that Stannard presents—correctly, I think—as an intensely literary one. 

In fact, the juncture of the two conversions, so metaphorically fertile, has already been elaborated on quite well, in Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, which appeared in 1957. The central figure is Caroline, an anxious young woman who converts to Catholicism and tells her boyfriend that their relationship must shift from the carnal to the spiritual. Around the same time she begins to hear things—a typewriter’s clatter, the sound of voices narrating her thoughts—and realizes she has become a character in a novel. By the end of the book, Caroline, who is herself a scholar of novelistic structure, has become the author of her own story, almost psychically aware of everything around her and able to understand it as it happens. “I’m not wholly a fictional character,” she declares at one point. “I have independent life.” She has fully converted, and instead of a gesture of submission, a loss of free will, her transformation turns out to be an achievement of independence through knowledge—the truth has set her free. This assertive twist on the notion of conversion is classic Spark, and the novel is generally boisterous on the subject of false prophets and spiritual hypocrisy. At one point a character chatters on about some particular varieties of religious experience: “Indeed Andrew was unlucky...he got a cold in the bladder at Lourdes two years back, but Myans has brought him luck, where there’s a black Madonna I believe. And indeed I once knew a gentleman very up in history… who had a stammer which he lost in the Tower of London.”

Real life was more complicated. Muriel was baptized as an Anglican in 1952 and told her boyfriend that she wanted to cease their sexual relationship unless they could marry in the church. Her drift toward Catholicism further alienated him. But she was enamored with the Church’s emphasis on the physical, with the mystery of transubstantiation. Writing about Proust, she lauded his “acceptance of that deep irony in which we are presented with the most unlikely people, places and things as repositories of invisible grace”—a “deep irony” that she found in Catholicism as well, somewhat like her American co-religionist Flannery O’Connor. The analogy between God’s ability to imbue sacrament and the novelist’s ability to imbue meaning would be a central theme in all of Spark’s writing. 

She converted officially in 1954. In the beginning of that year, she had begun to hear “voices”—not spoken ones, like Caroline’s, but written ones. She became convinced that a new T.S. Eliot play had messages for her, possibly in Greek, and that Eliot was the window cleaner at a friend’s house, trying to pry into their papers. The main problem seems to have been that she was taking Dexedrine as a weight-loss pill, although the stress of her high-wire London life, conducted on very little food, very little sleep, and very little cash, did not help. She was sent to convalesce at a Carmelite priory, where she began work on The Comforters. When it appeared to broad acclaim, her straitened days—and the brush with madness they produced—were over forever. 

The high point of Spark’s early novels—for me, possibly the high point overall—is Memento Mori, from 1960, the story of a group of aging friends who are one by one stalked by different voices telephoning to say, “Remember you must die.” Spark’s characters have a sharp-edged opacity that can be read as psychologically flat—and sometimes it is: she is not much interested in motivation. But Jean Taylor, the eighty-two-year-old inhabitant of a public geriatrics ward who gives the novel its moral grounding, is a rounder, gentler creation than many of Spark’s other more brittle heroines. The whole novel takes place on the sinking ship of old age, with all the characters scrambling to get off their last weakening shouts and jabs before it is too late. The truly wise (they are mostly Catholics) compose themselves with morbid good humor: “For my part … I would be glad to be let die in peace,” says one character. “But the doctors would be horrified to hear me say it.” The foolish (mostly Protestants) rage against the inevitable. Spark’s slow, relentless narrative wheels eventually grind them all to dust, with great wit.

As she became a literary celebrity, Spark began talking about her “great book,” the semi-autobiographical work that would finally communicate something big about the world and answer the critics who complained that she was a miniaturist. “That is the theme I want to tackle one day in a novel—the half-Jew,” she told an interviewer in 1960. “So far I think of myself as having written only minor novels. Perhaps that would be a ‘big’ theme. So many half-Jews deny their Jewishness, and that shuts a door on something valuable, on the great spiritual stamina of the Jews.” In the summer of 1961 she made a pilgrimage to Israel, where she covered the Eichmann trial for the Observer and spent time on both sides of a divided Jerusalem. She began writing a novel based on the trip, The Mandelbaum Gate, which was to be her “magnus opium,” as she put it.

Instead, something intervened: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Written before she left for Israel and published in 1961, the novel describes a war between two very different forms of Scottish Calvinism—the romantically fascistic and the punishing—played out across the bodies of preadolescent schoolgirls in the thrall of a remarkable teacher. Brodie is a taut, hilarious book, with subtleties that expand on rereading: the science teacher with enough dynamite to blow up the school, the fact that Miss Brodie’s ancestor was a gallows-designer who “died cheerfully on a gibbet of his own devising in seventeen-eighty-eight.” Waugh’s favorite section, the letter made up by Sandy and Jenny from Miss Brodie to her lover, the singing-master, is something I’d like to memorize so I could recite it to myself at the dentist: “If I am in a certain condition I shall place the infant in the care of a worthy shepherd and his wife, and we can discuss it calmly as platonic acquaintances. … Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.”

Like so many Spark novels, Brodie is about a conversion, as Sandy is transformed from a lumpen schoolgirl into a Catholic nun, first through her absorption of Jean Brodie’s fanatic energy and ultimately through her betrayal of it. Brodie, who “elected herself to grace” with “exotic suicidal enchantment”—because, of course, even the most twisted Calvinists know decisions like that are best left up to God—is a conduit for Sandy’s faith, even if she’s an absurdly bad educator; and in the end the book is far more charitable than it may appear on its spiky surface. Brodie was published in full in a special issue of The New Yorker, and its great success in America but relative failure in England put a final stamp on Spark’s alienation from her old London life. By 1962, she was living semi-permanently in New York City, a fully-fledged member of the American literati.  

It may not be so surprising, then, that The Mandelbaum Gate, which finally came out in 1965, is such a disappointment. Spark herself apparently didn’t like the book, but she insisted on writing it. This not-very-thrilling thriller about a half-Jewish Catholic pilgrim in Arab-controlled East Jerusalem waiting for her lover to get an annulment so they can marry in the church, is soft and saggy, lacking in vividness—Spark’s Jerusalem never approaches the bloody precision of her Zimbabwe—and, astonishingly for her work, somewhat boring. The section on Eichmann has historical interest—“Minute by minute throughout the hours the prisoner discoursed on the massacre without mentioning the word, covering all aspects of every question addressed to him with the meticulous undiscriminating reflex of a computing machine”—but overall the book is without mystery or propulsion. The experience of writing Mandelbaum seems to have soured her on the whole Great Book enterprise, and for the most part, the rest of her output stayed within at least physically limited bounds.

Stannard’s biography at that point becomes a good deal less interesting, unless perhaps you are truly fascinated by quibbles over publishing contracts. Spark was a vicious negotiator and never let anyone take advantage of her. As time went on, she pushed away most of her less aristocratic friends and settled into a grouchy and diva-ish old age in Italy. The anecdotes of her tetchiness are amusing, although Stannard, to his credit, is gentle about them. She had a thing about pens, and would throw a pen away if someone else touched it. She blocked out her sponging mother and son to the extent that at one point the only way the former could write her was “c/o the New Yorker.” She acquired two racehorses. She went on tirades when journalist wrote things that she thought misrepresented her. (It is not surprising, reading these sections, that she apparently reneged on her original agreement to authorize Stannard’s biography, published after her death with her extensive corrections.)  

Her writing over this period became closely focused on the clash between privacy and publicity in what is almost a several-decades’-long meditation on the meaning of celebrity in the modern world. Her novel The Public Image, which appeared in 1968, tells the story of an English actress whose “face had changed, as if by action of so many famous cameras, into a mould of her public figuration.” The Driver’s Seat, one of her eeriest novels, describes a woman on a quest to become anonymously infamous through self-obliteration. “The Dragon,” a story from the 1980s, describes the problematic relationship between a highly successful seamstress and the companion she hires to guard her from the world--clearly a twisted version of Spark's actual companion of 30 years, Penelope Jardine. Before her death in 2006 she even wrote one of the first online diaries for (“It is terrible to be me,” it begins.)

Stannard may hope to resurrect Spark’s literary reputation with this book and its unstinting praise for her creative talents. His sections of literary analysis are very well-argued and perceptive, but he is unable to criticize her weaker books without seeming to register spasms of guilt. He appears to regard his subject as an almost supernaturally brilliant woman (and he is not alone in this judgment). If Spark never wrote a Great Book, at least she was a Great Woman, or so Stannard seems to be suggesting. Still, no special case needs be made for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori, The Driver’s Seat, The Bachelors, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, or several other novels she wrote. Their greatness is inherent in the reading.

Britt Peterson is deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.