Spark, Muriel (Vol. 2)
Spark, Muriel 1918–
A Scottish novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, and biographer, Mrs. Spark is a master at perceiving horror and comedy almost simultaneously. Her best-known works are The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Muriel Spark's four novels—The Comforters (1957), Robinson (1958), Memento Mori (1959), and The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)—are so involved with the eccentric event and the odd personality that they have virtually no content. Memento Mori, for example, is concerned with octogenarians who reveal their former vagaries, and The Ballad of Peckham Rye revolves around the fortunes of a modern-day Panurge. Miss Spark's novels are a sport, light to the point of froth. She can write about murder, betrayal, deception, and adultery as though these were the norms of a crazy-quilt society. In several ways, she reminds us of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Evelyn Waugh, although she lacks the penetration of the former and the sense of parody of the latter.
Frederick R. Karl, in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1961, 1962, 1971, 1972 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, p. 280.
[Mrs Spark's] novels assume the reader's sympathetic participation in muddle, they assume a reality unaware that it conceals patterns of truth. But when an imagination (naturaliter christiana) makes fictions it imposes patterns, and the patterns are figures of the truth. The relations of time and eternity are asserted by juxtaposing poetry and mess, by solemn puns about poverty. None of it would matter to the pagan were it not for the admirable power with which all the elements are fused into shapes of self-evident truth—the power one looks for in poems. Mrs Spark, in her prime, is a poet-novelist of formidable power.
Frank Kermode, "To The Girl of Slender Means" (1963), in his Continuities (© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by Frank Kermode; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1968, pp. 202-07.
Setting us afloat in her later novels with succeeding waves of eccentrics, Mrs. Spark then proceeds to show us, before we have done, that the port they reach is very close to the one to which we, too, are bound. To be sure, Mrs. Spark forces us to see ourselves in the seemingly peculiar by using, in her later novels, scenes we have seen and a number of idioms we have heard (though seldom spoken with such vigor and economy). And yet, such realistic elements account only secondarily, I think, for our recognition of Mrs. Spark's eccentrics. Her incarnations of the aged, the fey, the savage, the criminal are most nearly related to us in an order of reality other than the factual. Meeting them in Mrs. Spark's novels, we realize that we have, in a more rudimentary way, met them before—not in Kensington and Hampstead but in the world of our reveries, our longings, our dreams of glory.
Carol B. Ohmann, "Muriel Spark's Robinson," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1965, pp. 70-84.
[Despite Mrs. Spark's] Byronesque feats among the critics, despite her exuberance, flummery, madness, and magic, she has little of the Romantic about her. No matter how the plot may rage, or the characters threaten, even though reality itself totter on a ledge, the reader is conscious of the cool, clever female mind in control. This level scrutiny from the distance plays continuously though mildly upon every frenzied human action like the soft, semi-contemptuous gaze of the household cat. Muriel Spark is ever the reasonable recorder of unreason: she is the Jane Austen of the surrealists….
Mrs. Spark is a thoroughly mischievous writer. By that I do not. mean only that she plays tricks upon her characters—although she does—or upon the reader—she treats him even worse—but that she also views the universe itself as mischievous. The cosmos is neither void of all sense, nor is it sentient but preoccupied: it is both aware of individuals and fond of meddling with them for its own amusement….
Mrs. Spark's universe, however, does not always demand blood sacrifice. Like that of the Greeks, it reveals its playfulness in an almost continuous flow of irony, but it is quite as fond of comedy as it is of tragedy. There is furthermore in her work an almost irresponsible impertinence towards everyday reality that is, however refreshing to the reader, totally foreign to Classicism….
What we have here is … not the scientist's or the theologian's attempt to reason the demons out of the thunderstorm, but the magician's effort to make the demons do his bidding. For all her Augustan manner, Mrs. Spark understands that the artist traces his descent from the sorcerer, and, taking advantages of the proper safeguards, she is willing to act on her knowledge.
She has been compared with good reason to a number of writers: V. S. Pritchett, Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Ivy Compton-Burnett. I should like to suggest a couple of new comparisons. First, in her dealings with the fantastic, in which she far exceeds the writers just mentioned, she comes near another great expounder of the playful universe, the late Isak Dinesen. Both women are formidable stylists, both are superior storytellers, and both are gifted with a superb sense of the grotesque. Elsewhere, to be sure, the parallels are not so neatly drawn; Miss Dinesen is a strong Romantic…. Then too Mrs. Spark has none of her historic sense, that brooding preoccupation with the past which is the wellspring of the Gothicism with which Miss Dinesen has identified much of her own work. With all that can be said of their differences, however, there remains the fact that they very much agree upon one fundamental principle: a full acceptance of the mystery of life.
Secondly, Mrs. Spark it seems to me owes something to that gifted although sometimes patronized group of women who have raised the mystery story to such a peak of perfection in our time: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh, to name some of the most prominent. Surely their influence has been widespread, and in what areas if not precisely those in which Mrs. Spark excels: ingenious, guileful construction and nimble unreflective style….
There are …, as I see it, two high points to date in the output of this brilliant and unconventional writer. Each stands out from among works related to it but lesser in overall quality and effectiveness. Memento Mori is the more objective of the two, a Swiftian vision of the world which overshadows even such ingenious works as its predecessors Robinson and The Comforters. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie restates the problems of these earlier books in somewhat more subjective terms. Here the Spark persona finds herself the absolute center of the novel. There is no indication, however, that these two books, fine as they are, have succeeded in resolving what I believe to be the conflict that called them into being: the fundamental duality of Muriel Spark's worldview. There is in fact every reason to believe that Mrs. Spark's private war continues in unabated violence, and may shortly necessitate from her another gesture of dazzling virtuosity….
Charles Alva Hoyt, "Muriel Spark: The Surrealist Jane Austen" (© 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary British Novelists, edited by Charles Shapiro, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 125-43.
People—novelists even—have been heard to say of Muriel Spark that she is gifted and elegant, but a fantasist, a trifler. This at any rate allows one to see why the old topic of the death of the novel is still dusted off from time to time. Mrs Spark is a novelist; she is not an anti-novelist or a philosophical novelist, a realist or a neorealist, but a pure novelist. She is evidently not of the opinion that the possibilities of the form are exhausted, since she is continually finding new ones. Her novels quite deliberately raise difficult questions about the status of fiction, but she has not been driven to violence in her attempts to answer them; she does not cut her books up or fold them in or try to make them random. If there is to be randomness, she wants to be in charge of it. If the characters have to be free, then their freedom will have to be consistent with contexts not of their own devising, as in life. If the reader thinks that the shapes and patterns, the delicate internal relationships, of a well-written novel give the lie to life and suggest impossible consolations then he must content himself with some other thing, with whatever unconsoling fiction he can find. Mrs Spark is even somewhat arrogant about the extent of the novelist's power: knowing the end of the story, she deliberately gives it away, and in a narrative which could have regular climactic moments she fudges them, simply because the design of her world, like God's, has more interesting aspects than mere chronological progress and the satisfaction of naïve expectations in the reader. Yet all the elements of this world come from the traditional novel.
The suggestion is, in Mrs Spark's novels, that a genuine relation exists between the forms of fiction and the forms of the world, between the novelist's creation and God's. At the outset of her career she wrote a novel called The Comforters, which is quite deliberately an experiment designed to discover whether this relation does obtain, whether the novelist, pushing people and things around and giving 'disjointed happenings a shape,' is in any way like Providence. This quotation is actually from Memento Mori; Mrs Spark's later novels are all very different from The Comforters, but all are in a sense novels about the novel, inquiries into the relation between fictions and truth. You may treat her last two books, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, both very brief and exquisitely formed, as beautiful jokes; they have a constantly varying formal wit, an arbitrariness of incident under the control of the writer's presumptuous providence, that warrant the description. But like the wit of the 17th-century preacher, they are jokes for God's sake, fictions which have to do with the truth.
Frank Kermode, "The Novel as Jerusalem: Muriel Spark's Mandelbaum Gate" (1965), in his Continuities (© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by Frank Kermode; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1968, pp. 207-16.
[Although the early novels of Muriel Spark] are hardly long enough to be called anything more than novelle … the conciseness of the writing in works like The Comforters, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Memento Mori and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie gives a weight and toughness that make them seem bigger than they are. It is difficult to summarize her quality…. [Mrs.] Spark has a Godlike view of time, ranging easily into the future lives of her characters and showing her readers what is mercifully hidden from the characters themselves. Along with this goes a curious callousness in the disposing of them. There is a lot of cold violence—often mentioned obliquely, never dwelt upon—which tends to take grotesque forms, like smothering in hay or killing with a corkscrew.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, p. 127.
Muriel Spark did not publish her first novel until she had already established herself as a critic, poet, editor, student of nineteenth century literature, and short story writer. Nevertheless, eight novels have quickly followed the publication of The Comforters (1957). Previously known only to a small if appreciative number of readers interested in poetry and poets, through her novels she has come to the notice of a much larger audience which includes not only the reader who is looking for pleasure and diversion but also the scholar interested in literary style and novelistic form. The success she has found with such diverse readers is an indication of the skill with which she works in her new genre.
The basic intention of Muriel Spark's novels has not always been clear to critics. The reaction of many has been that while Muriel Spark possesses originality, wit, and imagination as well as obvious skill in handling of plots and characterization, there is a certain confusion about the underlying meanings of her novels. John Updike points out that the reader is well aware that beneath the pleasurable, and often quite funny, narratives are serious and troubling "currents of destruction, cruelty, madness, and sexual repression which well up unexpectedly here and there as they do in life." The supernatural, presented without any attempt by the author to explain it, adds to the reader's sense of puzzlement….
[It] is as parables concerning the nature of reality that her novels must be read. In them reality exists simultaneously on several different planes. Most often and most easily observed is the naturalistic level, a term used here to refer to the ordinary or commonplace world characterized by unremarkable people who lead routine lives. The naturalistic level is presented with absolute clarity and reality. Less easily understood is the author's presentation of the supernatural level, which frequently interrupts and alters the naturalistic plane.
In the later novels there is a distinct movement away from the overt, and sometimes incredible, presentation of the supernatural to a more subtle, and more credible, depiction of it. In all of the novels, however, the supernatural compels those who come in contact with it to alter their ordinary lives….
In Muriel Spark's novels refusing to define one's reality leads to emptiness and sterility, all too easily observable in the nonreligious world of the twentieth century. The attempt at definition may end in failure; not attempting definition certainly will….
Muriel Spark's novels are … written to express a moral or spiritual truth. Though they entertain by their wit and originality, their basic purpose lies in their endeavor to make a statement about the nature of the universe and man's place in it….
Muriel Spark … emerges as a novelist whose themes are religious, even if they are not always couched in traditionally religious terms…. [The] author is acutely aware not only of the world of man, but also of the world of God and the incongruity between the two. The world of man is represented by the naturalistic surface of her novels which realistically depicts the commonplace lives of the characters. The world of God is represented by the extraordinary and inexplicable happenings which disrupt that surface. Both are quite real. They are complementary parts of a whole and rich reality….
Throughout all her novels Muriel Spark presents reality as infinite. She demonstrates that man is inherently limited in his complete perception of it, but that with each additional degree of understanding he experiences a kind of rebirth. She describes understanding as vision, a new concept of oneself and the world which is based upon the individual's acceptance of a basic order in both. The nature of that order will always be unknowable to man; therefore, it is not necessary for him to understand it completely. To profit from his experiences with the demonic forces loose in the world, it is only necessary for man to accept.
Ann B. Dobie, "Muriel Spark's Definition of Reality," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 20-7.
In The Public Image Muriel Spark has written a delightful if somewhat slight novel on a favorite subject with her, the contrast between a spurious and genuine sense of identity. After her excursion into extended narrative in The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), Mrs. Spark has apparently returned to what she does best: the witty, ironic, and wry development, in short compass, of an ethical issue of some importance and interest.
Frederick P. W. McDowell, in Contemporary Literature (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1970, p. 412.
In all of Muriel Spark's ten novels but the last two, there is a Catholic convert, usually a neurasthenic woman, who finds in the "facts" of Catholicism relief from the "lonely grief" Lise [in "The Driver's Seat"] suffers, from the fear of death, from the vertigo of a modern consciousness, from the anguish of sex. In "The Public Image," the novel published just before "The Driver's Seat," the actress-heroine does not convert to the church, but constructs a private self out of the ruins of her public image by becoming a Stella Maris. Poised by the Italian sea, associated with the stars and sea-shells, Madonna-like of aspect, she poses for the reader with her child at her breast, rather than before movie cameras as "the English Tiger-Lady," her public role.
Miss Jean Brodie, you will remember, "was by temperament suited only to the Roman Catholic Church," but she remains a Calvinist, whence comes all the evil. "She thinks she is Providence," thinks Sandy, herself a convert; "she thinks she is the God of Calvin." The convert-heroines of "The Comforters," "Robinson," "Memento Mori" and "The Mandelbaum Gate" are in various ways like Muriel Spark, who is also a convert, and one who told an interviewer that only within the church was she able to find freedom and individuality….
[The novel contains] the traditional moral wisdom that if you are not part of something larger than yourself, you are nothing; and it is orchestrated by the harsh polyphony, the technical adventureousness and formal elegance Muriel Spark learned from her modernist masters. Her latest novel echoes with the themes and methods of Kafka, of Joyce's "A Painful Case," and of Mann's "Death in Venice." But in those works and in the other modernist classics an extremely tight esthetic order at once evokes and compensates for a world experienced as extreme in its disorder.
George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1970, pp. 4, 54.
Muriel Spark is contemporary Anglo-Saxon sister to the crème de la crème of malevolent novelists, Henri de Montherlant. Like him, she wrote a novel called The Bachelors…. Her Memento Mori and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie come closer to his fiction, however, since here she focuses upon isolated, eccentric characters. With the distant amusement not unlike his, she peers down from her authorial height at the least comely aspects of human nature, reassured, it would seem, by its perversity.
In keeping with this malevolent tradition, in fact, going beyond it, Muriel Spark's latest tale, The Driver's Seat, icily observes a spinster, Lise, who is from "the North"—probably England—and off to "the South"—probably Italy. Few facts are known for sure: "She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older…. She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking." You do know for sure, though, that she is traveling South to find a depraved male who will stab and strangle her to death….
[The novel proceeds] like a clinical experiment, though why [Mrs.] Spark records her story with such mathematical precision remains unclear. Perhaps she was only interested in flexing novelistic method. At any rate, method is all The Driver's Seat has got, method used in the way modern British empiricists classify outward behavior and scrupulously avoid inner life and morality.
Speaking of morality (or its absence thereof), you sense ghoulish glee when Lise traps her pink-faced annihilator into pathetic compliance. This is not the distant amusement say, of Memento Mori. It's a distilled Muriel Spark, an exceedingly malevolent Hera paring her fingernails.
Linda Kuehl, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 15, 1971, pp. 378-79.
In a recent newspaper interview Muriel Spark said that she was aiming at compression and obliqueness. Both objects she has achieved admirably in Not to Disturb. I doubt if there are a dozen unnecessary words in the whole book, and the extravaganza—as Mrs Spark calls it—achieves obliqueness through its method. In the same interview the author said that she wanted to startle as well as please. She has certainly startled in a variety of ways. Not only is her matter completely new, but her manner is nearly so too…. She pleases by giving her readers a great treat in the allusive, satiric, form of words.
F. J. Brown, in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, p. 56-7.
Sinister metaphysical farce has always been one of Muriel Spark's specialties, but readers have frequently disagreed about the solidity of the relationship between the dark comedy and the ideas which often hover so teasingly around it. Her latest novella, "Not to Disturb," again raises this issue in an extravagant way….
In one respect, her new novel is an agile send-up of different kinds of pupular fiction: detective stories, the Jeeves novels, and realistic tales about the servant problem. Read with these parallels in mind, "Not to Disturb" offers fresh laughter and acerbic insight into conventional ways of writing about the hypocrisies of master-servant relationships….
But … lurid entertainment is only part of Mrs. Spark's intention. She has always been a novelist who wishes to tease readers into serious thought, and once again her elegant, if rancid, comedy is laden with suggestions of parable. The question, however, is what suggestions, and how well are they actually embodied in the narrative. On one level, the story seems to be about the falsity of modern social forms. Masters behave as if their actions still matter, while the real rulers—the servants—exploit private misery by public exposure, and turn "doing one's own thing" into a predatory philosophy of life. On another level, the story suggests a religious and artistic theme. The universe in which men live so frantically is not to be disturbed. Life cannot be altered; it can only be described by the ambiguous powers of art….
Like several of Mrs. Spark's recent stories, "Not to Disturb" has the cleverness to entertain and the intelligence to provoke thought; but, finally, its philosophical mysteries look suspiciously like pretenses, and the book leaves the annoying as well as the stimulating after-effects of legerdemain.
Lawrence Graver, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 26, 1972, pp. 6, 34-5.
Call it a black soufflé if you will, or a funereal high comedy; [Not to Disturb] is, in any case, a ghoulish delight. The author's narration of the goings-on backstairs, which is prose at its sparest, doubles the humor….
Actually, "high comedy" is too restrictive a description for Not to Disturb, which ranges from the drawing-room variety to slapstick….
Some British reviewers of this novel suggest that [Mrs.] Spark is up to something beyond creating sheer black joy. One, for example, asserts that here she "explores the predicament of the artist who, faced with the inevitable, the predestined, still chooses …" etc., etc. Frankly, if there are mental goodies tucked away within, I did not notice them. It is enough for me that Not to Disturb is the work of a master writing at the top of her form.
Haskel Frankel, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 8, 1972; used with permission), April 8, 1972, p. 74.
Muriel Spark sometimes messes around with plots and characters because she has nothing better to do and no ideas worked out. Now [in Not to Disturb] she has put together an amazing little tale, macabre and sharp as anything that Evelyn Waugh ever did. It is not a parable, not a message, not indoctrination of any kind, except that indoctrination that permeates any solid satire. The folks in this short tale are all caricatures; they are man at his most preposterous.
William B. Hill, S.J., in Best Sellers, April 15, 1972, pp. 42-3.
There is no way of suggesting the rare tone and flavor of Not to Disturb even to Muriel Spark buffs, except to hint at an amalgam of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Harold Pinter, and Henry Green—all of whom Mrs. Spark transcends in the process of parodying. The only label that comes close to sticking is Mock-Mod-Gothic, but even that is feebly inadequate, since, along with the thunder and lightning, the strange events at the gatekeeper's lodge, the house telephone that "crackles amok" …, and the enormous cast of determined eccentrics, the novella has leisure for intricate and lethal disquisitions on life and death, caste privileges, kindred and affinity, group-therapy, temporal vs. eternal philosophy, and the vulgarity of chronology—all wrapped up and offered in a prose like nothing else on land or sea. In this breathtakingly structured language, the baron "passively departs from his coat," a maid "looks at the clean prongs of her fork … before making them coincide with a morsel of veal," and two minor characters are killed by lightning "instantly without pain" in a subordinate clause. All homage to Muriel Spark, the coolest writer ever to scald your liver and lights.
J. R. Frakes, "Mock-Mod-Gothic," in Book World (© The Washington Post), April 16, 1972, p. 4.
For fourteen years [Muriel Spark] has been fruitfully engaged in her intensely imaginative inquiries into the resources of fiction—a continuously subtle, inventive, and ambitious novelist. Yet her success has been somehow in spite of the expert commentators, who tend to regard her as finally trivial, lucky, or naïve.
Her new book, Not to Disturb …, is brief, lucky, and serious. When a story comes to be told, its end is foreknown, essentially, though not in every detail. But it is a convention that stories should be told without reference to this fact. What may be learned about fictions by abandoning this convention?…
To read this book for its Gothic fun, and not for its equibalance, pertinence, and symmetry, is a great waste. It has a family resemblance to the first of Mrs. Spark's researches, The Comforters, and to the delightful experimental novellas of the pre-Mandelbaum Gate days. But it is closer to the more recent books, The Public Image and The Driver's Seat. Much might be said about the change of direction in her inquiries, but it is not for her to say it otherwise than in fictions. It is the critic's job, and a more useful one than that of lamenting the death of the novel in England.
Frank Kermode, "The British Novel Lives," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), July, 1972, pp. 85-8.
Muriel Spark has always struck me as an interesting and decidedly amusing writer, but not always a particularly distinguished one; yet something has been happening in her recent work that makes her increasingly approximate to that condition. The development is hard to define, but it has to do with an increasing authority and assurance in her manner of presenting her work, an increasingly highhanded manner with her readers, and an increasing sharpness, if not cruelty, in her narratorial relationship with her characters. It also has to do with an economical paring down both of the rhetoric and the matter so that the natural form of expression becomes not the contingent novel but the tight novella. In some ways it represents a decided limiting of the pleasures—especially the comic pleasures—that have been present in some of her earlier novels, and there may be paradoxical grounds for hoping that in due course a certain relaxation will occur and some of the impurities—themselves, one always felt, carefully inviligated impurities—of the previous books will return. Still, we are not all that used to works of high aesthetic achievement and poise, and this, over her last three novels, from The Public Image (1968) on [that is, through The Driver's Seat and Not to Disturb], she has offered us; these are books that possess a high tactical authority and a singular clarity so that every compositional decision, every rhetorical device, every perspective in every sentence has the high economy of, for example, one of Hemingway's better stories, the same air of exchanging language at the very best possible rate. Of course the ends are different, and in many respects they are, in [Mrs.] Spark's case, much more flamboyant. For Muriel Spark has not ceased, in this process of artistic self-purification, to be a comic writer. The tactics of indifference which give poise to her aesthetic manner transfer themselves through to an appalling moral manner; they become a sort of splendid impudence in which we encounter a decidedly strange view of the world and of human potential and the human condition.
[Muriel Spark may be compared to Evelyn Waugh, especially to] the assuredly comic Waugh [rather than to the indifferent and detached Waugh, omnipotent creator of a fiction of "objective existence," "a suspended aesthetic stasis, dramatically self-validating"], the writer who, despairing of God's sensible presence in modern history, feels free to represent it as chaos, as a vulgarized nonsense, without any really significant moral substance….
But one must not leave unremarked an essential difference; Muriel Spark has become that much more the aesthetician, and not only because she has something of the disposition of a poet and is, too, one of the more intelligent of our modern novelists. To Evelyn Waugh, it seemed, the discontinuity between what God has in mind and what man is is so remote that plots are at a discount; and he is pre-eminently a novelist of the contingent. But Muriel Spark senses a necessity, a need for wholeness and coherence. Indeed, that increasingly has become her preoccupation; and the preoccupation not only links her fairly closely with some of the more energetic developments in contemporary fictional aesthetics … but gives her novels a teleological or, as we are learning to say, an end-directed economy which makes them into very exact, very formal and very duplicitous objects….
One of the reasons for the substantial economy of these novels [that is, the three mentioned above] is that the psychological centre virtually disappears from them. On the one hand there is a substantive material world, contingent and solid and given in high specificity, as the detail of Lise's apartment, or the plastic horrors of the airplane meal, are in The Driver's Seat; on the other there are [Mrs.] Spark's people, who have will and style but no psychologically established motives, or real history, or conditioning milieu…. [Her] people, in their instantaneousness, their very want of psychology and history, populate a random world….
This modernised scenario—to use an analogy that decidedly interests [Mrs.] Spark—consorts appropriately with her sense of the human stage of behaviour; her characters are a-historical figures exposedly playing their modern parts in the modern comedy of history as fashion, in that large group-theatre that has come to pass for us as a fit condition of life, and in which any practice that is stageable is apparently tolerable. It would be hard to say of [Mrs.] Spark that she loved any world, but especially hard to say that she loves this one; the overtones of decadence are compelling, even if they are to her cool eyes no more than might be expected. But it is in this universe of moral psychic contingency that [Mrs.] Spark's sense of an ending is so decidedly telling; she forces us to read contingency for significance. Only at the simplest level is her strategy designed not to disturb, in short; and we should take her preoccupations with plots and grids and fictions as more than a part of a current speculative rage for aesthetic order, but also as a distinct urgency about truth—a desire to rouse through the model of the writer's action the eschatological questions.
Malcolm Bradbury, "Muriel Spark's Fingernails," in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1972, pp. 241-50.
What other novelists only aspire to is achieved by Muriel Spark, whose Not To Disturb, almost skeletal in structure, is a Bergsonian comedy which maintains a delicate poise just this side of sheer horror….
Moral judgment is irrelevant to this weird microcosm. On the other hand, the novel in its comic assertion implies large moral perception—and that one can use such terms suggests the magnitude of its achievement despite the apparent smallness of its claims. The large perception concerns the place which fantasy has assumed in contemporary lives….
The servants [most of the main characters are servants], inadequately human in their expressed emotions, do not engage our human sympathies; they engage our interest in spectacle, suspend our capacity for empathy, make us, too, eager for the drama which will create newspaper excitement. Laughing at them we laugh at ourselves (as we do with all good comedy); laughing at ourselves, we learn…. The reader's "learning" consists in the revelation that the world he inhabits and imagines and peruses in his newspapers is as grotesque as that of the Gothic novel; and Spark's comic vision, darker than that of satire, implies no hope of reform.
Patricia Meyer Spacks, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1972, pp. 502-03.