Last Updated on December 14, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2850
Spark, Muriel 1918–
Muriel Spark, a Scottish-born Catholic convert, lived in England, Central Africa, and the United States before taking up her current residence in Rome. She is a novelist and short story writer, a poet, playwright, writer for children, critic, and biographer. A master of dialogue and mimicry, Ms Spark writes glittering, controlled, and formal novels distinguished as well by what has been called her "metaphysical wit." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The Abbess [title character of Muriel Spark's novel The Abbess of Crewe] is so insistent upon her plot that she neglects the energetic "strategies" of reality. She is betrayed by bumbling associates who break into her opponent's room and stupidly leave their tracks. She has to lie more completely than before; she has to change her scenarios. Oddly the Abbess is so enclosed in her own deceptions—a favorite sin of Spark's characters!—that she does not even mind. She loves her "art-forms" which, she claims, need "not be plausible, only hypnotic, like all good art."…
Spark does not tell us at any point that she borrows her plot from Watergate, but she offers so many of its elements that she need not belabor the fact….
She is a Catholic writer; she recognizes, therefore, that pride directs our desire to control the destiny of others. She demands that we condemn sins, that we see mythologies as crude attempts at deification. She suggests that we accept limits, boundaries and reality principles—there are, after all, differences between excommunication and sublimity, narcissism and true faith! (p. 29)
Spark has taken the Watergate mythology and transformed it into art. She possesses those very qualities of irony and lucidity lacked by the Abbess (and other great leaders), and as a consequence she enables us to observe the shape of fleeting history. (p. 30)
Irving Malin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 12, 1974.
Although the parallels between the fictive world created in [The Abbess of Crewe] and the very real happenings in Richard Nixon's Washington, D.C., are underlined, they are not belabored. Actually, though the book's plot most closely involves the political maneuverings of its main character and her top aides, the most interesting questions raised in The Abbess of Crewe are not merely political, but complex and moral ones. The abbess's motives are not self-serving in any crude or obvious way; her corruption is of a piece with the morally ambiguous climate in which she operates. If there is a "villain" in this "modern morality tale" it is defined as a historical process that has obscured the nature of good and evil and, hence, undermined the possibilities for ethical action of any description. The Abbess of Crewe has the closely woven texture and the structural coherence of good poetry; it is executed with a subtlety and intelligence that safeguard against the tones of complacent moralizing that might very easily have spoiled the articulation of the book's themes. (pp. 24, 28)
Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 19, 1974.
If in summary the joke [that is the plot of "The Abbess of Crewe"] sounds intolerable, it is in fact delicious. Muriel Spark has spun a gossamer fable with tart wit, teasing malice, a springy gracefulness of prose. She neither belabors her parallel nor takes her story seriously. From the dirt of actuality sprouts the flower of fantasy; while studying the dirt, let us be grateful for such a pleasant blossom. (p. 110)
Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1974.
There is a precision and a poise to Muriel Spark's prose which suggest that we are in good hands, "The poplars," we read on the first page of The Abbess of Crewe, "cast their shadows in the autumn afternoon's end, and the shadows lie in regular still file across the pathway like a congregation of prostrate nuns of the Old Order."… This is a quiet, straight-faced world in which wry, comic slips and falls are about to take place….
[There are heavy touches] and several jokes about dog and cat food being served up in the refectory of the abbey seem both coarse and weary, but such moments could be seen as the temporary wobbles of an otherwise brilliant balance. They could, that is, if the whole book were not conceived with a degree of coarseness and weariness which makes the poise and precision of the writing seem some kind of anomaly, an aristocratic style slumming in a parvenu's plot. For the story of The Abbess of Crewe concerns an election, …, a break-in, a cover-up, a bugged abbey, and a lot of tapes. For the slower-witted among us who may not quite catch the allusion, Miss Spark adds this cute little dab of irony: "Such a scandal could never arise in the United States of America. They have a sense of proportion and they understand Human Nature over there; it's the secret of their success."
The subtitle of the book is "a modern morality tale" and Miss Spark, I assume, is trying both to use the Watergate fiasco and to comment on it in some way. In fact, all the borrowed story does for her is prolong and reiterate her simple, central joke. When the abbess says, "I don't see that scenario," a stately representative of the past leaps into the seedy jargon of the present, and the effect is the kind of laugh that used to be elicited by the sight (or the thought) of a nun on a motorbike. The ancient and the modern, the sacred and the technical, the rule of St. Benedict and the principles of electronics—these are what meet up at the abbey of Crewe, and the morality tale never really moves, morally, much beyond its second page, where we learn that the poplars casting such elegant and pious shadows on the first page have been bugged. The nun on the motorbike has become the nun with the tapes, and the thin gag staggers on as best it can, propped up by its side effects rather than by anything we can make it mean.
Of course thin gags are better than no gags at all. What writers are supposed to do is write, and one can't come up with War and Peace (or even Memento Mori) every time. Still, there is a telling discrepancy between Miss Spark's topical plot and her real subject, which has been topical for the last few hundred years. The subject is class. The election of the new abbess is a contest between aristocratic Alexandra ("She is forty-two in her own age with fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France") and middle-class Felicity ("The late Hildegarde tolerated Felicity only because she considered her to be a common little thing, and it befitted a Christian to tolerate"), and Alexandra swings the election, after the break-in, by an appeal to the snobbery of her flock-to-be….
None of this is very powerful or very funny, but in the desire of the nuns to be ladies there is an emblem of all kinds of tangled and helpless and genuine English desires. In the Watergate-impelled plot there is only a distant, poorly understood American shadow, and a shadow which has nothing to do with the business of being ladies at that. Miss Spark has looked for reality in the newspapers and has found it, or a few scattered pieces of it at least, somewhere else; wherever novelists find such things.
But she looked in the newspapers first, which suggests a familiar contemporary diffidence, fiction feeling sheepish in the face of history. (p. 29)
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), November 28, 1974.
[Comic] novelist Muriel Spark is one of the most serious practioners at work in English at the moment. Nothing truly serious can escape comedy and it has been Mrs Spark's method to use comedy for her kind of seriousness. Which is not Miss Iris Murdoch's or Miss Brigid Brophy's or anybody else's for that matter, but a thing she has made her own.
More recently it has also been her method to use incidents in real life as the basis of her parables, even if she rightly maintains that what the novelist relates, or she as a novelist relates, is 'a pack of lies'. A pack of lies, that is, which seeks the truth. In her latest novel, The Abbess of Crewe, briefer it seems, than ever: many of its sparse pages are taken up by most effective quotations from litanies and English poetry—she has taken the Watergate Affair and set it in a nunnery. At Crewe, a junction in all our lives. (pp. 28-9)
[To] help her reduce her own words to the minimum, she has called in the aid of poets, among them Marvell and Henry Vaughn, Pope, the anonymous Scots troubadour who sang of Fair Helen of Kirconnell; of the plainchant, the canticles, the bible, and—what more appropriate in this parable?—the Discourses of Machiavelli, who also placed expediency before political morality. The whole, however, has become a poem by Muriel Spark, and being a poem by Muriel Spark, even at its most serious moments it is ever conscious of the Absurd. (p. 29)
The book is, of course, utterly heartless. Yet it has a heart. That heart consists in words, the loving, proper, powerful use of language. The poetry quoted, its choice and timing, but, above all, the poetic control of Mrs Spark's own prose, not only raise the novel far above the level of a contemporary, Sparkian, at times almost vulgar joke, but form a potent, sad and even tight-lipped (if even that paradox is possible) comment on the whole Watergate Affair, the entire shoddy, ludicrously misguided ethics of a society and a type of human being, which makes Watergate Affairs possible all over the world.
Yet, moral though this tale is, as parables must be, to this reader at least it is words here, splendidly at work, which matter first and last. The writing is, as the Abbess of Crewe declares a cooked-up scenario 'based on fact' should be: 'hypnotic, like all good art.' (p. 30)
James Brockway, "Taking the Holy Water," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright James Brockway 1975), January, 1975, pp. 28-30.
Since the ambitious "Mandelbaum Gate," Muriel Spark's novels have been short, brusque, bleak, harsh, and queer. They linger in the mind as brilliant shards, decisive as a smashed glass is decisive, evidences of unmistakable power rather casually applied. Beginning with her very first novel, "The Comforters"—utterly accomplished, perfectly her own—this author has exemplified the suitable virtue of authority. Under orders from first sentence to last, her books march unflinchingly to their dooms and always, to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, mean what they choose to mean. Exactly what that is, however, has become something of a mystery, as is the event or idea that, during the years Mrs. Spark has been residing in Rome, has given an extra, tyrannical twist to her command over words and characters. Three of her four recent novels have as their basic situation an odd encompassment, or annexation, of death by life: in "The Public Image" (1968), Annabel Christopher's husband commits suicide in order to embarrass her publicly; in "The Driver's Seat" (1970), Lise with cool madness courts her own murder; in "Not to Disturb" (1972), a household of servants plan how to capitalize on the scandal while upstairs the master, mistress, and their lover inexorably go through the fated motions of double murder and suicide. In "The Hothouse by the East River" (1973), most weirdly, an uncomfortable group of modern Manhattanites turn out to be ghosts, killed in London by a buzz bomb in 1944. Now, these books all had their scintillations of wit and slashes of dread, but, like letters from a daredevil friend abroad, they also had an unsettling air of concealing more than they told, and of having been posted in haste. Their most reassuring aspect was the photograph, like an enclosed snapshot, of the well-coiffed writer on the jacket. She was still alive. (p. 76)
"The Abbess of Crewe" is dragged to anticlimax by the pull of topical actualities; if the novel could have been freed to follow its original impudent inspiration, to be less an aping of Watergate than a transfiguration of it, we would have one of the purest, if the lightest, of this gaudy moralist's mock-worlds. As is, it is good to see Mrs. Spark, amused by our curious national occasion of self-betrayal and inscrutable justice, so near the top of her form. (p. 78)
John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 6, 1975.
There was once a novelist called Muriel. She wrote several short books. Apart from the occasional comma and the necessary question-mark, she had little time for punctuation. She believed in a rather nasty God who did rather nasty things to His people. Early in her career she created a real character called Jean Brodie. Jean Brodie was real because you felt she could get the better of Muriel. Muriel was a very knowing writer. She enjoyed putting her characters down. The moment they threatened to come to life she killed them with a beautiful sentence. Muriel always wrote beautifully. Nothing was allowed to disturb the surface of her writing.
Early in her career (for Muriel was a mistress of repetition) she wrote a story. It was called 'You Should Have Seen The Mess'. After that you hardly ever saw it. There was no mess in her later works. Once she tried, very bravely, to write a really deep book. It was called 'The Mandelbaum Gate' and had its faults. It had virtues, too. Muriel ignored them and settled for a specious pithiness. She started to go in for poetry. One sniggering tombstone elegy on our fallen state followed another. She was always praised for them.
The praise for 'The Abbess of Crewe' was not as generous as it once had been. In this book certain seams were showing. Muriel had one idea in this novel. She had great trouble embroidering on it. You could see her having trouble as you read it….
Earlier in her career Muriel wrote a book called 'Not to Disturb'. The people who didn't care for her books found that a beautiful description of them. Because they didn't like her nasty old God and the mean view of human aspirations He inspired Muriel to share with Him, they thought it rather apt. Muriel's calm was rarely disturbed. By love. By generosity. By kindness. Such things were always worth a snigger. (p. 117)
Paul Bailey, in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1975), April/May, 1975.
Muriel Spark—like Iris Murdoch so prolific that her very productivity becomes an image of depression transcended—attempts [in The Abbess of Crewe] a satiric transformation of the raw material of malaise. Although her wit has the power to make one forget the melancholy implications of her subject, she investigates, at a fastidious distance, some determinants of our national mood…. Like Swift's conversion of court affairs into the antics of beings six inches tall, Spark's story comments on politics by miniaturizing political concerns. (pp. 588-89)
Spark's dry tone, her spare rhetoric, her firmly shaped ironies are almost self-justifying: reading her narrative, one feels spellbound by that lucid, splendidly remote voice. Yet the novel—hardly a novel, really: a parodic imitation of one—finally seems distinctly less than satisfactory; the grounds for public depression cannot be so readily mastered. (p. 589)
The Abbess of Crewe aspires to the condition of myth, scenario, art object, and partakes of the nature of all three, abstracting and dramatizing the universal pattern underlying particularities, outlining the events of hypnotic high drama, using its characters as means to the reader's pleasure. Yet its preoccupation with formal manipulation involves neglect of human realities. Turning history into pseudo-mythology, it abandons rather than illumines the real; this separation itself has an aspect of despair. To imagine men six inches high who take themselves very seriously immediately clarifies an aspect of the society it mocks. To imagine Nixon transformed into a canny nun clarifies nothing: it is only a joke. Once you've thought of big men and little men, as Dr. Johnson pointed out, the rest is easy; Gulliver's story plays itself out with profound inevitability. Not so the abbess's, which flounders badly toward the end, trailing away in a chaos of irrelevant literary allusions, vain attempts to dignify. Watergate cannot be simply a joke, nor, on the other hand, are its mythic aspects yet truly perceivable. Muriel Spark, expert manipulator of style though she is, proves unable to confront the substance of her tale; she thus implies the possibility that substance is meaningless, only style provides power. Her story of victimization and self-assertion underlines the sense of helplessness that contributes now to everyone's misery. (p. 590)
Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1975.
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