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Spark, Muriel 1918–
A Scottish novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, biographer, and poet, Ms. Spark is highly regarded for her witty, sometimes bizarre, often elegant, fiction. Although she is probably best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, many critics consider The Mandelbaum Gate her masterpiece. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[There] is a difference between a Catholic who writes novels and a Catholic Novelist. This latter term evokes, even if it shouldn't, an unholy mixture of the Claudelic, the Mauriacesque and the Greenean, a browbeating either direct or indirect, a stifling odour of incense or of fallen sweat or of both. Mrs. Spark's writing seems to me altogether dissimilar: even a lapsed Wesleyan can approach her without too painful a sense of intimidation or exclusion. Yet most discussion in print of Mrs. Spark's work centres on her Catholicism—and rarely gets far away from it. In an otherwise subtle article appearing in the New Statesman on the publication of The Girls of Slender Means, Frank Kermode described her as 'an unremittingly Catholic novelist'—unremitting? Mrs. Spark?—while Granville Hicks has faintly deplored her as 'a gloomy Catholic, like Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor, more concerned with the evil of man than with the goodness of God'. Far from gloomy, I would even have thought her positively funny, and—though admittedly this … novel [The Mandelbaum Gate] lends one more conviction on this point than might otherwise have been felt—concerned with the evil of man no more than is to be expected in a fair-minded though shrewd observer of humanity.
Yet there may be some truth in the negative aspect of Mr. Hicks's complaint, for Mrs. Spark the novelist does at times seem a mite sceptical about the goodness of God, or (which to some people will be the same thing) about the power and efficacy of God's goodness…. The horrors in her novels are not fortuitous, and they are too ingenious to be other than supernatural or preternatural in origin…. At all events, Mrs. Spark neither despises nor hates her fellow humans nor dotes simple-mindedly on her Catholicism, her putative possession of the one and only truth. What emerges, more visibly in The Mandelbaum Gate than elsewhere in Mrs. Spark, is a chastened Christianity not so far removed in matters of this world from the chastened humanism which is the only sort of humanism our age can allow.
D. J. Enright, "Public Doctrine and Private Judging" (1965), in his Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1972, pp. 32-8.
[Muriel Spark's] writing is simply what she has found it possible to do. She once characterized the artist as "a minor public servant"—"If he starts thinking of himself as a public master, he's in trouble"—and though she is as willing as any modernist defender of the autonomy of art to "read anyone with a good style," her explanation of "the whole secret of style" is notably unheroic, unFlaubertian: "It's simply not caring too much, it's caring only a little." Yet she cannot be called unambitious, and with The Mandelbaum Gate—elaborate in design, brazenly artful in execution—she has staked out a bold claim to major critical recognition.
In a sense this is her first proper novel. All her earlier books were held down to novella length and regularly fell into the subordinate forms of parable, extended anecdote, morality play; one was presented as a "ballad," while the title of another, Memento Mori, indicates its limitations in form and desired effect as well as its theme. These books also have been short on narrative elaboration, though complicated in plot, and long, relatively, on commentary, authorial glosses, talismanic refrains. But The Mandelbaum Gate is a larger affair. In scale it is as different as, say, Les Faux-monnayeurs from Gide's earlier recitals and "symphonies" and appears to represent a comparable expansion of purpose….
[There] is, in The Mandelbaum Gate, a real specifiable emptiness at the narrative center. The novel has a weighty case to make: about faith as a human undertaking, and about the passion of acceptance and commitment that alone gives direction and harmony to individual life, though day by day it may only "make trouble" for everyone concerned (the notion of "trouble" echoing about this novel recalls the notion of "muddle" as the basic circumstance of the life of feeling and choice that we remember from Forster and Virginia Woolf). Yet it must be said that the faiths that ring true in the book are those provisional, time-locked faiths operating along the narrative's rich margins….
Despite the larger, fuller design of The Mandelbaum Gate we fall back once more onto the simplifying ground of stacked parable and trumped-up morality play where everything is preconceived and self-illustrating and the risky options of actual life, the life of passion and change which, wherever we meet it, commands our sympathy, are never really entered into—though the necessity of such initiation is a stated theme. At the center, instead of a graspable action of love, faith, participation in destiny, Muriel Spark gives us her sharp, definite ideas about these things and about the effect they have on individual men and women. The very shrewdness of her explanations, the hard insistence with which she develops her case, seem in the end hindrances to completed understanding. She knows all about her main characters, and that too perfect knowing-ness may be why her account of them gradually dies out of our sympathetic interest—though ordinary curiosity keeps us reading on to the end, to verify the plot resolutions and the moral wages this abundantly entertaining novel is keeping in store for them.
Muriel Spark's endings are usually surprising as well as brisk and pointed, but invariably they are presented as being satisfactory. Knowing all about her characters, she arranges something appropriate for each. All are satisfied, within the course plotted for them; all get their due and are provided for. And this, I think, is what she writes about—the satisfying of men and women, in the double sense of their being paid off squarely and their being inwardly appeased and neutralized. The controlling substance of her vision and witness is not love but the satisfactions of love, the thing itself remaining unexamined; not faith but the satisfactions of faith; and not the real progressive mystery of conscious, recollective being but the self-exempting satisfaction of having possession of the right thoughts to face life with, such as the assuaging thought that "with God all things are possible and nothing is inevitable."
Warner Berthoff, "Fortunes of the Novel: Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch," in his Fictions and Events: Essays in Criticism and Literary History (copyright © 1971 by Warner Berthoff; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1971, pp. 118-54.
Often described as heir to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Muriel Spark is one of today's most prolific "Catholic writers." In a dozen years with eleven novels as well as several collections of short stories, she has repeatedly demonstrated a brilliant technical virtuosity that has been much esteemed. At the same time, her critics have been hesitant or grudging in praise that is coupled with bafflement, or simply unenthusiastic, about Spark's subject matter. Nowhere has this reservation been more marked than in reviews of her latest three novels, The Public Image (1968), The Driver's Seat (1970), and Not to Disturb (1971), so that further assessment seems in order.
The three novels reveal some rather important changes in Spark's endlessly evolving vision, a vision which is intelligently and deliberately based upon theological awareness and understanding. Since her career as a writer of fiction coincides with her conversion to Roman Catholicism and she herself has noted that religion has given her a "norm" from which to work, not surprisingly, the novels continue to investigate the moral nature of man—and with the inevitable conclusion that simplistic value judgments are not only inadequate but dangerous. Where the earlier fiction expressed a gradually increasing faith in human possibility in God's creation, the last three novels mirror the uncertainty, confusion, and violence that are daily becoming the ordinary characteristics of contemporary society….
In her latest novels Muriel Spark has used many of her favorite materials—suspense, the grotesque, meticulous details, poetic elegance, a single event to serve as catalyst for re-evaluation—but she has shaped them somewhat differently. Her attack is upon a broader spectrum of inhumanity rather than individual aberrancy. God is not recognized in the world of sham and self-delusion, a world so unmistakably the one in which we live. The earlier heroines, who necessarily lack complete understanding and yet recognize something beyond immediate reality, are certainly more agreeable and reassuring. The harsh starkness of the latest creations is fearsome and reflects the prevailing tone of the present time, to be modified only by a conversion to something beyond. The darkening vision is frightening rather than encouraging and reflects a sensitive response to an increasingly crass and indifferent world.
Velma Bourgeois Richmond, "The Darkening Vision of Muriel Spark," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1973, pp. 71-85.
[In] this age of oddballs, it seems that Muriel Spark is as absorbing as any lady now writing in English. She is the master, and sometimes mistress, of an attractive cynical worldliness which is not shallow. Constantly in her books one encounters sharp observations delivered with panache and cool. These can be literally arresting, possess the stamp of the masterstroke, but when explored further one more usually sees them as extra delightful expressions of her wry humour, placed in exactly the right spot for maximum reverberation through the situations of the novel. Her comic talent has a whimsical Firbankian touch which can work at odds (for better or worse, they make you stop for a moment and think) to the apparent precepts of her writing. She does not operate in a fantasy world but in the so-called real one, although her characters, being components of a novel, frequently [fantasize] heavily about it. In some inexplicable way this also makes her humour more macabre and at the same time more trivial. She is not blind to the triviality and helpless self-involvement of her characters, no intelligent writer would be, which lends an additional piquant malice to the way she generally treats them. This is a satire, about madness, a satire on modern madness, of an extremely sophisticated kind….
In Hothouse By The East River she almost seems to be moving out of the middle-brow class and edging tentatively up the first rungs of the high-brow. The process of the plot, or to be exact the kinetic situations which are all it amounts to, is a beautiful piece of technical ingenuity in itself, rooted right down into the apparently casual details. However exact the circumstances which underlie it we never know. Fact and fantasy flow so capriciously into one another, occasionally with an irritating perversity, that the circumstantial material hardly stays the same from one page to the next….
If this is explicitly a book about madness it is a very fine one. She has captured with uncanny assurance the nuances and slight shifts of perception of a disassociated state, without presenting the standard or official state of affairs as counter-balance, the gauge against which one would normally assess the degree of delusion involved. By abandoning this side of the coin Muriel Spark takes us right in to a stranger world with its own inner laws, making in the process a few neat swipes at commercial psychiatry.
Duncan Fallowell, "Hothouse Madness," in Books and Bookmen, April, 1973, p. 101.
Muriel Spark's new novel [The Hothouse By the East River] is, in effect, a witty, mysterious, illuminating dream; Muriel Spark's dream, but more or less ours too. It makes reality barely more fantastic than reality is….
The book itself eases our own discomfort. The charmingly brutal originality with which the author has laid out her plot of pitfalls shocks us into laughing. And, narrating uncertainty with confidence, she organizes it, and us. Her book is a nightmare that's a good dream.
Richard P. Brickner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1973, pp. 24-5.
It is a great feat for a writer to produce a story that is at once rich and slight, suggestive and elusive, funny and puzzling, all this without vexing overmuch the literal-minded reader who is inclined to ask of things: What does it mean? It is always tempting to try to tease meaning out of Muriel Spark's sly parables, but it isn't always possible. This one [The Hothouse by the East River] has more than its share of her characteristic ingredients, which make for sufficient good reading in themselves.
In a way it is a hothouse book, teeming with little green sprouts of incident, buds of character thriving energetically in the steamy environment Spark so expertly creates in a luxurious apartment overlooking the East River in New York. Nothing comes to bloom, to become recognizably a rose or a cabbage; everything is suggested, tentative….
Spark's mastery of the formal components of the novel is even more impressive than her ease with the metaphorical ones. While this is not the tour de force of construction that The Mandelbaum Gate is, the confident ellipses, the incisive choice of anecdote, the easy movement between past and present, among the actual, the remembered and the imagined, testify to her complete mastery of all a novelist's means. Characters who appear only briefly spring to life with their first remark. There is suspense. The book is funny. The style is precise and elegantly strange. All the ingredients are so good that meaning is somehow not a consideration.
Diane Johnson, "Strange Fruit," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 29, 1973, pp. 4-5.
If Muriel Spark is familiar to you only via The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Mandelbaum Gate, both of them comparatively straightforward narratives, you will hardly be prepared for the eerie excursion she takes you on in The Hothouse by the East River.
If, however, you have read The Comforters, The Driver's Seat, or the exquisite Memento Mori, you are aware that Mrs. Spark does not write novels that can be easily pigeonholed. In these and other books, she has concerned herself with matters beyond reality, with forces that do not lend themselves to facile explanations.
Classifiable or not, Mrs. Spark is a writer of prodigious skill, make no mistake about it. The Hothouse by the East River beguiled me from the outset into suspending logic—unnerving me at times, making me laugh uproariously at others, and forcing me to scan every word carefully for important clues to the author's meanings. Which is not to imply that this is a "mystery" in the whodunit sense of the word; but it does treat of the capital "M" Mystery of life and death, which Mrs. Spark apparently regards as interchangeable.
Florence Rome, in Chicago Tribune Book World, April 29, 1973, p. 3.
Muriel Spark is a fabulist. Her American publisher has offered a comparision with Kafka and, though this is surely to mistake her weight, I can recognize it as a noble try. To Kafka, our subjectivity was desolating, it made us blind and literally subject to everything outside ourselves. Mrs. Spark prefers to see the catastrophe from the point of view of the fates, who are after all having a pleasant time. Mrs. Spark has been accused of heartlessness toward her characters, but I would diagnose the situation this way: while she knows that the people in her stories are in the very nature of things pitiable, she refuses to pity them. That would be claiming too much for herself….
Mrs. Spark, whatever she does from one book to the next, remains an indispensable writer. One feels the world would be visibly a poorer place without her.
David Bromwich, in Commentary (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), September, 1973, pp. 88.
Muriel Spark is one of the world's best, and most underrated, writers. [The Hothouse By the East River] is a wonderfully deceptive extension of a conventional fictional theme: how people are gripped by the past. She extends it through a succession of metaphors that jostle her characters between all-too-earthly amatory intrigues, and a supernatural relativity whereby, even beyond death, souls persistently, curiously influence what has survived them….
Muriel Spark's best fiction has brilliantly employed the author-as-observer technique, emphasizing offbeat otherworldliness by presenting it without comment. This novel offers further evidence that she always knows what she is doing.
The Antioch Review (© 1973 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. 32, No. 4; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 32, No. 4, 1973, p. 695.
Muriel Spark is a puzzling and difficult novelist. She is also highly popular and critical opinion seems almost equally divided on the question of her merits, ranging from the viewpoint of an early reviewer of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, who refused to 'fossick around for a point', to that of Professor Frank Kermode who sees her as an intelligent and serious writer. Reference to her life and views on fiction helps to clarify some of the ambiguity which is central to her work, although it must be admitted that much that is perplexing still remains. Miss Spark as an individual and a novelist is wary of categories and labels …, and both in her life and her viewpoint she has succeeded triumphantly in evading classification. (p. 3)
Her first novel, The Comforters (1957), is a strange work, chiefly interesting in that it can be regarded as Miss Spark's fictional point of departure, and because it displays, even at this early stage, many of her familiar devices and preoccupations. Those familiar with the Spark canon will speedily recognize the heroine, Caroline Rose, a neurotic, difficult Catholic who finds most of her co-religionists distasteful. Equally, they will remark the satiric game which is made of Catholics, from the revolting Mrs. Hogg to Sir Edwin Manders. Familiar too is the intricate, bizarre plot, as convoluted as any detective story; indeed at its heart is a totally improbable smuggling gang, whose master-mind is Louisa Jepp, a deftly-delineated old woman. A series of apparently unconnected groups or gangs of people impinge absurdly upon each other, while Caroline Rose completes the madness by hearing a typing ghost. Gradually, she and the reader sense the rationale behind all this grotesque fun; she is hearing the novel while it is being written…. (p. 5)
Her detachment from her characters, the verbal wit and mimicry which she brings into play to establish their credibility, are both amply demonstrated in this first novel, as is her unwillingness to take her fiction seriously, or to see the novel as anything other than a 'sort of parable'. (p. 6)
In Memento Mori, Muriel Spark severely restricts her canvas: she studies comparatively few characters, as is her usual practice, and she selects them from the confined group of the aged. She is concerned here to note down the reactions of old people to the message, 'Remember you must die'; and to characterize the foibles and weaknesses which are the prerogative of age no less than of youth. Her tone, admirably controlled, is less amused than formerly; and though there is satire in this book, it reaches profounder depths than she has plumbed previously: in this sense it looks forward to the achievement of The Mandelbaum Gate. (p. 7)
The two novels which succeed Memento Mori [The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Bachelors] mark a regression in their author's fictional experimentation and range. They signal a reversion to her peculiar theory of the relationship between fiction and life, to her light view of the novel. The element of pure game which is so characteristic of Miss Spark is once more prominent; event and character alike are handled with satire and zest, and the results, if adept, are often trivial and disappointing. (p. 12)
The Bachelors (1960) and The Ballad of Peckham Rye were both written in one year; and while both are technically skilled and witty products, the former shows signs of flagging resource. Indeed, it reworks much of its predecessor's material, taking for its ground the world of the London bachelor, which is surveyed much in the fashion of a documentary report. Linked to this examination is a presentation of some aspects of spiritualism; and comic game is made of charlatan and gull, while the structure of the novel tends to confirm the belief that it is possible to make contact with the dead.
As a novel it is chiefly interesting because it manifests one of Miss Spark's habitual concerns, the role of the novelist; and because it demonstrates a technical device which is very dear to her—the employment of a restricted group or gang. By taking this restricted group of protagonists, here the bachelors, she is able to create multiple ironies, arising from their connecting and conflicting destinies: by her selection of such a restricted canvas, she can display the many facets of her creatures' personalities, and the different roles which they, or society, decree they should play. She is fascinated by the ways in which situations alter character, that is the way in which the individual varies in different settings, or different company. This is one of the abiding concerns of The Mandelbaum Gate, though there the idea is treated in starker fashion. (pp. 15-16)
[Once] more [in The Bachelors], the author exposes the lack of truth behind her fictional pretence: the characters, the tale, spiritualism, epilepsy, divine authorial madness, the relation between this world and the next are all suspended in the air by Miss Spark, the demon juggler. But she has no compunction in letting them all fall to earth with a bump, or in displaying the trickery behind her art.
How fortunate, therefore, to see her move on in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) to a subject which benefits from her characteristic frugality of method, and which she can infuse with seriousness, though not solemnity. Indeed, it is an almost perfect example of a novella, where form and content fuse into a whole which is poetic in its economy and impact. (p. 17)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has but a tenuous connexion with the world of fact, which here is of slight importance. It would be misguided to emphasize its social exactitude, or psychological accuracy, though these have a part to play in the book. What is vital is the way in which the mind rests on it as a delightful and pleasing structure in itself, a response which is usually accorded to poetry. (pp. 18-19)
In other novels, her efforts to contain crime and sanctity, deceit and the ordinary texture of life within the same fabric have not always been successful; and inevitably, some portion of the experience, because she is trying to control so much, acquires undue emphasis, or is recounted in an entirely inappropriate tone (inappropriate to the reader, that is). At the root of this dichotomy is her religious belief; for it is this which enables her to harmonize life's disparate entities, and which encourages her to know and accept all as God's domain….
At times, Miss Spark's faith slips; and the results are a flippant handling of a character, or an ellipse in tone. Or on other occasions, this dominant belief simply does not come over to us, so that we are entirely muddled with the muddle she pictures. (pp. 22-3)
The Girls of Slender Means (1963) is a moral fable constructed on a similar pattern to that of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It deals with an equally restricted group, the female denizens of the May of Teck Club; and the central event, which could be regarded as its climax, is slight. One of the girls, in rescuing a dress from the burning club when others are in danger of their lives, commits an act of 'savagery' which is instrumental in converting Nicholas Farringdon to Roman Catholicism, and is ultimately responsible for his martyr's death. (p. 24)
There is a gap of two years between The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), a novel quite different in kind from anything else in the Spark canon; but the years between 1961 and 1963 marked the development of a subsidiary interest, the writing of dramatic pieces and a play, Doctors of Philosophy (1963). In these Miss Spark displays her talent for dialogue and allows her sense of fantasy free rein; indeed Derek Stanford insists that they resolutely tread the 'main road of artificial comedy', refusing the call of depth or commitment. (p. 25)
The Mandelbaum Gate is, paradoxically for so impersonal an author, a personal book, personal, not only in the sense that it draws on the author's own life (its heroine, Barbara Vaughan is a half Jewish Roman Catholic convert, as is Muriel Spark) but also in that it manifests a new commitment, a willingness to give belief weight, to allow fiction to treat with truth. Early critics noted its new 'piety' and its confessional tone; in it one can see, as so often with other authors but so rarely with Muriel Spark, an attempt to come to terms with difficult and unpalatable experience; to unify and harmonize. The author alone knows of the psychological success of this experiment; but the novel we possess stands as a mature and achieved work.
It is marked off from the novels which precede it also by its realistic nature; fantasy and wit have been eschewed; and while there is enjoyment of human oddity, and satiric game made of religious observance and dogmatism, at its core is a central seriousness and a concern to portray the world and individuals as they are, not to pattern them into convolutions to suit and titillate their creator. (pp. 25-6)
The themes of The Mandelbaum Gate are complex because, for the most part, they are not easily apprehended in overt, author-directed statements but rather embedded in the fabric of events and the characterization of the novel. Indeed, it could profitably be argued that even in this, her most successful novel, Muriel Spark has yet employed a parabolic structure and ambiguity of treatment which hinder a full realization of the book's topic. Thus while the novel's themes [may] be extrapolated for the purposes of discussion, certain of [them] are less sure and finalized than this analysis may suggest. This novel is still marred by Miss Spark's intermittent refusal to apply reason to her fictional situations, her propensity to dwell on the absurd and ironic for their own sake….
The novel's subject is concerned with the strains imposed on individual characters by the random nature of the world which encompasses them; and it details their attempts, as structuring beings, to make sense of an existence which is otherwise apparently formless. These efforts are, for the most part, ludicrous and inadequate; and only Barbara Vaughan, the book's Catholic heroine, succeeds in uniting the disparate strands of her existence. Her solution to the problem of life and living is a specifically religious one. (pp. 26-7)
Paradoxically, the main point to be made about The Mandelbaum Gate is that it is a religious book; not in a straightforward sense, as the schism and faction within its pages would indicate, but in the sense that its perspective is larger than that of the ordinary novel: its author in several places creates the effect of lifting up her narrative onto another plane, giving a sense of the human spirit reaching up and outwards with all the grandeur and sublimity of which it is capable. (p. 31)
The Mandelbaum Gate is a fine achievement; and of the three novels which … succeeded it, none reveals the same expert hand. Indeed, for the first time, Miss Spark has been in danger of boring her audience; it seems for the moment that she is still casting about for fresh material, and paying the price of her enormous success. (p. 32)
No one could argue that Muriel Spark is a major novelist; she has continually insisted that she is, in fact, a minor one. Critics have frequently castigated her … for her refusal to be committed, to solve her fictional situations, for her readiness to abandon all for a jest, for her random satire. She reiterates that fiction is lies and untruth, remains ambivalent and equivocal. They take her to task for the detached attitude she maintains towards her characters, for the ambiguities which she creates at the very centre of her work. Her reply is to urge the parabolic function of fiction, to restate her lack of belief in her creations. Yet contemporary fiction needs the witty and uncommitted as well as the solemn; there is a place for disaffection as well as acquiescence. Miss Spark's novels are often structurally pleasing, and the overtones and reverberations which they contain and set up, serious and thought-provoking. As a writer, she merely hints and suggests; the labour and work of reconstruction is for her reader. Yet she makes us look again at the world and the individuals we know; she transfigures the commonplace. In itself this is no hackneyed talent. (p. 33)
Patricia Stubbs, in her Muriel Spark, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1973.
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