Muriel Spark Spark, Muriel (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Spark, Muriel 1918–

Spark, a Scottish-born novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, biographer, and author of books for children, now resides in Rome. Critics note her masterful handling of dialogue and her witty, satiric characterizations. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Harold W. Schneider

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Muriel Spark's short] stories represent a lesser achievement than her novels, particularly the pieces in … Voices at Play. On the surface this writer possesses all the writing virtues that should make her a master of the short story: she is able in the most crisp and economical prose quickly to develop believable characters and a situation in which the reader is immersed; she is skillful in developing personality through conversation and in finding exactly the right singularity of speech to make a character stand out as a type and as an individual at the same time …; she is also able to handle point of view in any way that suits her, writing as omniscient author or in the character of a person in the story, either in the first person or as a consciousness described rather than describing; finally, she can construct her plots as tightly as her prose and bring them to their conclusions with no wasted effort. Because of these abilities there are no real failures among her stories, but one also feels there are not as many complete successes as there should be…. Perhaps what is at fault is Mrs. Spark's striking cleverness, her utter competence, and occasionally even her willingness to flirt with the supernatural and the incredible. Her stories entertain and sometimes enchant by the presence of a fantastic, strange, or unknown world or scene …, but while they please they are not always moving enough to be memorable.

Of the two volumes, The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories (1958) clearly has the most memorable pieces. "The Twins," a story about the rather diabolical influence of a very young boy and girl, develops chillingly to its climax as the young woman narrator becomes aware that between the ages of five and twelve these precocious and evil children have gained complete control over their parents and their parents' relations with other people…. This is a story of the triumph of evil over good—and the irony is that the evil comes from two beautiful and apparently guileless children. And there is a further irony: not only does the evil which triumphs over good come from the children; its triumph is largely good's own fault. Mrs. Spark surely means to show that such innocence as that of Jennie and Simon Reeves is not real goodness at all. Because they fail to recognize the evil in their children, they cannot cope with it and therefore do harm and injustice to themselves and their acquaintances. In order to combat evil, Mrs. Spark implies one must know it.

"The Twins" is fairly typical of Mrs. Spark's fiction, for it shows her concern with moral problems, sometimes even with unworldly "influences," her skill at quick characterizations, and her tight prose style. But the best and most compelling of the stories in this volume are the African tales. "The Pawnbroker's Wife," the least ambitious of these tales, is a realistic account of the triumph of a view of life over the real world…. [The] complication of the plot arises out of the stories the mother and daughters invent and force their lodgers to accept in silence to avoid expulsion from the house. "The Pawnbroker's Wife" is an amusing character study that succeeds at the same time in being a portrait edged in pathos. The second African tale, "The Seraph and the Zambesi," indulges Mrs. Spark's penchant for the fantastic…. [It] can be counted this writer's first considerable success…. This is an imaginative, wild and funny tale, quite different from either of the other African stories. In it Mrs. Spark plays with reality, creating her story out of her imagination and what must be scattered remnants of her African experience. (pp. 28-32)

["The Go-Away Bird"] seems to me the finest work of these two volumes of short stories—a haunting and deeply moving account, expressing the tragic loneliness of a human soul not sure of what it wants from life, not finding its kindred spirit or its proper end…. This story shows best the author's...

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John Hazard Wildman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Muriel Spark, in a series of tightly organized, sharply pointed novels, has achieved, with an amazing degree of illumination, translations of vast abstractions into crisp, containing modern terms, never losing the necessary qualities of suggestiveness and humility.

For she has tackled the most difficult translation of all…. She has obviously set herself the task of bringing good and evil over into concrete objects of consideration and into explicit situations. It is a temptation to say that she is never didactic, but simply investigative, a sentiment of this sort usually being considered loftily complimentary. But actually she maintains firm stands: she is a translator of something objective (and in that sense foreign); she has the born translator's compulsion to make it accessible, and for the work which she loves, she entertains an undeviating conviction of the rightness of its terms.

Her frame of reference is the Catholic moral universe; her translations of its terms are into the language, actions, and above all, frames of mind of present-day England and derivative cultures. There must be an obstinate streak in her which insists upon the nearly impossible…. The achievements of Mrs. Spark are many, but surely the most striking is her totally successful air of unself-consciousness. She gives an impression of moving in an atmosphere rather than creating it…. [She] perceives effortlessly the real not only under the apparent, but permeating it. (pp. 129-30)

[In] her work the surfaces of life are both conductors to its depths and also—with the apparent inconsistency of existence—deceptive camouflage for its deeper reaches. In Memento Mori, she encompasses both extremes. Here, in a novel where almost all of the characters are belligerently old, she uses their apparent indestructibility as an ironic contrast with their frail tenure of mortality and also as a means of access to their fears. The stoutly barred door advertizes the terror within at the same time that it conceals it. And usually it includes the reason for the terror, for the murderer has entered long ago in the innocent glare of midday and lies happily hidden, waiting for his moment to come to him. (p. 131)

Mrs. Spark ticks off the types whose neat but adamantine self-sufficiency is the engine of their failure. In her method, there is a Kafka-like devotion to the point of contact between extremes. Possibly the chief note of distinction between the two, however, is that whereas Kafka uses disgust as the junction from which his many lines of meaning radiate, it is a sort of engagingness from which the trains go out in Mrs. Spark's interpretations. Alec Warner, in Memento Mori, is a far-from-lovable character, but there are in his composition those elements which cause a reader to warm to a character—which make the unregenerate Scrooge someone to collect in a way that no one ever wanted to collect a character from Theodore Dreiser. (p. 132)

[Within] the old minor poet Percy Mannering … smallness reaches large dimensions, and an epic pettiness is attained through lifelong unobstructed devotion. Here also the Kafka-like proneness of Mrs. Spark to convey large issues through familiar smallness comes to high achievement…. (pp. 132-33)

[Here] is no doomed universe. Mrs. Spark is as far from the authorized versions of predestination, newly revised, as she is from sentimental evasion. She would probably agree … that the action of a novel should ultimately rest on a realistic conception of existence…. (p. 133)

There is [in her work] a happy fusion of setting and people. As there is growth of personality and theme within her novels, so also as an integral part of this process, there is a progressive self-fulfillment of her setting. If there is none of the romantic proneness to treat the setting as opulent scenery before which the characters act, neither is there that self-consciously thematic treatment of setting which, in Thomas Hardy, makes the reader feel as though he were being managed with the kindly condescension due to the slow-witted and having indicated to him, with a slow patient forefinger, the philosophical dimensions of the landscape. Mrs. Spark in this respect fits in admirably with Elizabeth Bowen's conception of setting brought to its ideal function: "Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colours the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it." (pp. 133-34)

Possibly in The Ballad of Peckham Rye this admirable treatment of setting is most observable, although not any more skillfully used than in her other novels. Here, however, the devil walks in unlikely haunts. Why it should be unusual for him to circulate among the drab energetic ways of British middle-class to lower-middle-class existence is not clear, but somehow he is usually expected to function within greater ceremonial blaze. Nor is one definitely authorized by Mrs. Spark's treatment to call Dougal Douglas, the central figure of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the devil; rather, one has suspicions in that direction. By the end of the novel, however, there is no doubt whatsoever as to the evil which he has so joyfully welcomed into himself and even more joyfully dispensed.

Yet Mrs. Spark has much of the mystery writer about her: she knows the importance of gathering effects. These she has invested with thematic significance far beyond the dimensions of the typical mystery; also, the truth progressively dawns rather than bursts at the end of things. But she knows the narrative importance of a growth of light, and the uses of tension in that respect. (p. 134)

[Mrs. Spark has the] cruel ability of certain ancient...

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Victor Kelleher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is probably impossible to read several of Muriel Spark's novels without realizing that her Roman Catholicism is much more than an item of biographical interest: it is a potent force which has profoundly affected the shape of her art. For Miss Spark does not stop short at simply bringing the question of Catholicism into her work; she has chosen to place the traditionally Christian outlook at the very heart of everything she writes.

This "outlook" is perhaps best illustrated by one of her short stories, "A Playhouse Called Remarkable". In this, a character called Moon Biglow recounts how he and five other men descended from the moon shortly after the Flood. At that time mankind was a bored and dying...

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David Lodge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When a novelist embeds quotations from some fictitious novel in his/her own text [as Muriel Spark does in Territorial Rights], it is, of course, always with aesthetic intent, usually parodic. The glum kitchen-sink realism of Anthea's library book, its plodding record of banal thoughts and predictable emotions, is clearly intended to contrast with the sprightly narrative style, the glamorous local colour, the dazzlingly complex intrigue of Territorial Rights, and perhaps to underline the advantages enjoyed by a novelist residing in Italy. 'It may seem far-fetched to you, Anthea,' says Grace Gregory, reporting the latest developments to Anthea by telephone, 'But here everything is stark realism. This is Italy.'

We know from her previous novels that Muriel Spark is fascinated by the mixture of cynicism and passion, corruption and beauty in the Italian scene, finding in it (much as the Elizabethans found in Machiavelli's Italy) an image of contemporary decadence more to her purposes than dull old England. In Territorial Rights she has married this setting to a theme from her New York novel, The Hothouse by the East River: the resurrection of old ghosts and guilts from World War II….

Territorial Rights has no central character, which makes for a diverting international comedy of manners, as the narrative perspective shifts from one character to another, observing them all observing each other, but at the same time leaves the reader sufficiently detached to reflect on how 'far-fetched' the plot is. Nor does the novel throw the reader off balance, as Mrs Spark's novels usually do, by exposing and undermining fictional conventions…. Territorial Rights is a highly entertaining novel: it tickles, it intrigues, it beguiles. If, in the end, it disappoints, that is because the author is one of our most gifted and original novelists. Even so, it's better by far than most of the novels in Anthea's library.

David Lodge, "Prime Cut," in New Statesman (copyright © 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 27, 1979, p. 597.

Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From Thomas Mann to Patricia Highsmith and from Henry James to Daphne du Maurier, Venice has not merely exerted a potent fascination on novelists but has brought out the best in them. The beauty of mouldering palazzi reflected in water contaminated with garbage has represented spiritual deliquescence; secret courtyards, labyrinthine alley-ways and choked gardens have represented mystery, danger and intrigue.

The Venetian genius loci, corrupt and corrupting, broods over Muriel Spark's Territorial Rights like a miasma. It is evoked in a series of delicate, almost evanescent aquarelles…. (p. 28)

For this short novel, Miss Spark has taken over—not for the first time—the...

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