Muriel Spark Spark, Muriel (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Spark, Muriel 1918–

A Scottish-born novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and biographer, Spark now lives in Rome. Her novels are distinguished by her satirical approach and the sense of intellectual distance she puts between herself and her characters, an imaginative assortment of tyrannical nuns, languorous jet-setters, and enigmatic spinsters. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is certainly a remoteness, a lack of ordinary compassion, in [Mrs Spark's] dealings with characters, but this is part of the premise of her fiction; if we feel sorry in the wrong way, it's because our emotions are as messy and imprecise as life, part of the muddle she is sorting out…. [Not only is she] an unremittingly Catholic novelist, committed to immutable truths, but … she is [also] uncommonly interested in the shapes assumed by these truths as perceived in the tumult of random events and felt upon insensitive fallen flesh. The question for the reader is not at all whether he accepts the truths, but whether the patterns are made good and recognised. Reading them, like writing them, is a work of the imagination, fallen or not. What establishes their validity is … imaginative cohesion, a rightness in the shapes, a truth sensed in the fictions.

The easiest way into this kind of fiction, which shows the world as bearing obscure figurations of meaning like a novel, is by way of The Comforters…. Here is a novel which looks into the question of what kind of truth can be told in a novel. It creates a quite powerful sense—still not absent from later and less openly experimental stories—that to make fictions is in a way a presumptuous thing to do, because the novelist is, unlike God, free at the expense of his creatures. Of course the characters fight back: Caroline, the heroine—who as a Catholic convert knows about absolute truth and is also expert in theory of the novel—does her best to resist manipulation by the mind of the unseen novelist who is putting her into a story and trying to shape her life. So she tries to spoil the plot by an exercise of free will…. The voices Caroline hears recounting or prophesying her actions are novelistic; they are one voice differentiated into many, always speaking in the past tense. (Later Mrs Spark is often, as a novelist, devious about tenses.) The novelist arbitrarily arranges fantastic and pointless coincidences. Mrs Hogg, standing for a singularly odious piety, vanishes when not in the story, having no other life.

The tone of The Comforters is civilised and often frivolous, but it is naggingly about something serious, and the difficulties of saying such things in terms of a convention so absurd and arbitrary as a novel. The plot is deliberately complicated, since the question asked is, how can such an organised muddle of improbabilities, further distorted by the presumptuous claims of the writer on space and time, say anything true or interesting? One of the answers, if one may abstract it, is that even among the falsities of a novel, as among the shapelessnesses of ordinary life, truth figures; and it does so because the imagination, in so far as it is good, is bound by categories which stand in a relation to absolute truth. This shows up in a certain repeated atavism in Spark plots—the assumption must be that the ancient patterns have a more certain relation with the truth. (p. 397)

[Memento Mori] has a superb morbid accuracy, a poetic concentration on a narrow society of people and ideas…. Charmian [is] a novelist within the novel, still giving 'to...

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Bernard Harrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Here are some reasons for disliking the novels of Muriel Spark. First, that she is, as the mother of a friend of mine put it, a girl of slender means. Her books are too spun-out. They seem all surface, and a rather dry, sparsely furnished, though elegant and mannered surface at that. The one exception is The Mandelbaum Gate, which offers us, as the blurb-writers say, a vivid panorama of contemporary Israel. But there, if you like, is a book which lacks moral profundity. A serious young man once told me that he could find nothing but distaste for a writer who, confronted by the Arab-Israeli conflict with all its tragic moral and political dilemmas, chose to treat it all, as he put it, merely as the background for a trivial love story.

'Trivial.' The word is out. Yet Muriel Spark's novels seem, while one is reading them, to be profoundly, if obscurely, preoccupied with morality, not to say moral theology. Indeed they seem to be about nothing else. But there is no denying the obscurity. (p. 225)

Partly the air of inconsequentiality stems from Miss Spark's authorial tone of voice, which is characteristically cool, level and uninvolved, and occasionally enigmatically flippant. (p. 226)

In Muriel Spark paradox is not a means of leading us to an emphatic rediscovery of 'orthodoxy' or of the world as it 'really' and 'objectively' is. It seems rather to be sought for its own sake. But that raises the question of whether what underlies it is not the bottomless relativism Chesterton feared. Seen in this light the 'lightness of touch' for which Miss Spark has been praised may seem all too explicable: mere intellectual shiftiness; a paper screen concealing an abyss.

Once raised, the charge of shiftiness can be extended all too easily to plot and characters. Nothing is ever fully explained or given depth. (p. 227)

If we are to see where, and why, Muriel Spark's fiction departs from the canons of the traditional novel we need a concrete example of a 'traditional' technique of fiction, and some reasonably clear idea of what such a technique achieves, and how.

For this role I shall select Jane Austen. Her major novels are everything that Muriel Spark's seem not to be: both morally and psychologically they are impressively achieved and coherent structures into which a vast amount of concrete detail is incorporated without arbitrariness or loose ends.

At the same time there are parallels. Like Jane Austen, Muriel Spark is a moral satirist. Like her she paints with fine strokes upon a small canvas, and yet achieves at her best a power and universality which transcend the littleness and provinciality of her characters and their world. Both are, in some sense which is at least partly the same sense, anti-Romantic writers. Both nourish a preference for the concrete over the general, for what is actually, materially given over idealising fancy…. Neither has much time for sentimental moralising; that is, for moralising which is not under the control of a moral intelligence which is exact and discriminating precisely because it is exercised about some concrete and intimately known set of circumstances. (pp. 228-29)

Because fiction and reality are held together in a Jane Austen novel by the tensions and constraints of simultaneously maintaining the plausibility of a complex fiction and the coherence of an organising moral viewpoint, readers feel that they 'know where they are' with Jane Austen, whereas with Muriel Spark they don't. (p. 234)

[The classical technique of novel-writing] will not allow you to show the reader the gulf between a set of values taken together with the detail of the life, the modus vivendi, which they organise, and what gives life and content to all such partly conventional structures: the formless magma of human potentiality. But this, it seems to me, is Muriel Spark's peculiar subject-matter. (p. 236)

Her books are exercises for the reader in continuous redefinition…. It is a curious feature of [The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie], which it shares with The Girls of Slender Means, that although it concerns a crisis in the beliefs and personality of one character, Sandy Stranger, as she emerges from childhood, the character in question is treated merely as one more character, and often a rather peripheral character, in the novel. We are not treated to a ringside view of Sandy's inner life, as we are [in Jane Austen] to Emma's. At the same time we know in a rather external way all sorts of curious extrinsic facts about her…. Why does she become a nun in an enclosed order? What about her strange book of psychology, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace ('on the nature of moral perception')? Why put any of this in at all?

There are two answers, which are at first sight contradictory. The first is that the enigmatic and incomplete fragments of information which the novel drops casually concerning Sandy are meant to puzzle and irritate; to create in the reader a spirit of nervous dissatisfaction, of not knowing quite where he is going or what he is supposed to see when he gets there, which will make him work towards a reconstruction of Sandy's mind from the bits and pieces of information which the novel offers him.

The second and more important answer, which seems at first sight to contradict the first, but in fact complements it, is that the enigmas are there to obstruct the establishment of that systematic and unblemished unity of conception which it is of the essence of Jane Austen's genius to create and of her readers' pleasure to explore, and which makes possible the liberating, constantly surprising play of wit and moral perception which informs the interior of the novel precisely by the very rigour with which it restricts the range of what can enter the bounded, though not finite, world which it creates. The technique of a Muriel Spark novel is in fact exactly opposite to Jane Austen's: it works by continual dislocation, by setting up a fabric of faults and cleavages from one side of which the events of the novel can be construed in one way, while from the other they fall irrevocably (although...

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Mary W. Schneider

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) has long been recognized as a brilliantly woven novel, complex in its narrative technique and themes. One of the most significant themes in the novel is that of the double life led by Jean Brodie and her set. The theme of the double life is particularly illuminated by two oddly assorted motifs, the story of an Edinburgh burglar, William Brodie, and an Italian Renaissance painting, Botticelli's Primavera. (p. 418)

The dreariness of [the life of Miss Brodie and her set] rises from the particular conditions of the school, of the thirties, of Philistinism in society, but the great enemy is simply boredom, and one escapes that by leading an exciting...

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Edmund White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sometimes it seems that writers who can write can't tell a story and those who can tell a story can't write. Because of the unfortunate division in our century between high art and popular entertainment, there are few novels that are both well-crafted and immediately appealing. Our serious fiction is formally inventive and linguistically splendid, but it seldom compels the reader to read on. ("Lolita" is one of the few novels since World War II to possess this miraculous double appeal.) By contrast, our compulsively readable novels are so carelessly rendered and dully derivative that there is no reason to reread them, much less study and admire them.

Once in a while, however, a book comes along that...

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Cynthia Propper Seton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It may not be true, but I have the feeling that Muriel Spark is one of the few, in the category of fine writers, who has a grand time at her work. This is not because she writes comedy. It would be wrong to believe that people who write comedy sit down to their desks already laughing. However, readers who have enjoyed her novels from the early Robinson and Memento Mori may suspect that Muriel Spark sits down to her desk already malevolent. In her new book, Territorial Rights, there is hardly a character one doesn't enjoy a little, but the whole lot of them are rotters, really, really rotters. And in the end there is the suggestion of a distribution of their fates which is neither just, nor actually unjust, but is funny….

None of the characters has even a rudimentary sense of conviction, of moral integrity, of compassion, and this is not the case in most of the stronger novels Spark has written. Memento Mori was so funny, so wicked, it could do without. In a recent interview Spark spoke of her own writing as "pretty harsh and detached. Cold, even. I like to save the warm bits for when I mean it. I'm very careful with the prose."

Well, there are no warm bits in Territorial Rights, and while it is not difficult to read—Spark has a bold wild way with a plot—the flesh, the wit, the bizarre vision of truth one anticipates in her fiction seem temporarily exhausted. In the interview she was asked about the ups and downs in a writer's life and she answered, "The best thing is write on, regardless." It may be the best thing for the writer. It is not, in this instance, the best thing for her admirers.

Cynthia Propper Seton, "Decadence in Venice," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), June 24, 1979, p. E6.

Thomas R. Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edmund Wilson once remarked that "the English do not insist on having the women in their fiction made attractive." Muriel Spark's readers on both sides of the Atlantic do not seem to insist on any of her fictional characters being appealing. And her 15th novel, Territorial Rights, is populated by as rum a lot as you will find between hard covers, even in these disenchanted times….

On the surface, the book might pass for a comedy of decaying manners…. Yet underneath the deftly paced plot and the gleaming prose there lurks a disconcerting darkness that goes beyond black humor.

The trouble, I think, is that the characters are dislikable to a degree that is fatal to the...

(The entire section is 402 words.)