Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Muriel Spark

When Dame Muriel Spark died earlier this year, I realized that, although Spark has been a long-time member of my TBR list, I’d never read her. My friend Caryl coincidentally expressed an interest to read Spark and thus we launched a small, focused study of her work. For our starting point, we chose The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, arguably her best-known novel and #76 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Century. Next came The Comforters, which was her first novel, and we followed it with Memento Mori.

A few biographical notes about Spark: she wrote her first novel at 39 (pas mal), converted to Catholicism in order to “see human nature clearly,” abandoned her son when he was a child and had a strained relationship with him as a result. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh—a few of my favorite 20th century novelists—thought highly of her writing.

With an economy of language and—as a review in the New York Times aptly described it—a firm voice, Spark deftly created character-rich novels with interesting plots. Ultimately, I’d like to read every novel Spark wrote, as well as her short stories and memoir. I don’t think it matters where you start if you’re reading Spark for the first time (at least it doesn’t seem so to me with only three early novels under my belt). But, I highly recommend that you do read her!

#16, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Originally published in the fall of 1961 as a short story in the New Yorker, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a powerful slim novel that follows an Edinburgh teacher as she molds her “set,” a group of six students, in her likeness. Although I remember loving Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the title character in the movie version, Miss Brodie is hardly likeable; she’s bitter and resentful and dwells ridiculously on her “prime.” She’s also obsessed with fascism. Spark continues her examination of religion in this novel as much of it is seen through the prism of Sandy Stranger, who became a nun. I love the way Spark moves the story easily back and forth through time, often within the same chapter.

#21, The Comforters
In her first novel, Spark wastes no time experimenting with form, offering an accomplished and daring metafiction and drawing some delicious characters. The Comforters features Caroline, Laurence Manders’ girlfriend who has just converted to Catholicism. Early on, Caroline hears typewriter keys and a narrative voice, which is driving the novel. The story also features a ring of smugglers led by Laurence’s granny, as well as a busybody anyone would love to hate (Georgina Hogg). The New York Times (September 1, 1957) review said, “It is both enjoyable and memorable. Trend-watchers are advised to note the name of Muriel Spark. Before very long they may be able to boast that they read her when.”

#28, Memento Mori
This novel about Death features the geriatric set—a group of octagenarian friends who are receiving crank phone calls. At the other end of the line is a voice telling each, “Remember, you must die,” (memento mori). The phone calls unleash a history of deception and tangled relationship. They also lend a spooky feel to the novel, another trim but dense story. One of my favorite characters, Alec Warner, is a researcher who compiles statistics about the aging. Comically, he is forever asking characters to take their temperature and pulse when they’ve had a conversation or a threatening phone call so he can record the data. Mind you, these situations are constantly arising, and at times I was curious about how Warner would keep up with or make sense of his compilations. Spark provides a wholly satisfying final chapter that reveals the characters’ fates.

Up next: Girls of Slender Means

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