For a soi-disant parable-writer, Muriel Spark is surprisingly social in her comedy…
Muriel Spark Centenary, Edinburgh. Photograph by byronv2.
From The New Statesman:
Spark’s novels – 22 in all – are the product of a ruthlessly confident, even clairvoyant sensibility, and fuse an impossible range of tones and strengths. “For a soi-disant parable-writer, she is surprisingly social in her comedy,” the novelist Ronald Frame writes in his superb introduction to The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), part of a complete reprinting of Spark’s novels by the Edinburgh-based publisher Polygon. Her prose is icily impudent and briskly profound, “cruel and lyrical at the same time” – to borrow her own description of the Scots Border ballads that she read as a girl, which provided her earliest model in straddling other borders, such as being both dense and spare. (She later took a course in précis-writing.)
The Spark centennial has been an almost exclusively Scottish affair. The main event is an exhibition – small but heaving – at the National Library of Scotland, which holds Spark’s papers. The only new book to appear, apart from Virago’s ill-judged compendium, The Observing Eye: the Sayings of Muriel Spark, is the memoir, Appointment in Arezzo, by Alan Taylor, founder of the Scottish Review of Books and the series editor of the new collected edition. BBC Scotland commissioned an hour-long documentary, presented by Kirsty Wark, and featuring Val McDermid, Janice Galloway and Ali Smith, three of the contributors to Radio 3’s week-long series of Essays. During an event at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall in January, Nicola Sturgeon talked of her love for Spark, and there have been calls for a Spark statue and banknote.
“She always said that she was Scottish by formation,” the novelist Ian Rankin told me recently, when we met at the National Library. But he views Spark more specifically as a product of Edinburgh, “the city of haves and have-nots, where a New Town had to be created because the Old Town was ridden with slums”. Rankin recalled the scene in Spark’s best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), in which Miss Brodie, a teacher eager to develop a cult of personality, leads her class on a tour of streets whose names “betokened a misty region of crime and desperation”, a virtual “foreign country” which “intimates itself by its new smells and shapes and its new poor”.
The idea of division was a challenge to be faced down.