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Muriel Spark Centenary
(1918 – 2018)
Part One: A ‘Sparkfest’ of
poetry and prose.
In the centenary month of her birth on 1st
February 1918 let us remember and praise the marvellous Muriel Spark. She is
famed in particular for her novel The
Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). It was turned into a very successful film
(20th Century Fox) starring Maggie Smith in the title role. The
author set the story in her native city of Edinburgh.
Nevertheless, writing from her home in Tuscany in 2003,
Muriel Spark held that:
Although most of my life has been
devoted to fiction, I have always thought of myself as a poet. I do not write poetic prose, but I feel that
my outlook on life and my perceptions of events are those of a poet.
In the preface to her book All the Poems (Carcanet, 2004) Muriel Spark further explained that she
had written poems throughout her literary life, from the late 1940s onwards.
She declared her conviction that for creative writing of any sort, an early
apprenticeship as a poet is a wonderful stimulant and start.
Some critics refer to Muriel Spark’s books as novellas
rather than novels. I don’t think that they are any the worse for being less
than 200 pages long. I love her spare, edgy prose, her pared-down plots and her
easy-flowing narrative. And so I entirely approve of an incident in her novel A Far
Cry from Kensington when Mrs Hawkins, working for a publishing firm, shows
the door to a young author whose large manuscript of a novel she judges is much
too long and rambling! BBC Radio 4 chose this delightful novel for its Book at
Bedtime broadcast, during January 2018 to start a centenary tribute ‘The Vital
The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
This novel was set in 1940s post-war west London where the
story followed the working and social lives of a group of young girls that lodged
at the May of Teck Club, a fictional hostel.
It is evident from Muriel Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) that many of the
people, places and incidents in The Girls
of Slender Means were drawn from her real-life diary and from the
real-life Helena Club, in Lancaster Gate, where she sometimes lodged. Amongst
the girls that she knew there, one used to compose poetry. This girl would come
and read her efforts to Muriel Spark. One can discern the source of what the
author and critic Carol Shields describes as ‘the snippets of poetry that
ripple through Muriel Spark’s novels like propitiating music.’
My recent delight at finding a second hand Penguin 1966
paperback edition of The Girls of Slender
Means was tinged with surprise when I spotted that one of the ladies on the
front cover illustration was topless. Was such a thing allowed, in 1966,
and by the respectable Penguin, of all publishers? Evidently, it was. And
fair’s fair: towards the end of my re-read of the book, I found that the
drawing on the front cover was a faithful representation of an actual incident
in the story. Not all publishers are so accurate or honest, when they print a
lurid illustration on the cover of a book!
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
Muriel Spark’s autobiography discloses that her writing of The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) stemmed
from a time in 1956 when ‘My digs in London were now in Camberwell, a less
fashionable part than my old Kensington haunts.’
This time the story is set in the mid-1950s. It allows a
delightful nostalgic return to an era that I can just about remember for
myself. Young brides-to-be would save money, to fill their ‘bottom drawer’;
young men fuelled by too much beer and whisky would step outside the pub on
Saturday nights to fight about a girl; landladies would not allow their
gentlemen tenants to take a young lady to their room.
These and other typical incidents abound in another of
Muriel Spark’s masterpieces of relaxed but assured storytelling. The central
hero Dougal Douglas drives a path through the wit and black humour of it all.
He is a young man who can be guaranteed either to charm or to infuriate
everyone that he encounters. In a long-lost and fondly remembered world when
the Personnel department in a company or factory was yet to be re-named Human
Resources, and no one had yet invented the horror of Job Descriptions and
Performance Appraisals, the canny Dougal manages to draw a good income from his
employers without seeming to complete any tangible work.
Robin Spark (1938 – 2016)
The tenth anniversary of Muriel Spark’s death was made more
poignant by the death in August 2016 of her only child, her son Robin.
Robin was born in Bulawayo, now Zimbabwe, in dramatic
circumstances. The young Muriel Camberg had married Sydney Oswald Spark and in
1937 had sailed to Africa to join him. The marriage failed and she spirited
herself and baby Robin away – initially to Cape Town and then by perilous
stages during wartime she returned them both home to Britain.
Seeking work in bombed-out London, Muriel Spark left her
young son in Edinburgh in the care of his grandparents. Fame and prosperity
from her 22 novels did not come quickly. Winning the £250 prize in The Observer
short story competition of 1951 was an important first breakthrough. But the
following year 1952 brought discordance in the family: Muriel decided to become
a Roman Catholic while her son, now aged 13, opted to adopt the Jewish
religion. This split would unfortunately fracture the mother and son
relationship. Estrangement and disinheritance followed. Muriel Spark disdained
Robin’s career in the art world: his day job was warden at leading art
galleries in Scotland, but he painted his own work too, achieving an ‘agitated
intensity’ when he chose Jewish themes.
In the second part of
my tribute to Muriel Spark, to be published next month, I will further explore
how in poetry and prose she celebrated the London district of Kensington where
she lived after the war.
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
Rumpole December 2017
Roger Moore as Ivanhoe
Future Rock: Music and Politics in the 1970s
The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love
The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.
The novelist R.F.
Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.
How The Wild West Was Written
Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins
Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train
H G Wells
In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn
Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986
Shakespeare's 400th Centenary
Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film
The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A Tribute to Margaret Forster
Remembering Saeed Jaffrey
Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie
Remembering Ruth Rendell
Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)
The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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