Muriel Spark's dispassionate look back

BOOK REVIEW

June 28, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse | Anne Whitehouse,Contributing Writer

In this absorbing, intelligent and judicious memoir, Muriel Spark examines the first 39 years of her life, from her birth in 1918 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to the publication of her first novel, "The Comforters," in London in 1957. The author of 19 novels, as well as short stories, poems, three critical studies and a play, Ms. Spark brings the same powers of critical observation, dispassionate insight and concision that have distinguished her fiction to this "picture of my formation as a creative writer."

Ms. Spark announces in the introduction: "I determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses." This caveat necessarily turns the autobiography outward, to the influences that shaped her and to her vivid recollections.

"I can't remember a time when I was not a person-watcher . . . an avid listener," writes this creator of so many articulate and remorseless fictional portraits. Ms. Spark's fascination with the life she saw around her was nourished by her family's habit of including her in adult gatherings, even as a small child.

Born Muriel Camberg to a Scottish Jewish father and an English Protestant mother, she grew up in a loving household in modest circumstances. She keenly evokes the gas-lit Edinburgh of her childhood, and her family's friends, neighbors and relatives. She describes her education at James Gillespie's High School for Girls, where she excelled and showed early promise as a writer.

It was there, at age 11, that she came under the influence of a teacher, Miss Christina Kay, the inspiration for Miss Jean Brodie with her aesthetic sensibilities and "romantic feminine ardour." At the same time, her experiences of watching and caring for her stroke-debilitated grandmother gave her insight into the vulnerability of the elderly, which influenced "Memento Mori," her chilling novel of aging and death.

Ms. Spark's perspicacious commentary sharpens the memoir into focus. Of the 19th-century benefactor who endowed her school and in so doing disinherited his family, she writes, "It was certainly an attitude typical of Edinburgh to deny feelings for the sake of principle."

Although the school was officially Presbyterian, she writes, "But my day Tolerance was decidedly the prevailing religion, always with a puritanical slant. Nothing can be more puritanical in application than the virtues. To enquire into the differences between the professed religions around us might have been construed as Intolerance." This remark has relevance to contemporary attitudes and also suggests Ms. Spark's dissatisfaction, which led to her conversion to Catholicism in 1954. About this conversion, which has been the subject of much inquiry, she is reticent, except to refer to spiritual yearnings unfulfilled by her upbringing.

She is similarly reticent about her unhappy marriage at the age of 19 to Sydney Oswald Spark, a teacher on a three-year contract in colonial Southern Rhodesia. She writes that he was mentally unbalanced and violent, and when she became pregnant, he urged her to have an abortion, which she refused. After her son, Robin, was born, she obtained a divorce with great difficulty.

Contrasted to her sheltered and supportive upbringing, the years in Africa were a great misery. In addition to her personal unhappiness, she despised the self-deluding racism of colonial society. Yet she quotes the poet John Masefield that "all experience is good for an artist," and certainly her time in Africa inspired some of her greatest stories, such as "Bang-bang You're Dead," "The Go-Away Bird" and "The Seraph and the Zambesi."

In Africa, she cultivated the dispassion that illuminates her fiction. "It was in Africa that I learned to cope with life," she writes. "It was there that I learned to keep in mind-- in the front of my mind -- the essentials of our human destiny, our responsibilities, and to put in a peripheral place the personal sorrows, frights and horrors that came my way. I knew my troubles to be temporary if I decided so."

In her fiction, like that of the late Graham Greene, another Catholic convert who was one of her first literary supporters, she acknowledges the presence of evil and the possibility of redemption in unlikely settings. Like Greene, she possesses a droll wit, a taste for allegory and suspense, and a demonic imagination.

These qualities are also characteristic of the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, for whom she professes a great admiration. In an incident worthy of fiction, Ms. Spark describes how, after she left Africa for England in 1944, her taste for Compton-Burnett enabled her to land a job as a propagandist with the Foreign Office's secret intelligence service.

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