Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Muriel Spark (b.1918)

Muriel Spark was born Muriel Sarah Camberg, in Edinburgh in 1918. She was the daughter of Bernard, her Jewish/Lithuanian father and Sarah, her English Protestant mother. She attended what was then James Gillespie's High School for Girls – a time in her life she later regarded as most fortunate for a future writer

One of her teachers from Gillespie’s School, Miss Christina Kay, was the inspiration for Muriel’s most famous character – the Edinburgh schoolmistress Jean Brodie, and the school proved to be the inspiration for her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Although the unconventional fictional character was in some ways unlike her real life model, Muriel felt that Miss Kay “had it in her, unrealised, to be the character I invented.”

Muriel was a talented student and when only 12 years old she received the Walter Scott prize for a poem entitled Out of a Book. After leaving school, she took a course in précis writing at Heriot Watt College in Edinburgh. She later taught English as a means to finance training in secretarial skills. She became known as the schools “poet and dreamer,” as her poems appeared regularly in the school magazine. In 1932 she was crowned as the school’s Queen of Poetry. Her first employment using her new skills was as a secretary in a department store in Edinburgh's Princes Street.

In 1937 Muriel married Sydney Oswald Spark, who had taken up a teaching post in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Together they had a son, Samuel, though at the age of 19 she was very unhappy. When her second son, Robin, was born the following year, her marriage was failing fast and she longed to leave Africa. She wrote a short story dealing with the subject of middle-class marriage and of expatriate life on the continent, which suggested a claustrophobic existence. Their marriage later ended in divorce

During these extreme circumstances, Muriel Spark continued writing, taking inspiration from her experiences, and collecting memorable settings and characters for her later work.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, travel was difficult and she had to wait until 1944 to secure a passage on a troop ship bound for Liverpool. When she arrived back in England, she was fortunate to get a wartime post in political intelligence at MI6. She worked at Milton Bryan, near Woburn, as a propagandist for the war effort, and which was later fictionalised as 'The Compound' in The Hothouse by the East River.

When peace came in 1945, Spark began her critical apprenticeship as a journalist at Argentor, the official journal of the National Jewellers' Association, and started writing seriously. She was already becoming well-known by the time she took up the post of editor of the Poetry Review, the journal of the Poetry Society.

Spark left the Poetry Society after a disagreement over her policy of publishing new writers. Her own writing was becoming more important, with the encouragement of supporters such as established author Graham Greene.

In December 1951, her entry in The Observer newspaper's short-story competition triumphed over nearly 7,000 others to take first prize. The success of The Seraph and The Zambesi stimulated her to write fiction.

Muriel the poet had her first collection of poems, The Fanfarlo and Other Verse, published in 1952. Aside from poetry, she was producing articles and books of criticism at this point in the early 1950s. Extensive reading and research resulted in her writing seven critical studies and editions – on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Emily Brontë, William Wordsworth, and John Masefield – in the period leading up to her crucial decision to join the Roman Catholic Church in 1954. Rapturous reviews – including one from Evelyn Waugh – greeted The Comforters, Muriel Spark's first novel, started in 1954 and published in 1957.

So began a string of six novels in a four-year period: Robinson came next, in 1958, followed by Memento Mori (1959), The Bachelors (1960), The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961).

In the United States, the Brodie tale was first published in its entirety in The New Yorker magazine, with immediate success. Early in the 1960s, the author decided to leave London and live in New York, where she was given her own office at The New Yorker. Netting this job was quite an achievement: fellow contributors to the magazine in those days included J D Salinger, John Updike, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Muriel's social life in New York was full and plentiful: there was no shortage of parties and literary gatherings with the foremost authors of the period. However, this did not get in the way of two further novels, The Girls of Slender Means (1963), set in wartime London, and the prize-winning The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), which The New Yorker serialised.

By 1966, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie had been adapted for the theatre, Vanessa Redgrave heading the London cast of the first production. (Three years later the story would be made into a film starring Maggie Smith.) Before the stage version transferred to Broadway in 1968, Muriel Spark – now in the happy position of never again having to worry about earning a living – chose to move on. She was at the peak of her career, and Italy beckoned.

She took up residence in Italy where she now resides, moving between Rome and New York. For 12 years, from 1967, Muriel Spark lived and enjoyed life in Rome, at that time home to a considerable number of Britons and Americans. Cultural pursuits and social engagements in the Italian capital contributed much to her lifelong interest in people and places.

It was during this early time in Italy that Muriel wrote what she considers to be some of her finest work.

First came the 'ethical shocker' (and one of her favourites) The Driver's Seat, published in 1970 and later filmed starring Elizabeth Taylor, followed by The Hothouse by the East River in 1973. The Abbess of Crewe was published in 1974, and it too was adapted for cinema. Highly evident in The Abbess is Muriel Spark's renowned satirical skill: the work, set in a convent, is a send-up of the Watergate political scandal that rocked early-1970's America.

Moving to Italy clearly stimulated Muriel as a writer. Her fictional output during this period also consisted of the novels The Public Image (1968), Not To Disturb (1971), The Takeover (1976) and Territorial Rights (1979).

In 1979 she moved home again, this time to the Tuscan countryside, where she has remained.

Muriel Spark has continued to write since she moved to Tuscany in 1979. From Loitering With Intent in 1981, she has released a steady stream of characters and situations into the literary world. Her 22nd novel, The Finishing School (published in March 2004), takes a satirical look at creative writing in the classroom.

Muriel has received numerous awards during her career, beginning with the prestigious Italia Prize in 1962 for an adaptation of The Ballad of Peckham Rye. She now has many honorary degrees, and became 'Dame Muriel Spark' when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1993.

The Muriel Spark archive at the National Library of Scotland contains evidence of the impression the author has made on her many readers over the years, and hundreds of fan letters are testament to the popularity of her books.

After a long period of relative silence, Spark published Aiding and Abetting in 2001. Her work also found critical approval and a review of her collected short stories in The Scotsman newspaper in 2001 described them as “one of the greatest collections of short fiction in English.”

Over her long career Muriel Spark has received countless literary tributes and honours. In 1971 she was awarded an honorary degree in literature from Strathclyde University and has been similarly honoured by the Universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Oxford. Heriot Watt, where she attended as a student, has also attributed her as a Doctor of the University. In 1993 Spark was made a Dame of the British Empire and in 1997 she received the David Cohen British Literature Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

Muriel Spark's novels, with their unique blend of realism, satire and allegory, have helped to change the face of fiction in the English language for generations.


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