The Prime of Muriel Spark
As we begin the year of Muriel Spark's centenary celebrations, writers share how she influenced them, making a case for her placement as Scotland's great writer
"She’s by far the best Scottish writer in the last 100 years,” says Alan Taylor, journalist, friend and now editor of the late, wondrous Muriel Spark. “In fact I think the best Scottish writer since Robert Louis Stevenson, and I’d be very happy to argue with anybody who wants to argue it with me!”
2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark, and with it comes a year of celebrations dedicated to one of Scotland’s most acclaimed writers. Born in Edinburgh, Muriel was educated at James Gillespie's School for Girls, then navigated her way through writing, briefly teaching English, and fully focussing on the craft more seriously post-war. Beginning with poetry and literary criticism, her conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s was, to her mind, key in her development as a novelist.
The Muriel Spark 100 project's stated aim is to celebrate 'the life and literary achievements of one of Scotland's finest and internationally respected writers' in a year-round programme of events, publications and more. The written word is where Spark captured the minds of most, and so it feels fitting that for her centenary year her work is being reprinted and beautifully repackaged, whether her complete short stories from Canongate, or Virago's The Observing Eye: The Sayings of Muriel Spark which revels in her wry witticisms and wise words.
One key tenet of the year is the republication of all of Spark’s twenty-two novels by Birlinn, edited by Alan Taylor, bright and bold, re-wrapping a lifetime’s work for new and old audiences alike with a stellar list of authors introducing her. Ali Smith, Andrew O’Hagan, Ian Rankin, Louise Welsh – the list goes on, barely skimming the surface of authors ready to sing her praises. Each introduction illuminates not just the wonder of her words, but the depth of impact and relationship readers develop with her.
“One of the many delights of a Muriel Spark novel is the way in which the ground shifts so delicately under the reader’s feet,” writes Zoë Strachan in her introduction to Memento Mori, noting a key cornerstone of Spark’s written treasure: “an uncanny knack for making us laugh while making us think.”
Allan Massie touches on Spark’s tie to the nevertheless approach, that there was always something to be said on the other side. “One reads, or should read, her novels in this spirit,” he notes in his opening words for The Comforters. “They may seem light as a May morning, airy and insubstantial; nevertheless, they are serious. They make you smile and laugh; nevertheless the reflections they provoke may be dark and grim.”
She never followed in anyone’s footsteps, instead creating her own path. She was focussed on her skill, and never pandered to what others expected of her. “She was a remarkable a woman as she was a writer,” adds Alan Taylor. “She forged her own course in life. She pursued her talent to the edges of her ability. She did it on her own terms. She left Scotland, she went to Rhodesia, she went to London, she went to New York and Rome and finally Italy. This is somebody who put art first above all else and there’s something incredibly admirable about all that.”
By her second novel Robinson, Candia McWilliam notes, “already she has her great subjects: truth, power, faith, what we may do to pretend or delude ourselves that we have agency in our own lives, what powers an artist, perhaps a novelist, may take to themselves.
“Already she has her diction, so clear that it frees the reading mind to apprehend things unsaid, so as to emphasise the layers that lie within speech and thought, in a manner of clear sacramental densities of poetry. Spark was first a poet; and always a poet.”
This is a mere glimpse at the depth to which Spark’s words seep beneath the skin, and it’s something that remained a personal challenge throughout her writing career: to keep pushing further. “When she went to the hairdresser, she would say, ‘Make me look different’,” explains Alan Taylor. “That’s what she said to herself before starting to write a book. Let’s write a different book this time. If you go through her work you see developments over time, taking different turns, challenging herself, trying to push herself to the very boundaries of her talent. That’s wonderful, and very, very unusual.”
“Just when you think you've got a handle on where [Muriel is] taking you, she pulls the rug out from under your feet and leaves you clinging on by your fingertips,” notes author Val McDermid on her own love of Spark’s writing. “She takes risks with narrative; for a writer, there's so much to learn from the way she plays with form. I love that she's so provocative.
“Spark was one of the first writers I encountered who really challenged me as a reader. She made me pause and think; she made me smile and she offered a wholly different experience of fiction from anything I'd read before. She provides all sorts of delights to the reader, but we always have to be wary because she will surely double-cross at some point!”
It’s a common theme: Spark delights, but deceives. Her writing envelopes you and brings you into the world of her pages, but she shifts the world beneath you and takes you to unexpected places.
“You either ‘get’ Spark or you don’t,” writes Ronald Frame in The Ballad of Peckham Rye. “She always was different, and became more so with practice. […] In Curriculum Vitae she wrote ‘Readers of novels were not yet used to the likes of me, and some never will be.’”
In 2018, it’s time to remind readers of novels – and short stories, and poetry – about the wonders of Spark. Her books are a starting point, with events including an evening at the Usher Hall, Crème de la Crème on 31 January, that promises to be a must-see for all lovers of Muriel Spark.
Ultimately, this centenary is set to inspire and celebrate. “[Her work] is the measure against which writers should gauge themselves: Is this the best? Can I do better? Because that’s what Muriel did,” says Taylor. “Muriel as a young girl aged ten or eleven took the poems of really well known poets and said, I can do this better than they can. Well, can this generation of writers do better than Muriel Spark? It would be wonderful to see.
“Here we have one of our great, great, great writers who we somehow need to reclaim. We also need to put her centre stage and say to people, look, this is our great writer. This is the person who we should be putting on a pedestal, whose work we should be reading in its entirety and who we should be hymning as much as possible. I don’t think yet even in Scotland we quite appreciate the sort of breadth of her genius and this next year is a fantastic opportunity to do that.”