Muriel Spark: The Biography
W. W. Norton & Company, 2010
656 pp., 35.00
Martin Stannard's scrupulous biography of Muriel Spark, published in the UK last summer by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, has finally crossed the Atlantic. If you compare the photos of Muriel Spark chosen for the two editions, you'll find that Norton's designer made much the best choice. The British edition features a photo of a rather dowdy Spark, pen in hand (an absurdly clichéd pose). The American edition uses a Jerry Bauer photo that shows Spark in profile, after she has attained fame and elegance. It's an extraordinary photo that conveys her fierce intelligence and her tense spirit (she is positively coiled in the chair in which she sits, leaning forward). There is even a hint of the uncanny in this image, which could be a still from a film.
There was something uncanny about Spark. After the appearance of The Bachelors in 1960, Evelyn Waugh (one of Spark's early champions, whose support gave her an invaluable boost), not a man to dispense idle compliments, wrote to her: "How do you do it? I am dazzled by The Bachelors. Most novelists find there is one kind of book they can write […] . You seem to have an inexhaustible source." Indeed she did; her last novel was published in 2004, when she was 86 years old, just two years before her death.
When I talk to bright young people who read fiction these days, very few of them seem to have read anything by Muriel Spark. In the event that some of them stumble across Memento Mori or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Only Problem or virtually any of her books, and then are seduced to read the whole wonderful lot, Martin Stannard's biography will be an invaluable companion.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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