Sunday, April 16, 2006

Prime Past

Muriel Spark has died.

Her latest book is among those in my backlog shelves of volumes waiting to be read. Tonight, I'll line-jump it into the bedside pile, in tribute to an author who, directly and indirectly, set me on the path to discovering some of my favorite authors in the world when I was in the cusp of my teen years back in the early '70s. I owe a debt to Spark.

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" was probably the first book I was ever inspired to read specifically due to seeing a move version of it. If memory serves, it is the first "adult" book I ever purchased in hardback with my own money, meaning that I worked and saved for it. (It later was permanently "borrowed" by a friend, something which still annoys me in a way that things like that almost never do, but that's a different story.)

I know that Spark's work isn't for everybody, and there are certainly critics who have found her "cold" (see the reference below). But I have always loved her ambivalent irony, her sense of the world and how people clatter through it in ways both mundane and profound, but always with an edge of the absurd.

From the NYT:

Her work, unlocked from her innermost memories of her experiences before and after her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954, built a canon of short, sometimes macabre, sometimes humorous novels that sought to pare away the absurdities of human behavior.

Ms. Spark's first novel was published when she was 39, and after that she supplied a stream of slender novels and enigmatic short stories peopled with such curiosities as narrators from beyond the grave, flying saucers, grandmotherly smugglers with bread bins full of diamond-studded loaves and individuals of so little substance that they disappear when the door closes.

In her writing, evil is never far away, violence is a regular visitor and death is a constant companion. Her themes were generally serious but nearly always handled with a feather-light touch.

It is this lightness, and a contrived detachment toward her characters, that became the target of the harshest criticism of her work, which at her death included more than 20 novels, several collections of short stories, poetry, criticism, biography, plays and a handful of children's books.

Some accused her of coolness and even cruelty toward the characters she invented and then sent — sometimes quite merrily — to terrible deaths.

"People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone," she said in an interview in The New Yorker. "I'm often very deadpan, but there's a moral statement too, and what it's saying is that there's a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They're not important in the long run."


When I first learned of Spark's death, I too thought of a passage from "Memento Mori, which this WaPo article includes in its piece on her:

A self-styled "experimentalist," she was hailed as being far ahead of her time both in her style of writing and the subjects she chose, using her sharp satire to expose pettiness and vanity pervading all facets of life and death.

In the 1959 novel "Memento Mori" she wrote: "Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs."

"She was a very funny writer but also a very thoughtful one," critic David Lodge told BBC Television. "She made writers think and she made readers think. She was constantly playing on the difference between God and the writer."

She lived to a ripe old age and continued writing, but I have found that more often than not, when I have referenced one of her books in recent times, people don't seem to be familiar with her, except for maybe "Brodie," and then primarily due to memories of the movie starring Maggie Smith. No doubt it's just the context in which I find myself these days, but still, that makes me a bit sad. You get older and your past reference points become anachronistic, and that, as they say, is life.

From The Scotsman:

Mark Lawson, the novelist and BBC broadcaster, said: "In literary terms she was the last of a generation, just younger than Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, who helped her and sent her money early in her career. She was one of the most original prose stylists ever."

R.I.P., Ms. Spark, you and your generation of writers.