Martin Stannard: Muriel Spark – The Biography
Muriel Spark: The Biography is flat-footed and pedestrian, filled with cliché and repetition. The sentences are avalanches of information delivered without emphasis or nuance.
In 1992 the acclaimed novelist Muriel Spark published what turned out to be her first and only volume of autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, a sketchy narrative filled with a number of charming vignettes that covered the first thirty-nine years of her life. Many readers lamented the (deliberate) thinness of the chronicle. Though Spark said that another volume would be written, it never appeared.
We do not know why – perhaps the pressure of other work (Spark would write three more novels before her death in 2006) – but Curriculum Vitae is all we have. Around the time of its publication, Spark wrote a fan letter of sorts to Martin Stannard, praising his recently-published biography of Evelyn Waugh, and expressing the hope that she might have just such a biographer herself. Answered prayers. Stannard pounced and spent 15 years on the project, finally delivering a manuscript to Spark when she was in the throes of her last, fatal illness. She spent her last weeks carefully examining the manuscript, making corrections and deletions. That the resulting book is titled Muriel Spark: The Biography (how could there be any other?), not Muriel Spark: The Authorized Biography, does say something. Both Spark and her literary executor, Penelope Jardine, withheld imprimatur.
Factual matters aside, Spark was said to be concerned about two major matters: the absence of a coherent, sustained narrative design (other than the skeletal chronology); and the style. On both counts her concerns were well justified. Further – and perhaps unspoken – was the concern with being betrayed, a fear that figures her fiction time and again. More on that later.
Clearly, Martin Stannard set out to chronicle Spark’s life by using all the information he could gather – details, details, details. As Hermione Lee once pointed out, “Readers of biographies are hungry for details.” And Stannard has certainly fed that appetite. But is the reader satisfied?
Stannard’s chronicle of Spark’s life is satisfying enough when he deals with her childhood and adolescence in 1920s and 1930s Edinburgh; her married life in Africa (though Spark was not particularly forthcoming about this period); and her post-War life in London. But it begins to falter when it reaches the second half of her life. The New York days are filled with more details – life at The New Yorker, where the legendary editor William Shawn was so taken with her work that he devoted a whole issue to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and gave her an office; Spark’s high-octane social life with the likes of Blanche and Alfred Knopf, Shirley Hazzard, Lionel Trilling, and Norman Mailer – but here, as in the Roman section to follow, the book reads more like a screenplay: it lacks real depth and dimensionality. Spark emerges as a personality, not a person. And, when Stannard tells of the last thirty years or so of Spark’s life, spent in Tuscany, particularly the last ten, the narrative gets nearly as lean as the body of a champion greyhound.
In the course of the narrative, Stannard intersperses consideration of the novels. For a professor of literature, his approach is curiously un-literary. His treatment of each novel consists largely of plot summary and snippets of reviews. He never really engages in the work of literary criticism. Details again: Stannard documents Spark’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954, giving details of place and people; while he properly accords appropriate and paramount significance to this event in her personal and professional life, he never comes to grips with just how the spirituality and theology of this fiercely committed and extraordinarily well read (the Church Fathers, St Benedict, Rahner, Kung) influenced her fictions.
Stannard gives us a Spark who personifies demonic energy and the Calvinist flintiness of the Scots. He tells us that she saw herself as “Lucrezia Borgia in trousers.” She let no one – editor, publicist, accountant – sell her out or tell her what to do. She was ruthless in negotiating advances and demanding contracts of rising compensation. Publishers feared her, shrank from confrontation, and rarely asked her to go on publicity tours or give readings. Her job was to write novels; theirs was to sell them. Once, when a publisher visited her at her elegant Roman flat, she appeared and waved a hand and wrists ablaze with diamonds, informing him it was job to sell more novels so that she could buy more jewellery. (Spark always bought her own and had the charming habit of buying herself a bangle from Cartier’s or Tiffany’s upon completing a novel).
Stannard relishes recording Spark’s battles with the business elements of the book trade, but in a curious turn, he rarely gives us figures. He doesn’t even note that Shawn paid the very generous sum of $6000 to publish Jean Brodie in The New Yorker (1961). We learned very little about how much she earned from her work (and its many adaptations), though it must have been a considerable sum, since her estate was estimated at six million dollars.
The cumulative effect of the book is unsettling, giving a sense of fragments or blocks of material rather than a smooth, sustained narrative – yes, certainly, the inevitable chronological sequence gives some sense of organization and continuity, but even that is disrupted by detours of details. Then, too, the kind of design one really wants – demands – in a biography derives from all materials being put at the service of a carefully developed, concluded, and convincing argument. Look no farther than Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf.
Muriel Spark was a woman of high, quintessential, cosmopolitan style. When she returned from her time in New York, her friends gasped: the rather plump and dowdy middle-aged woman had become a svelte fashion mannequin – hair elaborately coiffed, makeup perfectly applied, nails delicately manicured, wearing the perfect little black dress set off by good jewels and Ferragamo pumps. While she lived in Rome until the end of her life, she had style – real style, nothing excessive, nothing vulgar – just perfect taste accented by the delicate glitter of a Cartier bracelet on a Dior sheath.
Spark’s personal style is beautifully summarized by the two sentences that comprise Selina’s mantra in The Girls of Slender Means: “Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind , complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence.”
Beyond the personal, style mattered even more in Muriel Spark’s writing. What was it Elizabeth Bowen said when asked to define “style”? It is all a matter of where you put a comma. Well, Spark knew where to place a comma – and everything else that comprises a taut, elegant English sentence. No one had anything to offer her on stylistic matters, certainly not corrections: once, when a fellow writer pointed out an “error” in one of Spark’s sentences, Spark snapped back, “If I write it, it’s grammatical.” All the elements of verbal text were under her strict control and contributed to that inimitable Spark style – no wonder she has no literary descendants, who could meet those exacting standards?
Certainly not Martin Stannard. Muriel Spark: The Biography is flat-footed and pedestrian, filled with cliché and repetition. The sentences are avalanches of information delivered without emphasis or nuance. The voice of the text sounds like that of a weary schoolmaster reciting litanies of details he knows he must set forth, but for which he has no relish. And the number of times Stannard attempts what he evidently thinks is a witty turn, i.e., incorporating titles of Spark’s novels in his own prose, really grates on the ear of the knowing reader: “a far cry,” “girls of slender means,” and, most annoyingly, “the public image,” meant to somehow figure the text, really disfigure it.
Spark had no reason, to judge from the published text, to feel betrayed by her biographer. On several matters of some controversy during her lifetime, he is quite fair: the dispute with her son over her mother’s religious identity is settled in Spark’s favor: her mother, as she had said all along, was a Christian, not a Jew. And so, this nasty spat with her son Robin, himself an orthodox Jew, that erupted into a public feud in the 1990s, is put to rest. On a second matter, that of child abandonment and neglect, Stannard also acquits Spark: she was prudent not to take him with her to England on a gunboat from Africa during World War II; and when she sent for him, she wisely entrusted him to the care of her parents in Edinburgh, knowing that her hardscrabble existence in post-War London was no place for a child. Further, as she gradually began to earn real income, she sent generous checks to support him and her parents as well.
A third point of potential betrayal is defused as well. For the last thirty years of her life, she shared a house in Tuscany with the sculptor and painter Penelope Jardine. Rumors about their relationship swirled about. Spark often confronted things head-on in interviews, declaring, “People think we’re lesbians, but we’re not. We just have a good old-fashioned friendship.” What was good for Spark, is good for Stannard as well: no prurient prying, no sensational speculation here.
But one major point Spark may well have felt “betrayed” and that concerns Stannard’s notion of her relationship with her reader. Here Stannard may have fulfilled the prediction Jean Brodie made of Sandy Stranger, “One day, Sandy, you will go too far.” She often said that she learned that her writing came first in her life, and there was no room for someone to assume a position of equal importance. Stannard follows Spark, but in what is perhaps his most telling insight, he writes, “One can never know this, but I think she was as anxious about physical intimacy as she was about personal intimacy. . .The most important thing in her life was writing. Her most important relationship, in a sense, was with her readers.” Hardly a betrayal, that; but perhaps a most uncomfortable – and private truth. It’s more than plausible given Spark’s obsessive preoccupation with writing. And it is this that goes a long way towards understanding her need for solitude, he curt dismissal of friends, her frequent changes of scene until coming to rest in Tuscany.
Considering Martin Stannard’s Muriel Spark: The Life (doesn’t that definite article rasp? who says so?), I think about a narrative from Christian Scriptures. It is the story of John the Baptist being interrogated by some potential followers. They ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” He sets them straight. Let me set things straight here, in another, lesser matter: Muriel Spark: The Biography is not the one, we had better wait for another.