Muriel Spark (1918-2004), Edinburgh born and bred, became one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished writers. Spark was a feisty, outspoken, independent woman who made it on her own – no family money, no university education, no man to “depend” on – nothing but abundant talent, extraordinary perseverance, and singular dedication to craft. She was a prolific, multifaceted writer with four books of poems, several plays, five collections of short stories, three biographies, several dozen essays, an autobiography, and twenty-two novels to her credit. Best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), the story of a mesmerizing, charismatic teacher in 1930s Edinburgh, Spark achieved international fame, becoming a sought-after literary celebrity living a cosmopolitan social life in London, New York, Rome, and Tuscany. Her life and work were an enchanting combination of high style and enduring seriousness. In both realms she suffered no fools: her razor-edged wit and verbal precision eviscerated mediocrities as well as the pretentious and the pompous. Our “Quote Collage” offers some of Spark at her best:
Interview: The Listener (28 Nov. 1974)
If you can’t read on after page four or five, then the novel’s no damn good.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Everyone likes to visit a nun, it provides a spiritual sensation, a catharsis to go home with, especially if the nun clutches the bars of the grille.
Sunday Times [London] (22 Sept. 1996)
Sex is a mystery, and I often think of it from that point of view. I wish it weren’t so much of an illusion. Sex in a relationship never lasts as long as people think, but one’s interest in sex never goes. I know a sexy man from a non-sexy man, I can tell you. I have not lost the power of sizing up. I don’t want people for myself, but there is a sexual way of looking at life and I don’t think one can not think sexually.
“The Sensation that is Venice.” London Times (13 May 1988)
Most people who write about Venice do not tell you what they think of it but how they feel. Venice is a city not to inspire thought but sensations. I think it is something to do with the compound of air, water, architecture and acoustics. Like the effect of these elements on the ear, there are acoustics of the heart. One can think in Venice, but not about Venice. One absorbs the marvellous place, often while thinking about something else.
Loitering with Intent
You must understand that everything happens for an artist, all time is redeemed, nothing is ever lost and wonders never cease.
Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year, after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she still was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy, to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable.
[On Marie Stopes] I met her at one of our meetings and knew she disliked me intensely on sight. I was young, pretty and she had totally succumbed to the law of gravity without attempting to do a thing about it. She was demented at this stage of her life. I used to think it a pity that her mother rather than she had not thought of birth control.
“The Desegregation of Art”
I advocate the arts of satire and of ridicule. And I see no other living art form for the future. Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left.
Interview: The Scotsman (6 March 2004)
There’s a lot of people think they can take my books and analyze me from them. On that principle Agatha Christie would be a serial killer.
Slate Diary (16 July 1996)
The best table talk is made up of amusing but not nasty anecdotes involving other people who are, or whose names are, known to the company.
“The Portobello Road”
He looked as if he would murder me and he did.
The vows of love-passion are like confessions obtained under torture. Erotic love is a madness. . . a state of mental imbalance.
“Spirit and Substance” (Vanity Fair Dec. 1984)
In Piero’s time there was great theological controversy. The Renaissance questioned everything. What was the nature of the Virgin? Was she just an ordinary woman or was she of the divine essence? Questions about spirit and substance were argued endlessly. What is spirit? What is substance? Today we know more about substance than ever before, but the more we know the more it is recognized that we know nothing. Five hundred years have taught us nothing new about the life of the spirit. Piero della Francesca, like all great artists, did not accept any dichotomy between spirit and matter. There is no spirit without substance; the whole of nature is impregnated with spiritual life. His Madonna del Parto, one of the few pregnant Madonnas, is both human and touched with divine revelation. It is a work that reposes in its own mystery: Life emerging into the life of the world, Light into its light.
From The New Yorker
Men used to complain that I was only half there and wasn’t listening. But I was listening. Sometimes I reflect on what people are saying, and it gives me an absent appearance.
Interview (W Jan. 1991)
The Scots get hilarious and hysterical. They breathe in repression. It goes with the long winter and longer winter days. Dark days.
BBC Radio 3 Interview with John Tusa
I think sitting in the sun is justifying your existence.
Aiding and Abetting
The great lovely steep hills were all around them. The feeling of northern nature, a whole geography minding very much its own business, cautious, alien, cold and haughty, began here. The sky rolled darkly amid patches of white light. On they drove, north, north.
The New York Times (16 April 2006)
People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen in them and I keep this even tone. 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.