Monday, 5 April 2010

Martin Stannard: Muriel Spark, The Biography

After reading Martin Stannard’s biography, published last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that Muriel Spark was barking mad - an obsessive egocentric who let nothing and no one get in the way of her artistic ambitions. Her lovers, her friends, her mother in hospital with a broken leg, her dying father, her abandoned son - all came second to her art. Publishers and agents were ruthlessly sacrificed if they didn’t come up to expectations. Her last book hadn’t sold out its advance? Then they hadn’t tried hard enough to sell it! How much for the serial rights? Rubbish! I’m Muriel Spark and you’re lucky to have me. She refused to do author publicity events (except under special circumstances) opted out of television interviews at the last moment and reached for the lawyers if anyone dared to criticise her in print.
At the beginning of her career, she held down part-time jobs to pay the rent while writing late at night. She popped ‘uppers’ to keep herself going until she began to hallucinate. She heard voices in the cupboards, detected secret codes in every piece of text she read, and thought that T S Eliot was stalking her in the guise of a window cleaner. From then on, Muriel shivered on the edge of breakdown every time she came under stress. Neurotic and needy she leant heavily on those around her and wore out friendships quite quickly. A wounded, very-much-former, friend told the biographer that she used and discarded people ‘like a box of Kleenex’.
Born into a secular Jewish family, Muriel eventually converted to Catholicism, gave up sex and contemplated becoming a nun. She wrote part of her first novel in a religious retreat. Three more novels followed quickly - she wrote faster than her publishers could keep up. Dissatisfied with the reception of her work in Britain, she lived for a while in New York and then rented a grand apartment in Rome which had belonged to Cardinal Orsini. For the last thirty years of her life she lived in Tuscany with the painter Penelope Jardine - who was prepared to dedicate her life to looking after Muriel. She felt at home in Italy. The Italians saw her as ‘Kafka in a skirt’, though Muriel preferred to think of herself as ‘Lucretzia Borgia in trousers’.
Her (very-much-former) lover, the poet Howard Sergeant, told her that she was ‘arrogant and conceited .... in no sense have you ever showed any loyalty. Indeed your one concern has always been your own self and everything and everyone else had to take second place. Your sole conception of love is selfish.’ (Stannard, 2009,p.102) This is a comment her son, Robin, would no doubt have endorsed had he been allowed to. Robin’s opinion isn’t in evidence anywhere in the biography and I presume that either the author wasn’t allowed to talk to him or that Robin declined to co-operate.
When Muriel Spark’s teenage marriage came to a sticky end in Africa, during the second world war, she parked him - aged 4 - in a boarding school or with foster parents while she returned to England. After the war Robin, now 7, was shipped back and Muriel deposited him, like the cuckoo’s chick, at her parents’ flat in Edinburgh. She sent cheques, but visited rarely. Small wonder that he grew up hostile towards his mother, who described him as a ‘lousy’ painter and ‘one big bore’ who had ‘never done anything for me’ in public. He was eventually disinherited for producing proof that Muriel’s family was more Jewish than she cared to admit.
I found the biography suffered from the limitations of most ‘authorised’ lives. There is a sense that the biographer has fallen under their subject’s spell, become one of their acolytes. Too much is taken at face value; too few questions are asked. We are never told why Muriel had to leave her job at the Poetry Society, though her feelings at being ‘forced out’ occupy several pages. No details are ever given of the publishers’ advances that Muriel deemed too small, and though the biographer states that newspaper estimates of the money that she left in her will (to Jardine, not her son) were wildly inflated, the actual sum is not given, even though it is a matter of public record.
The reason is probably the amount of control exercised by Muriel Spark herself and afterwards, by her estate. Apparently, when she invited Martin Stannard to write her life, she ordered him to ‘treat me as though I were dead’. But when he began producing copy, she argued over it, line by line, because she didn’t think he had treated her fairly enough. The book was first agreed in 1992, but didn’t appear until 2009 after Muriel’s actual death.
I found the ‘high’ style a bit off-putting too - a problem with much literary biography; a mass of accumulated detail cluttering the prose; themes that over-ride chronology, so that characters appear and are dismissed before they have properly been introduced into the narrative - they are sacked or storm off towards the horizon pages before the scenes actually take place.
But Martin Stannard’s analysis of the fiction is excellent (I must re-read some of those novels) and his struggle to complete the project under terrible circumstances has to be applauded. Given the constraints, and the litigious personality of his subject, the achievement is amazing. My fascination with the awfulness of Muriel Spark kept me reading right to the end.


  1. She sounds like a nightmare! How sad because the fiction is so good, but then a lot of very wonderful female writers tended to be a bit similar (if less insane sounding)and I know of at least two still alive whose kids have come out aganst them for spending too much time creating, not enough time caring. It would be interesting to see how that differs between female writers born after say the 60s and female writers born before that.

  2. Maybe to be very, very good you have to be obsessive. And that doesn't sit very well with motherhood. I think feminism has a lot to answer for - for a certain generation of women - making us believe we could have/do it all. You can't. There have to be choices.

  3. Sounds fascinating - I have been meaning to read this one for a while - so often it seems to be the case that our favourite writers were shocking people to depend on. Have you read biographies of either Jean Rhys or Antonia White? I think you would enjoy - both are figures slightly similar to Spark though....

    I have enjoyed discovering your lovely blog

    thanks indeed for sharing


  4. HI Hannah - Thanks for your nice comments on my blog. Yes I've read both Jean Rhys (the Carole Angier) and Antonia White's biographies (written by her daughter). Both writers are among my favourites and finding out about their difficult personalities saddened me, but didn't make me enjoy their work less. It just gave it greater depth. So, I guess I can detach the author from the work!