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Onward, Muriel, Onward!

By (May 1, 2010) One Comment

Muriel Spark: The Biography

Martin Stannard
W.W. Norton, 2010

Martin Stannard, in his gossipy, gushing new biography of postwar novelist Muriel Spark (author of 1961’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), relates the famous story of how he got the job. In 1992, Spark read the second volume of his two-volume life of Evelyn Waugh (who had championed her work) and praised it in a review. Stannard, not letting the grass grow under his feet, wrote to her with thanks and an offer – as he did for Waugh, he’d happily do for her. And to his amazement (he tells us he was amazed), she accepted. Before he knew it, he was at her home in Italy, staring rapt at a trestle-table groaning under the weight of her compulsively accumulated archives. She assured him of her full cooperation and made the standard noises about his complete freedom; if she didn’t like the end result, according to him, the worst she would do is remove the ‘authorized’ imprimatur.

Spark didn’t, in fact, like the end result (or as much of it as she could see before her death in 2006), and as a result the book is only pretentiously subtitled ‘The Biography,’ not pretentiously subtitled ‘The Authorized Biography,’ so the coveted imprimatur is missing – although given how relentlessly fawning the book is, it’s difficult to see what more Stannard could have done to sing for his supper. Certainly he stayed well on the sunny, corroborated side of that trestle-table, because he apparently avoided being sued by Spark (an all too common fate among her acquaintances). The book may have disenchanted her colossal ego (or her equally colossal shyness of public exposure – but then, why solicit a biographer?), but the worst she did to it legally was to bar Stannard from quoting any of those copious archives – effectively scuppering publication until after her death, when cooler heads (in this case Spark’s long-time housemate and friend Penelope Jardine) could prevail.

A contentious woman, relentlessly so. Fine – where would life – or literature – be without them? But also a controlling one, and that starts to sketch the outline of a problem that will eat at this big book like the “cancer of gossip” Stannard tells us Spark dreaded. Because overwhelming archives like the one Stannard gazed upon in Italy are never the products of fond reminiscing: past a certain point (well-thumbed pages in a photo album, a movie-ticket of sentimental value, the jawbone of a murdered Nazi, etc.), record-keeping becomes a purely vengeful activity. The smallest thing can turn it down this dark path – a tax audit hinging on a missing receipt, an anecdote going the rounds that you just know didn’t happen quite that way – but once it takes on this vector of spite, archives become the terrifying personal mausoleums of people who cannot bear, ever, under any circumstances, to be wrong, about anything. The arithmetic of this is as simple as it is unsparing: Muriel Spark kept records of the exact seating arrangements and courses served at dinner parties from forty years in the past and two continents over. Hence, Muriel Spark was a deeply unpleasant person.

Stannard cannot have this be so, of course, and there’s the problem peeking out again: this book – THE biography – is a court history, physically executed by a talented lackey but almost as much the personal composition of its subject as if she’d held the pen herself. If she was displeased with the work, it beggars the imagination to see why: at every point in its considerable length, she’s defended, rationalized, lionized. Spark’s 1992 autobiography Curriculum Vitae had been panned by many critics as bland and evasive, and at one point Stannard wonders if she chose him to write a full-fledged biography (her volume stops at the publication of her first novel) so that somebody other than herself would “finish the job.” It’s what Stannard frequently refers to as a “Sparkian irony,” because his method dovetails perfectly with her own, as when he characterizes those piles of old tax returns as a heroic gesture, no doubt with Edith Piaf defiantly warbling in the background:

She was a survivor, a phoenix rising from the ashes of past lives, and this resilience was attractive. She made many friends, often among the young. But her life was also littered with disputes because she refused to concede to anyone the power to intimidate or correct her. A sense of threats resisted hangs over these papers. Most importantly, perhaps, her archive was the ultimate defense against misappropriation and betrayal. Enemies would lie at their peril: she had the records.

If, as readers, we get to ask if all of this is quite right, we must ask if any of it is quite right. Is this level of ‘resilience’ attractive? Did she perhaps make many friends among the young because her life was ‘littered’ with broken friendships and angry lawsuits (that is, does that first ‘but’ tell an important little lie)? Is it a sense of ‘threats resisted’ that hangs over that mighty archive, or threats imagined? And that final juxtaposition, implying both that any degree of record-keeping can be proof against betrayal and that her records are the de facto truth … who could make such implications but a bought and paid-for troubadour?

Spark, Stannard assures us, “fought back when people dared to discuss her, rather than her work, as a public property. It was, she insisted, her life, and she was determined to control it.” Which is fine for Spark (in the broader sense; in the particulars, it seems to have brought her only misery), but it raises an awkward question: if she’s controlling the discussion of her life, what is Stanndard doing, hanging around for the stretch of 600 pages?

He discusses her life, as any biographer must. She was born Muriel Clamberg in 1918 Edinburgh, and in 1937 she married Sydney Spark and moved to Rhodesia, where in 1938 she had her son Robin. Sydney turned out to possess a violent, unpredictable temper (“manic depressive” being Stannard’s preferred term), and in 1944 Spark left him and Africa to return to England. She also left Robin, and even when he followed on his own, he was pawned off on relatives rather than be allowed to interfere with the writing career she was now pursuing. Even through the rose-colored pages of this book, it’s obvious she belittled and manipulated Robin for her entire life. In 1983 Robin quit the Civil Service and took up painting full-time, graduating from the Edinburgh College of Art and exhibiting his work at the Royal Scottish Academy and many other places, but Spark suspected him of merely wanting to cash in on her by then famous name, and Stannard’s sympathy is weirdly conjoined with her cruelty:

…she saw the problem as twofold: he was fifty and lacked talent. In his alternative career she offered him no encouragement. It was difficult, she thought, to know how to help him.

‘Encourage him anyway’ seems not to have crossed her mind – certainly it never crosses Stannard’s mind, since every piece of abominable callousness Spark showed toward her son is likewise automatically assumed to be somehow the son’s fault and not the mother’s. After her death, when Britain’s Daily Mail runs a story title “The Crime of Miss Jean Brodie” implying, as Stannard puts it, “that Murel’s sending cheques to Robin might be construed as ‘guilt money paid by a mother who abandoned her child to fulfil her own dream of success,’” our biographer calls it all a “cod-Freudian scenario.” But it seems nothing more than the truth of the matter, however graceless to say it of the recently deceased.

Stannard has done yeoman service in terms of research – the life stories of Spark’s parents and grandparents are invaluably detailed and spryly narrated, and much of the digging around our author has done will no doubt prove useful to future writers on Spark and her place in postwar literature. The prose throughout is breezy and only occasionally lapses into ad-speak – and there are inadvertent rhetorical guffaws, as in the paragraph about Spark’s paramour Derek Stanford that begins, “On 9 March 1959, Stanford entered hospital for a gallstones operation. Ten days earlier they had bumped into one another in a London street …” Ouch! It’s a pleasant 600 pages, which is itself something of a miracle. But a serious literary biography – one justifying its very definite article – must do more than keep the pages turning: even if it doesn’t aspire to a very rarefied species of objectivity, it must still play fair.

Throughout the book, Stannard makes stabs at this kind of objectivity. He quotes Spark’s memorable description of a favorite cat:

My perfect cat … was a late Persian called Bluebell; she was delicate in health and of small dimensions; she had no rival for wit and understanding; she glowed before rain with a blue unearthly light; she was a gifted clairvoyante … she would sit on my notebooks if what I had written therein was all right … I have never seen her equal for catness, charm and radiance.

“This was love,” he tells us, but he balances it out: “Yet the letters describing Bluebell’s death are utterly unsentimental. Close attention is paid to raw detail: to the stink from the pus in the ear, the last twitching of the paws, the glazed eyes.” Or at least, he thinks it’s a balance – he seems not to spot that the description of the living Bluebell is every bit as reportorial as that of Bluebell dead. But still, we’re grateful for the effort, and we’re grateful for his sure-handed periodic summaries of the various stages of Spark’s long career, as when he tells us that in 1958 she was “securely launched” and follows it up with this:

She bought a diamond ring, had a few hundred pounds in the bank, took out insurance on her manuscripts, and by late February had completed The Ballad before Memento Mori hit the bookstalls. Here, at last, was her triumph.

His surpassing familiarity with his subject prompts some deceptively insightful apercus: her life in March of 1968 was, he tells us, a very heaven – “spring, for once, had brought good things”; her newfound success, he tells us, didn’t change her pecuniary habits – “when she had money, she spent it”; the success of her literary career, he tells us, did little to warm her intense social anxiety – “For some years, her only intimate relation to other human beings had been with her readers.” But not all the character-insight in the world does us any good if the author’s thumb is always conspicuously placed on the scales weighing his subject’s behavior. Take that incident with poor Stanford’s gallstones clashing on the street; he was mortally afraid of dying during his operation, and Stannard quotes the “sharply sympathetic” letter Spark writes him before he goes under the knife – a letter in which she taunts him about holding onto any gallstones the surgeons remove, since he might need them (and any other excised bits) in the afterlife. Even this far from the exchange’s original context, it’s possible to feel the animal heat of Spark’s passive-aggressive antagonism – but Stannard is acclimatized:

…she was content to assist him towards recovery with a playful boot up the pants. The tone of her letter is that of a character she had yet to create: Miss Brodie. Confidently dictatorial, self-consciously extreme, it instructs a lukewarm Anglican on the minutiae of Catholic teaching, while all the time whispering between the lines (between the teeth): “I see through you.”

When another friend writes an encouraging note, Stannard epitomizes its tone by expostulating “Onward, Muriel, onward!” – but it sounds like it’s coming from the biographer, not the original writer. In every chapter, Stannard is just too willing, too credulous on his subject’s behalf, and it tells on the reader’s trust. For instance, he relates an incident at a 1962 conference where she praised Lionel Trilling for his denunciation of the brutal Soviet treatment of Jews and he, apparently forgetting they’d already met, tells her she should go read The Ballad of Peckham Rye – to which she replies “I wrote it.” The story is offered with no sidelong glance to the reader, and the citation in the notes is that that the encounter is drawn only from Spark’s recollection – but the whole thing has the sour perfection of urban legend, a long-remembered self-aggrandizing anecdote with a note-perfect punch line. It’s the biographer’s job to guard us against such all-too-human adornments of the past, not serve them up to us with a straight face and a chaser of spurious pseudo-documentation.

Likewise a much later incident, as Stannard tells it:

At Oxford [in 1999] Muriel had been much feted. John Bayley, whose Iris was selling briskly, had attended a dinner. Good manners were preserved but she hated the book as a betrayal of Murdoch’s dignity: a form of disguised revenge, masquerading as praise and sympathy, by a weak man on a strong woman.

This one comes with no supporting citation at all and sounds like the biographer is simply relating Spark’s recollection of the event – which would be fine, except he’s relating it as fact when he has only her say-so. Bayley wasn’t the only one at that dinner who remembered actually hearing those comments about a weak man and a strong women – if those people are right and Spark is (to be generous) wrong, what happens to Stannard’s good manners? If you perform enough of these little trimmings, you run the risk of shaving your subject right into sainthood.

It gets worse and more subversive when this kind of quiet enabling gives way to actively deceptive cheerleading, and there’s far, far too much of that in Stannard’s book. He does a richly atmospheric job relating her 1969 stay in Rome, for instance, but he runs into trouble when he gets to the city’s other famous writer-in-residence:

Gore Vidal, that focus of cultivated, expatriate life, had crossed her path several times, and she liked him. She did not particularly seek his good opinion. Nevertheless, when she invited him home, she detected criticism. [Spark’s novel] The Public Image, she reported him as saying, was implausible; female writers like Carson McCullers (and implicitly, she thought, herself) all went to pieces; her salone was inadequately furnished… Doubtless his remarks were presented in the spirit of cheerful (competitive) badinage but Muriel was irritated by them.

Even for the reader who knows nothing of either combatant, that version of their encounter just seethes with suspicion: the whole thing is so full of someone using euphemisms to soften someone else’s euphemisms that you’re left wondering if crockery was thrown. Vidal has written extensively about this period in his life, and Spark figures as little more than a footnote in his reminiscences. A reasonable inference would be that he was indeed having a little catty fun with his various provocative comments, but Stannard has already caught her resentment, and it stays with him long after Vidal –and the reader – would have let it go:

Soon she [Spark, who sometimes hospitalized herself in order to finish a novel] was in hospital for thirty days to finish it [her novel The Driver’s Seat], have dental surgery, diet and rest. On 22 October she emerged, weighing in at just 105 lbs. her slimmest ever, with her slender book complete. [Alan, her editor] Maclean had joked that Macmillan would have to print it on very thick paper but both he and [Ivan, her agent] von Auw were convinced that they were onto a winner with The Driver’s Seat. … the New Yorker agreed, as they had with Brodie, to publish the entire text as a single issue. Failing powers? Mr Vidal could think again.

Except he wouldn’t need to – even in Stannard/Spark’s account, he never mentions failing powers – and he might have: The Driver’s Seat is barely 100 pages long, and very few of even Spark’s most partisan fans would join Stannard in referring to it as “Muriel’s masterpiece.” He’s befuddled by what he accurately reports as “an astonishingly large collection of neutral or plain bad notices,” and he moves on to be fairly catty himself by commenting that “the duller reviewers were, perhaps not surprisingly, perplexed” by the book. One is tempted to riposte that it’s possible the reviewers were, perhaps not surprisingly, perplexed by a dull book.

And this is really the heart of the matter, healthy or schlerotic: piquant personal details or none, Muriel Spark owes whatever immortality she possesses to her writing, and whether it’s fair or not, readers are entitled to judge a literary biographer’s efforts by how well or poorly he deals with his subject’s work. Stannard drastically undercuts our confidence with gossip-column asides like “Failing powers? Mr Vidal could think again,” and he makes matters worse by fulsomely praising every single novella Spark managed to diet out of herself. A literary biography that refers to The Driver’s Seat as Muriel Spark’s “masterpiece” could legitimately be closed forever right on that page, but Stannard just keeps making things worse, for himself and his readers. About Spark’s final novel he writes:

The title of The Finishing School was typically slippery. Muriel did not know that this novel would complete her oeuvre but she wrote it as though it would, battling for four more years against acute pain. The final aria of the opera of her life, it orchestrates many tiny references to her earlier work around that perennial theme: the threat of the mundane to take over the original.

“Typically slippery” is good, as is “the threat of the mundane to overtake the original,” and the reader’s head might be bobbing to the happy phrasings for about fifteen seconds – until the realization dawns that the above paragraph in no way summarizes or even talks about the actual contents of The Finishing School. It’s followed by a dutiful plot summary, but its own three lines are inexplicable, and that’s unsettling.

Far more unsettling is the cast of thought hinted at in that crack about “the duller reviewers.” As noted, Stannard had already written a long literary biography before he produced Muriel Spark, THE Biography – he should have known or been told what dismaying dirty pool it is to mock reviewers for what could very well be a book’s own deficiencies; a 100-page novel is not a Dada premiere, after all: seasoned book reviewers (even dull ones) might just be able to spot a dud when they see one. It would be one thing if he did it only once, but it’s a consistent recourse in his book, and it can get ugly. When he quotes Alfred Kazin as saying of Spark’s Jerusalem novel The Brandenburg Gate that it’s “cold, lifeless, just worked up. It doesn’t exist at all as a work of art. It’s just very intelligent,” he execrably refers to Kazin as a “Jewish American critic,” as if there might be some ulterior reason why the best fiction reviewer in the country at the time might dislike a book another critic, by Stannard’s own admission, referred to as “a miniaturist overreaching.” If an author needs this kind of defending, we may rightly wonder just how good that author is.

And what of Spark’s real shot at a masterpiece, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? “British reviews were generally good but a surprising number were either baffled or unimpressed,” Stannard tells us. “Given the brilliance and durability of Brodie, the obtuseness of the British literary establishment in this case was astonishing.” The baffled literary establishment in question included the London Times, Bamber Gascoigne, John Davenport, the TLS, and Anthony Burgess. It may be that time will know better than such an assemblage, but Muriel Spark certainly doesn’t, much less Martin Stannard. Name-calling won’t make the TLS any less the TLS; it won’t make Anthony Burgess any less Anthony Burgess – these are known quantities. All it lessens is our faith in this biography.

In a way, Stannard attacks that faith right at the outset, when in his preface he shares with us his perplexity on one little point of order:

And what should I call her in this book? ‘Dame Muriel’ would be formal and correct but sounded inappropriately frosty. ‘Spark’ would be the normal address. But as we had been writing to each other for ten years on first-name terms, this seemed rude. At the risk of appearing over-familiar, I decided to describe her simply as ‘Muriel’. This does not signify that she counted me as a friend.

‘Spark’ is indeed the normal address, and yet we get 600 pages of ‘Muriel.’ The only reason a writer would be so worried about being rude to one particular reader is if concern for that particular reader outweighed all other considerations. Spark is dead and died unhappy with Stannard’s work. Unless he tells us, we’ll never know the extent of her legendary vituperation she chose to share with him on the subject, but although that vituperation could temporarily block the publication of this biography, it clearly couldn’t destroy his loyalty to his subject (and to Jardine, his interceding angel, who is by far the most sympathetic character in these pages). Only Muriel Spark could have considered this book unflattering, but many readers will have cause to find it unsound. Stannard himself tells us the reason why, in another of those insightful asides – this one ostensibly about Brodie but speaking quite well for the present enterprise:

And in a novel where love produces only misplaced loyalty and loyalty is due only to God, love and truth are fatally opposed.

Dagmar Iversson was born and educated in Helsinki and currently works as a full-time freelancer in Stockholm.