For a long time, Muriel Spark was a name in the back of my mind. I saw her books in used bookstores and thought, I should read those. I knew of the film adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but I wasn’t sure about it—not only do I usually dislike film adaptations, but my partner had told me that it was “depressing” and “mean-spirited.” That didn’t sound quite up my alley. I think I put off reading Muriel Spark for so long because I was afraid that she would be one of those bleak writers, someone who wallowed in the horridness of life and took pleasure in describing it.
One day, I was listening to my favourite podcast, A Good Read, and the host Harriett Gilbert (who I love) was talking books with Stephen Fry and Alan Davies (the joy!). For her good read, Harriett had chosen A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I listened to the three of them discuss it/rave about it, and I was intrigued. They described it as darkly funny, wonderfully evocative of 1950s London, with a main character (“Mrs. Hawkins”) who is thoroughly lovable and who gives advice to the reader throughout the novel. All of those things sounded quite definitely up my alley.
A Good Read in general, and Harriett Gilbert in particular, can take credit for quite few of my favourite book discoveries; I’ve noticed that if Harriett likes a book I will almost always like it too (there are, of course, exceptions). And so a little while later I managed to acquire a copy of A Far Cry from Kensington, and it was everything that A Good Read promised. I loved it. And what’s more, I found Muriel Spark to be addictive.
Before long, I had devoured The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Bang-Bang You’re Dead, Memento Mori, and Loitering with Intent. And I’m cheered to no end to know that there is a whole pile of novels still to enjoy, not to mention poetry, essay and short story collections, and an autobiography. Muriel Spark even wrote and published literary criticism of the Brontës! I intend to read it all.
As for my initial fears, they have been put to rest. It’s true that Muriel Spark’s fiction does at times dabble in the myriad ways that people can be cruel to one another. Memento Mori is also heartbreaking in its portrayal of old age. But I would never describe it as bleak. Her writing is also full of humour and absurdity, as well as characters being kind, or joyful, or full of admirable intelligence and insight. In Muriel Spark books, what you will usually find is a series of outrageous things happening, and being told in an extremely matter-of-fact manner. I tend to read them with a huge smile on my face.
To date, my favourite one has been Loitering with Intent. It is the story of Fleur Talbot, who is working on her first novel in a state of rapturous creativity:
“The thought came to me in a most articulate way: ‘How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century.’ That I was a woman and living in the twentieth century were plain facts. That I was an artist was a conviction so strong that I never thought of doubting it then or since; and so, as I stood on the pathway in Hyde Park in that September of 1949, there were as good as three facts converging quite miraculously upon myself and I went on my way rejoicing.“
Fleur begins working as a secretary for the vaguely sinister Sir Quentin Oliver, who has started an Autobiographical Association, in which his rich and egotistical friends write their “tell-all” memoirs (with Fleur adding touches to spice them up), while his ancient and underestimated mother Edwina makes waves, and his housekeeper Beryl Tims looms disapprovingly. Fleur is also contending with her unreasonable friend Dottie (who she met due to the fact that Dottie is the wife of Fleur’s boyfriend—a fact bluntly acknowledged by both women), her landlord and his “swinishness”, and her other male friends, wonderfully named Solly and Wally. Before too long, Fleur is caught up in an incredible web of intrigue involving the members of the Autobiographical Association, and furthermore, the events in her sensational work-in-progress manuscript appear to be coming true. Loitering with Intent manages to weave in theft, blackmail, cults, a miniature heist, attempted murder, terrific friendships and extraordinary women, and a depiction of the pure joy of writing—all in a little book of less than 200 pages. It is a masterpiece.
I’m so glad that I was finally given that shove I needed to pick up a Muriel Spark. She’s rapidly risen to be one of my all-time faves. Next up for me is The Girls of Slender Means, which is billed as “a taut and eerily perfect novel…by one of this century’s finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment.”
I ask you…how can you beat that?