Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Curriculum Vitae by Muriel Spark

It was in Africa that I learned to cope with life.  It was there that I learned to keep in mind -- in the front of my mind -- the essentials of our human destiny, our responsibilities, and to put in a peripheral place the personal sorrows, frights, and horrors that came my way.   I knew my troubles to by temporary if I decided so.  There was an element of primitive truth and wisdom, in that existence in a great tropical zone of the earth, that gave me strength.

Muriel Spark's life contained quite a lot of interesting stories.  She worked at Bletchley Park, the famous English intelligence station during World War II (you may have seen Alan Turing in The Imitation Game).  She lived in colonial Africa, at a time when tensions between Africans and their colonizers were high.  Half-crazed by diet pills, she once thought that T. S. Eliot was sending her cryptic messages through his plays.

But if you're looking for in-depth treatment of those years in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, you'll be disappointed.  Spark is as eager to get out of the Africa section of the novel as she was to get out of Africa; the Eliot mania gets a sentence or two.  The Bletchley Park stuff is well served enough, but it pales in length and detail compared to the sections on her childhood in Edinburgh, which are wistful and overlong, lingering on every teacher and school chum that Spark can remember.

In other words, as a biography, Curriculum Vitae isn't much.  How did Spark feel about choosing to separate from her young son, who went to live with her parents during the war, and with whom she had a famously tense relationship through his adult years?  Either not much, or whatever she did feel hasn't made it in here.  Curriculum Vitae isn't the kind of memoir that spends its time hand-wringing over past actions; I suspect that Spark wasn't that kind of person, either.

The most interesting parts, to a reader of Spark's novels, are the brief insights to the origins of her novels: The Helena Club becomes the May of Teck Club in Girls of Slender Means; her experience battling literary fogeys at the Poetry Society becomes the plot of Loitering with IntentSpark gives credit for her terse and "managerial" prose to the technical instruction she had in college, though her peers thought her choice of school was strange.  And best of all, Spark goes on at length about her grade school teacher Miss Kay, who would later become the basis of her most famous character, Jean Brodie.  Miss Kay has all her charisma, but there's no hint of Jean Brodie's malevolent or controlling tendencies.  It makes me wonder if Miss Kay ever knew what Spark, who speaks so warmly about her class, had made of her.

The narrative ends as soon as Spark publishes her first novel.  This suggests we are meant to read Curriculum as a memoir about her formation as an artist--there's a long German word for this I forget--and dissatisfying as it is, since the hallmarks of her art are terseness, disinterest, and reticence, I guess it's hard to imagine it being any other way.