Monday, June 7, 2010

Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard

Brent recently noted that my reviews of Muriel Spark's books never seem to reflect a real enthusiasm, even as I claim to be a fan of her work. It's hard to argue with this; certainly I disliked both Aiding and Abetting and The Finishing School (the last two books Spark ever wrote), and while my esteem for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is clear, my reviews of Robinson, The Girls of Slender Means, and The Driver's Seat must seem rather indifferent.

But it seems to me that Spark's books function differently from other novels, that if I seem to not engage with them it is because they do not ask to be engaged with in that way. They offer little in the way of human connection. The characters are ripe, but they are also frequently grotesque and off-putting. You are not permitted under anyone's skin, and neither would they want you there. But they certainly attack the mind with some shocking precision; for such slim books they present quite a bit to think upon.

Martin Stannard's new biography of Spark is a welcome opportunity to see her fiction from another, more human angle. I am not usually a fan of biographies--I prefer to think that the literature ought to speak for itself--but something about Spark's coldness and sparseness makes me want to find out more about her. In fact, Spark was adamant that nothing could be gleaned about her from her work, even when it mirrored autobiographical details. She leaves precious few holes through which the author can be glimpsed. It is no wonder, I think, that one should be naturally curious.

This reflects one of the major themes that seems to arise in Stannard's biography: Spark's obsessive need to control her own biography. Stannard speaks early on of something he calls the "nevertheless principle," illustrated by an uncharacteristically stark, black cathedral spire in the middle of Spark's native Edinburgh--the idea that nothing is one thing only. In spite of this--or because of it?--she kept stern watch over her public image, threatening to sue those who got even the minutest details wrong or dared to mischaracterize her. Her own biography, Curriculum Vitae, is described as a disappointment, seeking to correct the inaccuracies of the way she was depicted, but offering no substantial insight into her own life. These details form part of a larger capriciousness, torpedoing friendships for small or perceived slights. As her friend Ved Mehta notes, "She'd absolutely conquer you immediately. And then of course she'd move on to someone else."

Stannard depicts all of this in what is probably the most charitable way possible. His work hews as closely to Spark's point of view as it is able, allowing her always the last word in her own defense. As an account of her life, I find this approach fairly reasonable. He does not, for instance, mention that although Spark asked him to be her biographer, she disliked the final product and tried to go at it with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to preserve her own careful conception of herself. This is probably much of the reason that it took eighteen years to complete. However, it is impossible to ignore what Stannard elides: frequently Spark could be a nasty piece of work.

Not a single friendship seems to last or simply fade, they all seem to implode. (The one exception being Penelope Jardine, who was her platonic companion for the last few decades of her life.) God help you if you were her agent, editor, or publisher. But most distressing was her relationship with her son, Robin. Born in Africa to Spark and her unstable, violent husband, Spark sent Robin to live with his grandmother when he was small, partly because of monetary and custody concerns, but also because, as Stannard admits, having Robin around interfered with her literary goals. As an adult, Spark and Robin treated each other with open contempt. He increasingly aligned himself with Orthodox Judaism, waging a public campaign claiming that Spark's mother was a Jewish convert and that therefore she herself was fully (not half-) Jewish, and that Spark, a Catholic convert, had purposefully concealed that part of her identity.

It is easy to see why Robin's actions enraged Spark, especially in light of her obsession over controlling her image. Her conversion was a fundamental part of her identity, and Robin's insistence on her family's Judaism in a way sought to annull her personal religious freedom and trap her in the traditions of her family. That would have been a gross insult to her independence. But Stannard cannot conceal a lifetime of indifference to her son, and even he lets in a little soft criticism when describing Robin's art career:

Muriel usually applauded those who followed Gaugin's example. She had followed it herself. But her son, she felt, was not Gauguin and she suspected ulterior motives: a flavour of competition ('Anything you can do...'), a desire to cash in on her fame. It seems not to have occurred to her that is desire to become an artist was a genuine passion perhaps connected with his craving for her approval. Instead, she saw the problem as twofold: he was fifty and lacked talent.

If I speak too much of Spark's negatives, it is because they are what Stannard leaves unsaid. She is also brilliant, and the biography is at its best when it attempts literary criticism--as it does for each of Spark's 22 novels--refracting the themes of her work in her life's prism. In her later years, Spark seems brittle, irritable, and often cruel, but it is those same qualities that make her, in her youth, such a compelling figure: fierce, independent, spiritually incisive but not dogmatic. Her palming off of Robin is more favorably mirrored in her slavish obedience to her writing, enduring long bouts of poverty and hardship in order to create. One of the most fascinating--though surely difficult--periods Stannard describes is a spell of strange hallucinations brought on by Dexedrine, which she took to help stave off hunger while she wrote. (Among other things, she thought that T.S. Eliot was concealing threatening messages to her in his work.)

She would have loathed being identified with Fleur Talbot, the heroine of her novel Loitering with Intent, even though it is cobbled together from the bits and pieces of her own personal history. But Fleur also says something that seems to me as good an epitaph as any:

When people say that nothing happens in their lives... I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.


Brent Waggoner said...

I like this renovation but we need to get the contractors back in here to finish the job.

Christopher said...

I didn't do this.

Lula O said...

I think you love her..

Christopher said...

C'est possible.