Sad news this morning: the great Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Girls of Slender Means, has passed on. She was 88. (Thanks to a bereft Katharine Weber for the news.)
“I believe I have liberated the novel in many ways, showing how anything whatsoever can be narrated, any experience set down, including sheer damn cheek,” Spark told an interviewer in February 2004. “I think I have opened doors and windows in the mind, and challenged fears — especially the most inhibiting fears about what a novel should be.”
Her last novel, The Finishing School, a hilarious send-up of the contemporary creative writing culture and publishers’ feverish pursuit of young authors, appeared that year. Asked if she intended “the final line, taken from the weather forecast on Sky News — ‘As we go through this evening and into tonight…'” — to serve as “her final full stop,” she said:
I thought it probably would be. Maybe it is. When you get to be 86 you’ve got to die some time. But I feel very healthy. I don’t have a great deal of memory trouble. No mental problems. I do everything at half pace, except think. I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t thinking I was ready for death and to die yet. In fact, I was thinking [after I finished The Finishing School] I might not take on a novel again. I was very tired. I thought maybe I could do short stories. Then I got ready for a novel again. Just recently, I felt lonely without a novel on the desk, so I started one.
Several months later, James Wood looked back on Spark’s career, briefly noting her debt “to nouveaux romanciers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet,” but maintaining that
one of the finest aspects of Spark’s long career has been the way in which she has balanced the old-fashioned pleasures of storytelling and characterization with a persistent modern anxiety about the viability of those pleasures, yet without frowning pleasure away. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, still Spark’s best book, remains so because it so beautifully creates a vital and intriguing character — Jean Brodie — while simultaneously asking us to reflect on how well we can ever know people at all, whether real or invented by novelists.
When I told Katharine Weber — whose novels Spark has championed — that Jean Brodie and The Finishing School are the only Spark works I’ve read, she implored me to pick up Spark’s “utterly sublime first novel, The Comforters, written to save herself from madness. You can learn how to write your own first novel from that book if you read it hard enough.”
Kelly Jane Torrance observed in February that Spark published The Comforters exactly 50 years ago. Torrance says this first book bears “all the Spark signatures: A Nabokovian preoccupation with the connections between art and reality,” “black comedy worthy of Evelyn Waugh,” and “threads of Catholicism, as in Graham Greene.”
Also possibly of interest: