My mystification that Muriel Spark isn’t more widely read has continued to grow, but last week her editor, New Directions publisher Barbara Epler, offered a theory in email that echoes what Howard Jacobson has said about the devaluation of comedy in literature.
“The fact that she is so unbelievably and witchily entertaining,” Epler argues, “has kept her from her full share of glory as the greatest British writer of the 20th century. Humor has never been the long suit of most critics.”
Spark really is hilarious, and her humor, like Twain’s, is the kind that doesn’t date. As my (new, thanks to Jessa) friend Elizabeth Bachner observed after I pressed Memento Mori on her as she headed to the train last week, she’s also incredibly sly.
“I advocate the arts of satire and of ridicule,” she once said. “And I see no other living art form for the future. Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left.” In 1993 she told The New Yorker, “You don’t know why the things that happen happen… You have to live with the mystery. That’s the answer in my books.”
Spark returned Epler’s admiration, praising her “wisdom, charm, humour and intuition, [which] must be the envy of every author.” And reading Epler’s remarks on editing, it’s easy to see that she and Spark, who resisted all but the smartest and most intuitive edits, would have had a natural affinity.
In 2008, Epler said, “Your job is just to worry, to check and double-check. One study pointed out that the difference between competent people and incompetent people is that competent people know they might be wrong and double- and triple-check; incompetent people know they’re right. (Or, as a Brazilian publisher joked, What’s the difference between ignorance and arrogance? ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’) Editing doesn’t seem to be a process of knowing but of asking.”
And last year she spoke with Powell’s about, among other things, New Directions’ mission: “We really just try to find the best writing we can, albeit in a somewhat narrow bailiwick. (We are now owned by a trust and one of its provisions is that we continue to publish the kind of books J. L. wanted: a sort of baggy category, but with an emphasis still on experimental or what used to be called avant-garde writing.)”
New Directions has just republished Spark’s Not to Disturb, and will soon bring out her charming, idiosyncratic, stripped-down autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, which serves as a kind of preemptive corrective to Martin Stannard’s sprawling biography.
My personal Spark hierarchy starts like this: Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, Curriculum Vitae, but I basically recommend her whole library (apart from a few of the early stories, and even those are worth reading just to see her storytelling talents ramping up).
Click through to the BBC website from the image at the top of this post to watch Spark being interviewed in her Rome apartment. See also Why Muriel Spark switched publishers, Brock Clarke on Muriel Spark’s genuine artifice, the Spark riffs in my Paris Review Daily diary, and her handwritten diary entry from Rome and more of the scraps of paper she kept.