three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-Muriel Spark.epsImpressed by his two-volume biography of Evelyn Waugh, notoriously private novelist Muriel Spark invited Martin Stannard, a professor of modern literature at the University of Leicester, to write the story of her life. Fifteen years later--and four years after Spark's death in 2006--Muriel Spark: The Biography appears from this unusual collaboration.

The Topic: "I like purple passages in my life. I like drama. But not in my writing," declared best-selling author Muriel Spark about her approach to living as well as writing. "I think it's bad manners to inflict a lot of emotional involvement on the reader--much nicer to make them laugh and keep it short." Born in 1918 to a working-class Edinburgh family, Spark (née Camberg) rose to literary stardom in both Europe and the United States with her distinctive voice and caustic wit in novels like Memento Mori (1959) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). However, her turbulent personal life, including an abusive marriage, a mental breakdown, and a conversion to Roman Catholicism, despite her mixed Jewish-Christian heritage, belied the strict discipline and tight control she exhibited as a writer.
Norton. 627 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780393051742

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Muriel Spark is among the richest and most satisfying literary biographies of our time: not only a portrait of the artist herself but also a rendering of her literary and social context and a judicious examination of her works. ... [Stannard's] magnanimity as biographer allows her all her apparent contradictions, while his critical attentions do just what a literary biography should: make the reader hungry to explore her works." Frances Taliaferro

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Stannard gives us Spark's transformation from marginal littérateur to driven, prolific novelist in a detailed, thoughtful fashion, and it is not to his detriment that there remains something of a mystery. ... But if Spark's biographer can appear disconcertingly accepting of some rather self-aggrandising behaviour, he is more compelling on the novels themselves--the vast mental strain of her attempt to confront the fracture between Christianity and Judaism in The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), for example, and the experimentalism of later works such as The Driver's Seat (1970) and The Hothouse by the East River (1973)." Alex Clark

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The biography starts to bog down in the middle. Maybe because all Spark did after she had success was to write, travel and mingle with celebrities." Ariel Gonzalez

Telegraph (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One wishes for a little more on what Spark's manuscripts reveal about the processes of her writing and a little less on her interminable wrangles with publishers, but all in all this is a biography that has been worth the long wait." Jonathan Bate

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[Spark's autobiography Curriculum Vitae] is nevertheless more fun to read than Stannard's, which is long, a little humorless and employs more stylistic infelicities than seems fitting for a book about a writer of Spark's natural grace and sureness. ... Yet Stannard's book is thorough, judicious and insightful about Spark's fiction." Charles McGrath

Chicago Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite Spark's having commissioned him and having cooperated with him in the endeavor, and despite the accumulation of enough facts to stuff an old-fashioned Victorian door-stop biography, Stannard has produced a mediocre book. While good at illuminating the first half of her life, his fondness for book-chat literary analysis and his singular failure to pay much more than lip service to the ways in which Spark's deep spirituality informed her fiction damage Muriel Spark: The Biography significantly." Robert E. Hosmer

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Stannard has delivered ... an ordinary lumpy mattress of a biography, with coils and feathers poking out the sides and a few bedbugs leaping to the floor. ... Muriel Spark: The Biography has shrewd observations and quickening moments, but waiting for them requires Zen-like patience and is a bit soul-killing, like standing in line at the D.M.V." Dwight Garner

Critical Summary

Despite the Wall Street Journal's high regard, most critics tempered their praise by acknowledging this biography's various flaws, including Stannard's flat, cliché-ridden prose and his puzzling silence on significant experiences in Spark's life, such as her long-term relationship with artist Penelope Jardine and the effect of her religious conversion on her novels. Stannard skillfully recreates Spark's turbulent early years and places her deftly within the mid-century literary, social, and cultural milieu to which she belonged, but his narrative loses its bearings in the whirlwind of her continual travels later in life. All complaints aside, Stannard's exhaustive research and the unprecedented access he was granted to Spark's life have yielded the most comprehensive account of the prickly and superstitious author we are likely to get.

Supplementary Reading

A-Memento Mori.epsMemento Mori (1959): Haunting and darkly humorous, this novel features a group of elderly Londoners who suddenly become the targets of an anonymous caller who says only, "Remember you must die."

A-The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.epsThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961): Spark's most celebrated novel recounts the disastrous effect of a charming and unconventional teacher on her impressionable young students.

A-The Girls of Slender Means.epsThe Girls of Slender Means (1963): The residents of a boardinghouse for underprivileged but well-bred young women navigate the highs and lows of life in postwar London.