Thursday, June 29, 2006

Muriel Spark: Curriculum Vitae

Crossposted from Bookworm

Curriculum Vitae is Muriel Spark's attempt to answer what she calls the essential poet's question: Who am I? Like a true professional she researched her own life, digging up old documents and consulting friends and family to corroborate her own memories. The autobiography describes the first 39 years of her life, from her birth to the publication of her first book, The Comforters, in 1957. If there is an answer in Curriculum Vitae to the question of who she was, it is simply that she was a writer.

Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh in 1918 to an English mother and Scottish father, and although her family was poor, her formative years were rich with experience—perfect for a future writer. Spark's parents included her in their vibrant social life, and she encountered a great variety of interesting and memorable people before starting her formal education. I suspect she picked up part of her penchant for observing people from her parents who would talk about their acquaintances in front of their daughter, often making fun of them and giving them nicknames.

The main beneficiary of Scottish philanthropy over several centuries was education, so Spark was able to go to a good school at little or no cost to her parents.

Education was held in awe, and the Scottish idea was that nobody should be denied this privilege.

At Gillespie's Girls' School she was taught by many excellent teachers, including the "exhilarating and impressive" Miss Christina Kay who was the model for Miss Brodie. Miss Kay lived a rich and adventurous life and shared it with her girls, stimulating Muriel's imagination and thirst for experience of her own.

What filled our minds with wonder and make Christina Kay so memorable was the personal drama and poetry within which everything in her classroom happened.

From a young age Spark showed an aptitude for poetry and literature, and was encouraged and supported in this at home and at school.

Miss Kay predicted my future as a writer in the most emphatic terms. I felt I had hardly much choice in the matter.

She read all the poetry and fiction she could get her hands on, and sought feedback on her poems and stories from friends and teachers. By the time she left school she was already an award-winning and published poet. Despite her obvious talent and intelligence, she did not pursue a university degree, partly due to a lack of money, and partly because she preferred to study on her own. She did take some writing and secretarial courses that enabled her to enter the working world and gain more of the life experience she was looking for.

At the age of 18 she met and married Sydney Spark and moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he was posted as a teacher. The marriage was "disastrous." She calls her husband "mentally ill," but what she describes, in very detached language, is a violent, abusive man. Spark never describes what he did to her or anyone else, nor does she say how she felt about it. She does say she feared for her life, which propelled her to obtain a divorce.

Spark longed to leave Africa, partly because of her domestic situation, and partly because she could not tolerate the hideous racism of the white colonists. "Life in the colony was eating my heart away." By this time the war had started and civilian transport was restricted, but with a little trickery she did secure a passage home for herself. She had to leave her son behind because children could not be transported in to the UK; indeed many were being shipped out for safekeeping. Friends and relatives questioned whether she wouldn't be safer in Africa, but she wanted to "experience" the war. In fact she chose to settle in London rather than Edinburgh in order to witness the bombing.

All women under 45 without family obligations were required to join the war effort. Spark's employment agent turned out to be an avid reader, and as they conversed about literature and poetry the agent soon realized Spark had a superior intellect. As a result she was posted to intelligence work, helping to create and distribute anti-Nazi propaganda via fake German radio stations. Spark began to feel a "definite desire" that gaining experience was no longer enough, but that she wanted to "give experience" to the reader with her writing. It was a vague feeling, however, and she didn't feel ready to try it yet.

After the war she worked in publishing, eventually becoming the editor of Poetry Review. Her attempts to raise the quality of the journal and welcome more modern poets was met with fierce and underhanded resistance and she was eventually forced out. After that she became a "hoarder" of all her records, papers, letters, etc. so that she could submit "documentary evidence" the next time she was attacked. This apparently continued for the rest of her life, and now that she has passed I imagine her archives will be of great interest to Spark scholars.

She also had another unsuccessful relationship with a possessive and vindictive man. She cobbled a living together by working for magazines and writing literary biography and criticism, but it was barely enough to keep body and soul together. A combination of post-war rationing, self-neglect, and Dexedrine (an appetite suppressant) led to malnourishment and she eventually had to leave London to convalesce. There are hints that alcohol was also a problem, but no more than hints. It was her friends that kept her afloat through all her troubles, and she remembers them with great fondness.

By the mid-50's she started making a name for herself in the literary world and was commissioned to write her first novel, an unusual thing in that day. The timing was right because she was already shifting her work towards story-telling.

I was now moving, myself, from lyric poetry to narrative verse. This was the start of my move in literature towards the short story and then the novel.

The book ends with the success of her first novel, The Comforters, which is based on the word hallucinations she had while taking Dexedrine, and also on the Book of Job. She writes of that book:

I didn't feel like 'a novelist' and before I could square it with my literary conscience to write a novel, I had to work out the novel-writing process peculiar to myself, and moreover, perform this act within the very novel I proposed to write.

As a Catholic convert myself I was looking for what she would say about her own conversion experience. I find it difficult to explain why I became a Catholic and it seems to be no different for Spark.

The simple explanation is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I have always felt and known and believed. … The more difficult explanation would involve the step by step building up of a conviction. … Indeed, the existential quality of a religious experience cannot be simply summed up in general terms.

Some of those steps undoubtedly took place with Father Frank O'Malley, who counselled her during her illness, and during her convalescence at two Carmelite monasteries. Unfortunately for the curious, she keeps the details of those experiences to herself. Indeed she keeps a lot to herself, relating the facts of her experiences without much emotion or personal comment. Some crucial moments are described only through her friends' comments. She says next to nothing about her son, and as I mentioned earlier, very little about her marriage. Perhaps this reflects her Anglo-Scottish background. She writes that "It was certainly an attitude typical of Edinburgh to deny feelings for the sake of principle," and the English are not known for emotionality.

One has to read between the lines to infer where her feelings were involved. Loyal friends are clearly one thing she feels passionate about, particularly, I imagine, since her romantic relationships were so disappointing. (A friend called her "a bad picker" of men.) The book was also written in part to "put the record straight" after a former friend and writing partner wrote unauthorized accounts of her that were filled with inaccuracies. She does the research into the facts of her life that he did not, and she refutes his work through her narrative and directly in her account of her (non-romantic) relationship with him. A word to the wise: take any works about Spark by Derek Sanford (and works based on his works) with a grain of salt. She describes his "disregard for the truth" as "very uncharitable towards students and scholars," but I believe she herself felt betrayed and deeply hurt. This book is her public response to that betrayal.

In the last chapter she writes:

Since I wrote my first novel I have passed the years occupied with ever more work, many travels, and adventures. Friends, famous and obscure, abound in my life-story. That will be the subject of another volume.

Sadly for us she did not write that volume before her death this year. Let's hope her next biographer will be as scrupulous as she was in writing Curriculum Vitae. Muriel Spark, rest in peace.


Quillhill said...

Sylvia, I'm glad you read this and could provide us with a background to her writing. You say her autobiography lacked emotion, it seemed to me a characteristic that passed into her fiction as well. And isn't it wonderful that even in war there is a job for a writer of fiction.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I guess "Brodie" is pretty detached too. You have to infer the strong feelings that are driving people to do the messed up things they do. Perhaps being surrounded by reserved people forced Spark to become an acute observer of the little behaviours that betray people's emotions. I wonder if her novels written after moving to Italy are more demonstrative?

In the book she talks about the specific kind of propaganda they made, called "Black" propaganda, which was intended to create class tension between the ordinary German people and the Nazi leaders. Apparently the higher ups in the Foreign Office found it distasteful. It involved planting anti-elite innuendos among a bunch of verifiable facts (presented as news bulletins), thus making them believable. It seems akin to the process of fiction, although Spark made no comment to that effect in her book.

Julie said...

Interesting that she wrote her autobiography in response to, I guess, false accusations. Just like Cardinal Newman.