Dame Muriel Spark dies aged 88
MURIEL Spark was the greatest Scottish novelist of modern times, the irony being that she departed Scotland as a teenager and returned thereafter only for brief visits. Yet this distance may well have helped her as a novelist of international acclaim. Like Stevenson before her, she clung to Scottishness, and her roots are evident in everything she wrote.
Famed as she eventually was for 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' - which remains the best novel ever penned about Edinburgh - there was (and is) so much more to Spark. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957) was about a woman who knew she was a character in a novel, making it clear that Spark was influenced as much by contemporary experiments in fiction as by the Border ballads she had read in her youth. Her final novel, The Finishing School (2004) is about the process of writing and the agony of being a (fading) writer.
Yet critics often ignored the edgy, experimental side of Spark's craft, opting instead to focus on her glittering prose and comedic lightness of touch. Her genius stems from the fact that she was an expert stylist who could engage the general reader while still posing tough moral questions. Her best novels are as tightly constructed as poems, packing more meaning into their short duration than would appear possible.
Spark began her life as a poet - one of her early attempts winning her a prize at James Gillespie's School. After a short, failed marriage, and wartime work in London, she edited a poetry magazine and started to go quietly mad, existing as she did in genteel poverty with a young son to feed, making do with coffee and pills. Graham Greene helped her financially (on the understanding that she would never attempt to thank him), and this gave Spark the strength to fictionalise her own moment of crisis in her first published novel.
Like many other people, for a long time I knew little of Spark apart from the magnificent film version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But after finishing my undergraduate degree, a lecturer advised me that I might want to apply to do a PhD - he also mentioned Spark as a suitable subject.
The outcome was that I spent three years reading her books intently, writing chapters towards my thesis. Her best work combines a sense of the comic macabre with piercing satire. In an essay, she said that the modern novel should prick the conscience while being harsh and mocking - the only possible reaction to the absurdity of the contemporary scene.
Spark was a Catholic convert, and much of her best work reads like an extended dialogue with herself about the nature of God. In novels such as The Only Problem and The Mandelbaum Gate specific theological debates are touched on, the 'problem' being human suffering - why would God allow it to happen? What is the nature of evil and how are we to understand it in a religious context?
If these matters sound weighty, they are balanced by elegant phrasing and the novelist's empathy with her characters - the reader never feels preached to or barracked.
The problem, perhaps, for Spark herself is that she never seemed to fit with the late-20th century notion of what Scottish fiction was. As Lanark, Kelman and Irvine Welsh arrived, it seemed that a particular tone of voice and way of looking at the world could be discerned in the Scottish novel. Spark's characters were usually upper-middle class and living in exotic locations, leading her to be marginalised. There was also perhaps a misconception that great literature had to come in large packages - and Spark's lengthier novels remain her least successful.
Critics and bookshops like to be able to stick a label on a writer's work, and Spark defied easy categorisation. That was what was so thrilling - you never knew quite what you were going to get. She wrote about desert island castaways (Robinson), glamorous film stars (The Public Image), convents (The Abbess of Crewe) and Lord Lucan (Aiding and Abetting). Many of these books were produced on school jotters sent to her from an Edinburgh stationer's - whether she was living in New York or Italy.
It is perhaps too soon to say what effect Spark had on Scottish literature, but her eclecticism seems to fit perfectly with the current scene, where authors feel they can write about Botswana as well as Leith, and produce science fiction as well as thrillers.
Having studied her books for years, I met Dame Muriel just the once - at the Edinburgh Book Festival two years ago. She had spoken with insight and humour about her work, and had thrilled the audience with a rare reading from Miss Jean Brodie.
By the time I approached her, I could see she was tiring, so decided to choose just one of the many books I'd taken with me to ask her to sign. It was my first edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She inscribed it "with admiration and warm wishes". My own admiration for her contribution to world literature knows no bounds. She was peerless, sparkling, inventive and intelligent - the crme de la crme.
Scotland's answer to Jane Austen leaves lasting legacy
HER talent was spotted when, as a 12-year-old schoolgirl, she secured her first literary prize. It was just the start of a magnificent career for Dame Muriel Spark - arguably Scotland's greatest writer of modern times - who has died, in Italy, aged 88.
Last night tributes flowed in from the literary, political and wider world for the poet, biographer and writer who passed away in hospital in Florence on Thursday.
She had lived in Civitella della Chiana, in Tuscany, for the past 26 years and had been battling health problems since last year. A small funeral service was held for her in the town yesterday.
In a tribute to his literary idol, Ian Rankin, the Edinburgh-based author of the Rebus novels who was heavily influenced by Spark, described her as "the greatest Scottish novelist of modern times".
Scots novelist Ali Smith said: "I have loved Muriel Spark's books since I was 14. I can't bear to think there will not be any more novels. She was one of the most important writers for centuries - probably on the same scale as Jane Austen."
Willy Maley, professor of English Literature at Glasgow University, said: "This is a tragic loss. She was a one-off, in the same way as Beckett or Joyce. Prolific, consistently brilliant and somebody who wrote with bravery and daring. If I was asked to prescribe a writer I would put Muriel Spark at the top of the list. She was much more than Miss Jean Brodie. Across five decades she made herself a genius."
Spark was made an honorary citizen of Civitella della Chiana last September. Its mayor Massimliano Dindalini yesterday joined in the tributes. "She was very open," he said. "Her loss will be very difficult to overcome. She was a simple person, affectionate and considerate."
Dr Gavin Wallace, head of literature at the Scottish Arts Council, described Spark's death as "an ineffably sad and deep loss to literature".
He said: "Her achievement and influence as Scotland's - if not the UK's - greatest novelist have been so vast that in an odd way she seemed to be an immutable part of the cultural landscape. I wrote to her only two weeks ago with the good news that we had secured the first Muriel Spark International Literary Fellowship, a new post to which she graciously gave her name. At least that will offer one modest way of beginning to honour her enormous legacy."
Ordinary fans of Spark's work around the world left glowing tributes to her talent.
"This Easter weekend, a literary spark has been extinguished," Arun Khanna, of Indianapolis, United States, wrote on the BBC's website.
Lynn, of Hashimoto, Japan, said: "The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie was an utter classic. Muriel Spark was way ahead of her time. RIP."
Much closer to home, Grant Russell, from Livingston, West Lothian, summed up the reaction of many Scots. He wrote: "At school, I was uninterested in English until The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was handed to me to study for class. I am now studying on a university course which relies heavily on my understanding of the English language, so thank you Muriel Spark. Rest in peace."
Spark grew up in the Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh. At Kays bookshop in nearby Morningside, manager Donald Grant said: "It's a very sad end of a chapter of Scottish literature. She was easily one of the best authors Scotland has ever produced and she is right up there with the greats."
Spark wrote more than 20 novels during her long career. But it was the accent of her birth and youth in Edinburgh, where she attended James Gillespie's High School for Girls, that provided the prototype for her most famous character. The 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, about a narcissistic 1930s Scottish teacher, brought her to international attention. Its portrayal on the silver screen won Dame Maggie Smith a best actress Oscar in 1969.
Among Spark's many literary achievements were the TS Eliot prize in 1992 and the British Literature Prize in 1997. The Scottish Arts Council created the Muriel Spark International Fellowship in 2004. Spark was made a Dame in 1993 in recognition of her services to literature. She was elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1978, and Commandeur de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France in 1996.
Leading politicians last night joined in the tributes. Scotland's culture minister Patricia Ferguson said: "Dame Muriel Spark was a great Scottish woman who led a fascinating life, producing work over more than half a century which has transcended generations and entertained millions."
Mike Russell, the writer and former SNP culture spokesman, added: "She was one of Scotland's most important voices in the 20th century."
Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday's literary editor, said: "Spark's oeuvre is unparalleled in contemporary Scottish writing - acerbic, tender, insightful and nuanced. It's a keen loss, not just in terms of a truly great writer, but of a writer who was exceptionally generous with her time and advice to younger authors."
An original writer of 'charming' books and dark tales of perversion
DAME Muriel Spark was one of the liveliest and most original literary talents to be discovered in Britain in the second half of the 20th century.
After enduring a long period of obscurity and near-poverty, her success came suddenly.
She was born in Edinburgh on February 1, 1918, as Muriel Sarah Camberg, the only daughter of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother.
Educated at the city's James Gillespie's High School for Girls, she thrived while studying English, French, chemistry, Greek, physics, Latin and logic.
After training as a secretary, she then travelled to Cape Town in 1937, marrying the same year and divorcing in 1944.
That year, she undertook a hazardous sea journey from Africa to bomb-scarred London, leaving her son, Robin, behind. Determined to carve out a career as a professional writer, she first took a job in intelligence, producing political propaganda until the end of the Second World War. She then took an office job to help her get by while she wrote short stories, novels and poems.
Her prolific output saw her become the editor of The Poetry Review for two years. Famously, she had a high-profile row with the Poetry Society's vice-president and birth-control pioneer Dr Marie Stopes over Spark's recent divorce.
But it wasn't until 1951 that Spark's breakthrough finally came when she won the Observer Short Story competition with an African fable entitled 'The Seraph and the Zambezi'.
She converted to Catholicism in 1954, receiving financial and emotional support from Britain's most renowned Catholic writers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.
She cut her teeth on a number of critical and biographical studies of Emily Bronte, Mary Shelley and John Masefield.
But it was not until 1957 that she published The Comforters, the first of the novels that, in a very short time, were to make her reputation and her fortune.
The story of a woman, newly converted to Catholicism, who believes her life is being written out on a ghostly typewriter, brought Dame Muriel critical acclaim and a certain financial security.
After this initial success, she returned to Edinburgh, in order to write The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a highly autobiographical novel, based around her own schooldays.
Jean Brodie wowed the US, and the work was published in its entirety in New Yorker magazine. It eventually became a Broadway play and an Oscar-winning film, starring Dame Maggie Smith.
Even late in life, Dame Muriel Spark had no doubts about the novel. She said: "I still feel it's a charming book."
After a brief sojourn in New York, she moved to Rome in 1968, a spiritual and creative homecoming for a woman who always considered herself, first and foremost, a European. While living in Rome, she produced another seven mesmerising novels. With these she took a new direction away from her image as a provincial and twee writer to offer darker stories often featuring crime, corruption and perverted sex.
She could also be light-hearted and uproariously funny. She even turned her sharp edge to the Watergate scandal with a satirical send up in The Abbess of Crewe.
Charmingly opinionated, she berated "timid" writers, complaining that "A book without judgment is not a book."
In 1993 Spark was made a Dame and in 1997 was awarded the prestigious David Cohen British Literature Prize but missed out on the Man Booker Prize after being short-listed in 2005.
During her later years she found contentment living in her converted 13th-century church in Tuscany with her friend of many years, painter and sculptor Penelope Jardine.
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