It often happens that when someone who has been a friend, disciple or associate of an admired writer comes to write a memoir telling of their relationship, a note of sourness or resentment is struck. Roger Lewis’s admittedly very entertaining biography of Anthony Burgess was such a book, the biographer evidently eager to reveal that his one-time idol’s feet were made only of clay, and poor quality clay at that. Happily Alan Taylor’s memoir of his friendship with Muriel Spark is very different. He admired her as a writer, enjoyed her company, and liked her.
Their first meeting in 1990 was professional, Taylor, a former deputy editor of The Scotsman and the founder-editor of the Scottish Review of Books, visiting her in Tuscany where she shared a house with her friend Penelope Jardine in order to interview her on the publication of her novel Symposium. Interviewers were not always welcome. Spark was self-protective, and could be difficult if asked too probing or impertinent questions. But this exchange was a success and led to friendship. There were frequent meetings over the years. Taylor stayed with Spark and Jardine in Italy, met Spark in London, Oxford and Edinburgh, accompanied her to New York. I would guess he knew her as well as anyone except Jardine in the last 15 years of her life. That said, he admits that much about Spark remained mysterious; he quotes Jardine as saying “sometimes I think I never knew Muriel at all”. “There was”, he writes, “an ethereal, unearthly, elusive air to Muriel”. At the same time, she was tough, and “at her core, immutable”. She loved Italy, but “from her first breath to her last, she embodied the values instilled in her when she was growing up in Scotland”. A Roman Catholic convert, and a devout one, “her work ethic was Calvinist”.
She was, she said, “Scottish by formation” – her father was Jewish, her mother English, but she is Edinburgh’s greatest novelist since Stevenson and the chief literary influence on her was the Border Ballads. (Taylor remembers her reciting the most chilling of them – “The Twa Corbies”. ) Because she lived furth of Scotland, set few of her books here, and could be seen, with reason, as a cosmopolitan, some have foolishly denied that she was a Scottish writer; Taylor quotes a peculiarly asinine judgement to this effect delivered by Robin Jenkins.
Success came to her suddenly when she was almost 40 with the publication of her first novel, The Comforters, praised by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. It followed her conversion to Catholicism and a nervous breakdown, and a difficult 20 years: a short unhappy marriage, the birth of a son from whom she would eventually be estranged, years of comparative poverty and literary drudgery in London, a long-running relationship with another writer which ended painfully and was followed by mutual recrimination.
Taylor deals, fairly, I think, with her difficult relationship with her son Robin, who felt she had neglected him as a child. He was brought up by her parents, though financially supported by Muriel despite custody at the time of her divorce having been given to her husband. Their quarrel became open, and disagreeably public, when he insisted that she was wholly Jewish, and was aggrieved when she stated correctly that only her father was Jewish. She found it all very tiresome and silly. Taylor tells us she read the Old Testament frequently, and recommended it to students of Creative Writing; very good advice.
Anyone who loves Muriel Spark’s novels – so distinctive, so comic, so unsettling, so mercurial – will enjoy this intelligent and affectionate book. Anyone who reads it, though ignorant of the novels, will surely want to read them. Reviewer’s disclaimer: Alan Taylor has been a friend of mine for a very long time and I knew Muriel Spark, though not well, for we met and corresponded only occasionally. But I also received encouragement from her and wrote a little critical study of her novels (which happily didn’t displease her). So I’m prejudiced. I should say that Taylor gets her right, or as right as anyone is likely to; and it’s a delight to read a memoir of an author that celebrates friendship rather than disparaging its subject.
*Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark, by Alan Taylor, Polygon, 244pp, £12.99. To mark Muriel Spark’s Centenary, Polygon are re-publishing all 22 of her novels in hardback. The first book in the series, The Comforters, with an introduction by Allan Massie, is available from 16 November, price £9.99