Interview: Olga Wojtas looks to Muriel Spark for inspiration

Debut comic novelist Olga Wojtas had an inspirational teacher at Gillespie's. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Debut comic novelist Olga Wojtas had an inspirational teacher at Gillespie's. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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In Muriel Spark’s centenary year, Olga Wojtas, a fan and fellow alumnus, has drawn inspiration from the Marcia Blaine School, finds David Robinson

Fourteen years after her only appearance there, 12 years after her death and 100 years since her birth, Muriel Spark has taken over the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Of its 17 days, there are only five that are Spark-free, but four of the rest have more than one event about her work. “Beloved Sparkles” – as Gore Vidal addressed her in their correspondence –sparkles more than in this year’s book festival programme than any author in its history. No-one else comes close.

Muriel Spark PIC: TSPL

Muriel Spark PIC: TSPL

Go into the festival bookshop, and her books are far more readily available than they were on her 2004 visit. For a start, all 22 of them are now on sale, republished by Polygon in a handsome centenary edition. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already bought the complete set, and she is far from being the only one – indeed there’s even a realistic chance that Spark might outsell every one of the book festival’s 800 living writers.

The events celebrating Spark’s work are varied as well as many. Tickets for the Royal Lyceum’s rehearsed reading in the Spiegeltent of The Doctors of Philosophy – Spark’s only play – went early, but there will also be performances of Memento Mori and The Driver’s Seat. Want an in-depth reader’s guide to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Girls of Slender Means and Do Not Disturb? No problem: Alan Taylor, Rosemary Goring and Dan Gunn will provide just that in the Writers’ Retreat, while Taylor will also be talking about Appointment in Arezzo, his book about his friendship with the writer he admires above all others at (where else?) the Spark Theatre in George Street.

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Back inside Charlotte Square, the Baillie Gifford Main Tent hosts a series of events in which writers and critics explore key aspects of Spark’s life and work: Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan on the novels’ preoccupation with sex and shopping; James Campbell and Rosemary Goring on Spark’s London years (of which more later);Gabriel Josipovici and Kapka Kassabova on what religion meant to her, while Candia McWilliam and Gail Wylie look at how she wrote about character. Add Ali Smith’s dazzling lecture on Spark and Time, and Janice Galloway reading her own favourite Sparkian passages, and you could emerge from the next two weeks with the equivalent of a PhD in Spark Studies.

Edinburgh-based comic novelist Olga Wojtas has not only signed up to attend every one of these events but has also bought all the Spark novels in Polygon’s centenary edition. A fan, in other words.

Her love of Spark started early. They both went to James Gillespie’s School, which Spark immortalised as the Marcia Blaine School in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, with its “large classrooms and big windows that looked out over the leafy trees, the skies, and the swooping gulls of Bruntsfield Links” as she put it in Curriculum Vitae. Every day of her schooldays, Muriel Camberg would leave her home at 160 Bruntsfield Place and walk on the path across the links that leads directly to the school.

When Wojtas was invited by Edinburgh council earlier this year to formally open that path in its new official incarnation as the Muriel Spark Walk, she suggested in a speech that the whole of the links could be known in future as Muriel’s Park (geddit?).

It’s odd, to say the least, that there’s still no blue plaque outside 160 Bruntsfield Place, and still no statue to its most famous resident (Edinburgh’s city centre has more statues to named dogs than named women), but Wojtas can remember a time when Spark wasn’t as firmly centred in Scotland’s literary landscape as she is now.

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“In the late 1960s and 70s, Gillespie’s was very po-faced about Muriel Spark,” she points out. “Now they can’t get enough of the connection. Back then, it wasn’t that everyone was saying, ‘Let’s not have anything to do with that woman,’ but it was as though a veil has been drawn over her; she wasn’t to be mentioned.

“You’ve got to remember, Edinburgh was very much a small-c conservative city, and how you appeared was seen as being very important, so to have this very strange teacher who nurtures her pupils in this very odd way – well, you certainly didn’t want that to be known about in polite society.”

But people did know, all the same. When Wojtas saw the 1968 Royal Lyceum production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a schoolgirl, the Gillespie’s scarf on the stage was one obvious giveaway and, in any case, the school still had some teachers who remembered Christina Kay, the inspirational teacher on whom Brodie was so clearly modelled. Wojtas herself was taught at Gillespie’s by a similarly motivating English teacher, Iona Cameron, who first encouraged her to write (and whose obituary she wrote in The Scotsman last year).

She followed in Cameron’s footsteps by going to Aberdeen University, where she read French and Russian, taking a year out to work as an assistante in a French school in Grenoble as part of her degree. After befriending a teacher there, she was a regular guest at her colleague’s weekend home high up in the Alps. And it was there, at a place called Blanche-Neige – or, as we’d say in English, Snow White – that another curious link with Spark emerged.

“I am half-Polish,” says Wojtas, “and my friend’s husband was Polish-Lithuanian, and it turned out that after the fall of Poland in the Second World War he had come to London. And when I mentioned that I had been to Gillespie’s, he said that he had worked in black propaganda in MI6 with Muriel Spark who had been there too. He was called Bruno Daumantas, and disappointingly, he never mentioned anything about her personality, good or bad. Maybe he didn’t like her, maybe he was just being discreet, I’ll never know.”

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The main thread of Wojtas’s link with Spark is, however, in the work, not the life. When she left the Times Higher Education magazine after nearly 30 years of being its Scottish editor and started writing fiction, she went back in her imagination to the Marcia Blaine School for inspiration. In the year of the Spark centenary, this might seem an act of unpardonable chutzpah. But Wojtas’s novel, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, soon speeds off in a wildly different direction, as her heroine Shona is a feminist time-traveller from the present who lands in the higher echelons of Tsarist Russian society. Naturally, the aristocrats don’t understand her, and vice-versa. “Do you think I came up the Dvina in a banana boat?” Shona asks them. “No, of course not,” one of them replies. “No-one has ever come up the Dvina in a banana boat.”

The rest of the book is, as that quote suggests, gleefully bonkers, more Marx Brothers than Muriel, more belly-laugh than ironically raised eyebrow. But I wonder whether the woman who wrote it would have been a novelist at all if she hadn’t been to the same school Muriel Camberg went to decades earlier, before she went on to be the greatest woman novelist Scotland has ever produced.

That’s an obvious question, and I can’t think why I didn’t ask it. If you go to one of the book festival’s many Spark events, you’ll probably see Olga Wojtas. She’s friendly, funny and charming, and I’m sure she won’t mind if you ask her yourself.

• Olga Wojtas will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 15 August, alongside ES Thomson in an event chaired by Sally Magnusson that will be recorded for BBC Radio Scotland. Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is published by Contraband, price £8.99.