A friend told me to read the stories of Muriel Spark. She said that I would find them congenial; she had in mind their brevity, their allusiveness and humour and the startling incursions of the supernatural. I had read about half the novels but I had not read the stories before. They are indeed wonderful. As someone once said about someone else, you read them and you think, I wish I’d written that, which is one of the sincerest compliments (if perhaps excessively self-regarding) that you can pay.
I liked them so much that I bought and read Martin Stannard’s biography, called simply Muriel Spark.
As you read Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent biography of Spike Milligan, by way of comparison, you come to realise two things. The first is that the author increasingly loathes his subject. The second is that in spite of everything, and with the huge advantage of, on the one hand, having read the books and seen the television series but not, on the other, having had to deal with him face to face, you are still inclined to give Milligan the benefit of the doubt. With Muriel Spark the opposite is the case. You soon come to regard Spark as a monster, and you realise that the biographer does not: he is in love.
She could not get on with anyone. She treated everyone as if they were likely to turn on her and was maliciously pleased when it turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy; she fell out eventually with everyone whom she dealt with, and made a fetish of being betrayed. She dumped her son on her parents when he was very young and then treated them all with cold condescension. She was almost incapable of maintaining a long-term relationship, loving or commercial, with anyone. She was atrociously rude but if anyone criticised her the reaction was hurt hysteria followed by litigation. Except to strangers she rarely did a kind or generous act. In other words she behaved like a psychopath. So, anyway, it appears from Martin Stannard’s book; I have no other way of knowing.
And because he is in love he appears to think that it is all right. Time and again, someone who has to deal with her perseveres with ordinary human decency, the sort that accepts that one is not necessarily the top priority for whomever it is that one is dealing with: that assumes give and take. Time and again Spark works herself up through a succession of rows, melodramas, and a final deeply cathartic breaking-off of relations; and she moves on to someone worse. The language of betrayal is wheeled out again.
And Mr Stannard, who loves all this, eggs her on from this side of the grave with little queeny yelps. In a froth of excitement he tells us that she ‘excommunicated’ some person who had upset her. ‘Excommunicated’: what on Earth does he think she was?
(Incidentally, I use the epithet ‘queeny’ without any suggestion of sexual orientation one way or another. Indeed, at one point Mr Stannard tells us that he has a ‘partner’ and a daughter called Zuleika.)
This was all rather a shock. I never knew that she was like that. It was a protracted shock, since the book is a leisurely six hundred and something pages long, over ten for each percentage advance on the Kindle, but a shock nonetheless. I read a couple more stories, to see if they had been spoilt. Not a bit of it: they were still clever, funny, written in prose every phrase of which is to be cherished, and above all they felt true.
So where does that leave us?
There is the trite point that great art can be made by people who behave like idiots and the corollary that nice artists often make work which is trite. We would not want to be without the music of Sidney Bechet or Stan Getz, for example, particularly because now that they are dead we can have their sublime saxophone inventions without any risk of having to put up with the loutish behaviour that accompanied them in life. It is nice to able to appreciate the plays of Christopher Marlowe without the risk of being knifed in Deptford and it is only proper that the rebarbative memory of Spike Milligan is now clothed in a nostalgic glow to which he is surely entitled.
When I first fell in love with the novels of Anthony Powell I nursed an ambition to meet him. Then I read his Journals and I realised that probably I wouldn’t have liked him much and he wouldn’t have liked me. It doesn’t detract in the slightest from the books or my love of them.
With Muriel Spark the concern goes a crucial stage further. It has to do with her psychopathic behaviour (as recounted by Martin Stannard; as I say, I have no other way of knowing). She had a crude but serviceable template that she imposed on her relations with other human beings. It involved her privacy’s being invaded, her reputation maligned, her trust abused, and finally betrayal. It seems to have been used for practically all her relationships regardless of the facts or the personalities involved: regardless in sum of how the other people actually behaved. She seems not to have noticed what was going on around her.
That is what bothers me. I have met many such egoists. A couple were lovers, many are friends and more are clients. They always know best and they impose their own expectations on other people’s behaviour – whatever happens. Because they always know best they always see what they expect to see. And because humour revolves around the possibility that things might be different, they don’t understand jokes. It is a recipe for a certain type of success in business but it is rarely associated with writing fiction that is funny and wise.
Funny and wise is precisely what Muriel Spark’s fiction is.
I don’t know the answer. Perhaps she was just pretending and she wasn’t a psychopath at all. Writers do pretend after all. But it does seem a bit of a waste of effort.