I am a fan of the novels written by Muriel Spark. Her books are full of a savage, dark wit, and while I haven’t read them all, I’ve read enough to arrive at the decision that Spark has a unique world view. So when I came across a volume of autobiography, I knew I had to read it. I was hoping for some insight into the kind of mind that would write something as nasty and wickedly funny as The Driver’s Seat .
Muriel Camberg was born in 1918 and died in 2006, and her life was not free of controversy–the two most noted aspects of controversy concern her rumoured relationships with women and her relationship with her only son, artist, Robin Spark. Curriculum Vitae, published in 1992, does not cover Spark’s entire life, and neither does it delve into those areas of controversy. One of the goals of the volume, according to Sparks, is “to put the record straight.” Sparks mentions “a false account” written by a biographer who was “puzzled” by her subject’s objection to false information:
The disturbing thing about false and erroneous statements is that well-meaning scholars tend to repeat each other. Lies are like fleas hopping from here to there, sucking the blood of the intellect. In my case, the truth is often less flattering, less romantic, but often more interesting than the false story.
Sparks hits the nail on the head with that comment, so here she argues that every piece of information can be verified “by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses.” Spark, a self-confessed “hoarder,” drew on her extensive collections of letters and the memories of friends for the information in this book. The volume is mostly chronological, but for the early parts–Spark’s childhood–she wisely uses her fragmented memories to produce topical chapters, so we get subjects such as Butter, Bread, Tea andNeighbours which yield charming insights into Spark’s early life in Edinburgh. The book (which clocks in at 213 pages) concludes with the publication of Spark’s first novel, The Comforters in 1957.
Spark covers her childhood, her disastrous marriage, her top-secret work during WWII and the beginnings of a remarkable literary career. One of the most delightful aspects of this lively volume is the roadmap of Spark’s body of work. Some authors seem reluctant to admit any autobiographical influence in their work–not so Spark! Indeed she’s eager to pinpoint just who influenced the creation of her characters, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is absolutely rooted in Spark’s beloved teacher, Miss Kay, an innovate, dedicated and highly unusual teacher:
In a sense Miss Kay was nothing like Miss Brodie. In another sense she was far above and beyond her Brodie counterpart. If she could have met ‘Miss Brodie’ Miss Kay would have put the fictional character firmly in her place. And yet no pupil of Miss Kay’s has failed to recognize her, with joy and great nostalgia, in the shape of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.
Similarly, the inspiration for A Far Cry from Kensington, Loitering With Intent, Memento Mori, The Hothouse by the East River, and The Girls of Slender Means are all crisply catalogued by Spark. The idea begins to emerge that Spark was a sensible woman of firm, yet careful opinions, a woman, who as she matured, did nothing by accident. Apart from a bad mistake with her husband Sydney Oswald Spark (SOS), Spark seems pragmatic, sensible and rather unemotional.
Since Spark’s novels overflow with clear, strong characterizations, I expected and was delighted to find equally wonderful descriptions of the many important people in her life. Miss Kay remains one of the foremost influences of her childhood. Muriel Spark had the great good luck to attend the James Gillespie High School for Girls (coeducational for a few years for Spark when she first attended at age 5). She spent 12 years at this school and acknowledges the years were “the most fortunate for a future writer.”
I think we enjoyed an advantage over boarding-school pupils in our well-organized and friendly day school. We had the benefit of a parallel home life, equally full of daily events, and the impinging world of people different from our collegiate selves.
Comparing our young youth with the lives of teenagers over the intervening years, Frances [lifelong friend] has lately written to me, ‘We had the best life, Muriel.’ in spite of the fact that we had no television, that in my home at least we had no electricity all during the ‘thirties (only beautiful gaslight), that there were no antibiotics, and no Pill, I incline to think that Frances was right.
The book delves into Spark’s first brush with the inaccurate biographer through her dealings with former friend Derek Stanford, a man she gives “full marks for bright colours. His inventions are truly exotic.” She “begs” any “scholars and students” to verify details with her before using any Stanford material for scholarly purposes (back to the idea of setting-the-record-straight).
Perhaps the most amusing section of the book covers Spark’s period of employment with the Poetry Society and its bi-monthly journal, the Poetry Review. Spark details the time spent there, juggling the various egos and temperaments, and her experiences found their way, according to Spark, into the delightful Loitering with Intent. Finally she touches on her nervous breakdown which she attributes to“taking the wrong sort of pills” for appetite suppression.
Full of the sort of unique pithy comments and observations, I’ve come to expect from a Muriel Spark novel, Curriculum Vitae did not disappoint–although I came away with the feeling that I had just had a brush with an admirable woman composed of a formidable will, a pragmatic outlook, and a steely mind that would tolerate no nonsense.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.