Muriel Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, was published 60 years ago. Next year is her centenary, and Birlinn are bringing out a complete edition of her novels, all 22 of them. Complete editions used to be quite usual. They are rare today.
I’ve written the introduction to the new edition of The Comforters. It was the first time I had read it since I wrote a little critical book on Spark almost 40 years ago. She would write better novels, but it stands up to the passage of time very nicely. It was a remarkable debut, and it changed her life: she was almost 40 and had worked since the war in the flatlands of the literary world, writing biographical and critical books. She was a poet but also a drudge. Now her novel was being praised by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. It was quickly followed by other “clever and elegant books” – Waugh’s description. She was suddenly fashionable; it was as if a dam had been unblocked.
It was almost a Cinderella story. The transformation in her fortunes was made possible by two unrelated events. She became a Catholic and she suffered a nervous breakdown. There was no connection between the two. Her conversion was intellectual: Catholicism made sense of the world. The breakdown, for a few weeks when she was off her head, had physical causes. Poor, eager to suppress her appetite and to slim, she became addicted to Dexedrine, a then fashionable amphetamine. She heard voices and found words and sentences being rearranged as she wrote. This seemed to have something to do with TS Eliot, of whose work she was trying to write a critical study.
Her Catholicism puzzled some because it was founded in reason – Augustinian reason, I think – rather than emotion. She was suspicious of emotion, suspicious too of those, like Mrs Hogg in that first novel, or Jean Brodie in her most famous book, who had elected themselves to grace; she had a keen sense of evil. Italy became her home, and she was comfortable with the Italians’ matter-of-fact Catholicism. She went to Mass regularly enough, but I doubt if she was often in the confessional. When she was rich and living in Rome in the 1960s, there were usually cardinals and worldly monsignori at her parties.
For the last 20 years or more of her life, she shared a house in Tuscany with her friend Penelope Jardine, a sculptor. They weren’t lovers, as some supposed.
She was born in Edinburgh, and though, like Robert Louis Stevenson, she left Edinburgh, it never relinquished its hold on her, as it never did on him. Her father was Jewish, her mother English; she said she was “Scottish by formation”, and the chief influence on her work was the Border Ballads. I think this is true. Death strikes as suddenly in her novels as it does in the Ballads; in both cases without explanation.
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