Monday July 20th, 2009

Muriel in Crisis

sparkThere’s a big biography of Muriel Spark being published in the UK next week. The Guardian has what I assume is an excerpt, and it chronicles a busy time in Spark’s life: heartbreak, conversion to Catholicism, madness, and the beginning of her life as a fiction writer, which would eventually yield 22 novels and many short stories.

At a pivotal moment in the excerpt, Spark goes to Edinburgh to review “The Confidential Clerk,” a play by T.S. Eliot:

The play became an obsession. “It has,” she wrote, “to do with faithfulness and idolatry, security and rootlessness, vague desires and precise fulfilments, parents and children, art and craft, success and failure.” It had, in short, to do with all the theological, aesthetic and domestic paradoxes that were pulling her apart. Her analysis was so acute that Eliot himself was astonished. It struck him “as one of the two or three most intelligent reviews I had read. It seemed to me remarkable that anyone who could only have seen the play once, and certainly not have read it, should have grasped so much of its intention.”

But thanks in part to a reliance on Dexedrine (“then readily available from chemist shops to assist dieting”), the play turned into a nightmare for her:

Then, shortly after she began [Catholic] instruction, in January 1954, something went wrong. Her friends noticed the trouble before she did: Eliot, she insisted, was sending her threatening messages. His play was full of them. Some were in the theatre programme. Obsessively, she began to seek them out — covering sheet after sheet of paper with anagrams and cryptographic experiments.

This experience became part of the inspiration for Spark’s first novel, The Comforters. I think Evelyn Waugh summarized that novel well when he wrote, “The first half, up to the motor accident, is brilliant. The second half rather diffuse.” If you’re looking for other Spark to read, James Wood has called The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie “as perfect as a novel can ever be.” And if you want an eerie read, you can do a lot worse than The Driver’s Seat.

(Via Maud Newton)