When Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark was published in the UK last summer, it received mostly positive reviews. The Guardian judged that “Stannard is to be congratulated on producing what will undoubtedly be the standard biography of a writer with perhaps the most distinctive voice — darkly satirical with theological dimensions — in postwar British fiction.” With reservations, the Telegraph concluded, “all in all this is a biography that has been worth the long wait.” And the Independent said, “Stannard is a gifted biographer with a fine turn of phrase. . . . There are a few blind spots . . . but this account will not be surpassed.”
But the first major review of the book upon its U.S. publication this week is a mostly critical take from Dwight Garner at the New York Times:
In a perfect world, a biography of Muriel Spark (1918-2006) would share some of the qualities of her best novels, among them Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means. That is, it would be sinister, comic and ruthlessly slim, a jar that holds a scorpion.
Martin Stannard’s Muriel Spark: The Biography, alas, exists in the real world. Mr. Stannard has delivered instead an ordinary lumpy mattress of a biography, with coils and feathers poking out the sides and a few bedbugs leaping to the floor. Spark rarely wasted a word. Mr. Stannard throws whole armies of them into the breach. . . . Muriel Spark: The Biography has shrewd observations and quickening moments, but waiting for them requires Zen-like patience and is a bit soul-killing, like standing in line at the D.M.V.
Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
Norton, 627 pp., $35.00