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post #1 of 5 (permalink) Old 04-17-2006, 12:55 PM Thread Starter
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Past her prime

Dame Muriel Spark dies aged 88

MURIEL Spark was the greatest Scottish novelist of modern times, the irony being that she departed Scotland as a teenager and returned thereafter only for brief visits. Yet this distance may well have helped her as a novelist of international acclaim. Like Stevenson before her, she clung to Scottishness, and her roots are evident in everything she wrote.

Famed as she eventually was for 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' - which remains the best novel ever penned about Edinburgh - there was (and is) so much more to Spark. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957) was about a woman who knew she was a character in a novel, making it clear that Spark was influenced as much by contemporary experiments in fiction as by the Border ballads she had read in her youth. Her final novel, The Finishing School (2004) is about the process of writing and the agony of being a (fading) writer.

Yet critics often ignored the edgy, experimental side of Spark's craft, opting instead to focus on her glittering prose and comedic lightness of touch. Her genius stems from the fact that she was an expert stylist who could engage the general reader while still posing tough moral questions. Her best novels are as tightly constructed as poems, packing more meaning into their short duration than would appear possible.

Spark began her life as a poet - one of her early attempts winning her a prize at James Gillespie's School. After a short, failed marriage, and wartime work in London, she edited a poetry magazine and started to go quietly mad, existing as she did in genteel poverty with a young son to feed, making do with coffee and pills. Graham Greene helped her financially (on the understanding that she would never attempt to thank him), and this gave Spark the strength to fictionalise her own moment of crisis in her first published novel.

Like many other people, for a long time I knew little of Spark apart from the magnificent film version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But after finishing my undergraduate degree, a lecturer advised me that I might want to apply to do a PhD - he also mentioned Spark as a suitable subject.

The outcome was that I spent three years reading her books intently, writing chapters towards my thesis. Her best work combines a sense of the comic macabre with piercing satire. In an essay, she said that the modern novel should prick the conscience while being harsh and mocking - the only possible reaction to the absurdity of the contemporary scene.

Spark was a Catholic convert, and much of her best work reads like an extended dialogue with herself about the nature of God. In novels such as The Only Problem and The Mandelbaum Gate specific theological debates are touched on, the 'problem' being human suffering - why would God allow it to happen? What is the nature of evil and how are we to understand it in a religious context?

If these matters sound weighty, they are balanced by elegant phrasing and the novelist's empathy with her characters - the reader never feels preached to or barracked.

The problem, perhaps, for Spark herself is that she never seemed to fit with the late-20th century notion of what Scottish fiction was. As Lanark, Kelman and Irvine Welsh arrived, it seemed that a particular tone of voice and way of looking at the world could be discerned in the Scottish novel. Spark's characters were usually upper-middle class and living in exotic locations, leading her to be marginalised. There was also perhaps a misconception that great literature had to come in large packages - and Spark's lengthier novels remain her least successful.

Critics and bookshops like to be able to stick a label on a writer's work, and Spark defied easy categorisation. That was what was so thrilling - you never knew quite what you were going to get. She wrote about desert island castaways (Robinson), glamorous film stars (The Public Image), convents (The Abbess of Crewe) and Lord Lucan (Aiding and Abetting). Many of these books were produced on school jotters sent to her from an Edinburgh stationer's - whether she was living in New York or Italy.

It is perhaps too soon to say what effect Spark had on Scottish literature, but her eclecticism seems to fit perfectly with the current scene, where authors feel they can write about Botswana as well as Leith, and produce science fiction as well as thrillers.

Having studied her books for years, I met Dame Muriel just the once - at the Edinburgh Book Festival two years ago. She had spoken with insight and humour about her work, and had thrilled the audience with a rare reading from Miss Jean Brodie.

By the time I approached her, I could see she was tiring, so decided to choose just one of the many books I'd taken with me to ask her to sign. It was my first edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She inscribed it "with admiration and warm wishes". My own admiration for her contribution to world literature knows no bounds. She was peerless, sparkling, inventive and intelligent - the crème de la crème.

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post #2 of 5 (permalink) Old 04-17-2006, 12:58 PM
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post #3 of 5 (permalink) Old 04-17-2006, 01:05 PM
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RE: Past her prime

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'-Did you like the movie Bot? Many feel it was Maggie Smith's 'Magnum opus'.
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post #4 of 5 (permalink) Old 04-17-2006, 01:38 PM Thread Starter
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RE: Past her prime

deathrattle - 4/17/2006 4:05 PM

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'-Did you like the movie Bot? Many feel it was Maggie Smith's 'Magnum opus'.
Yes I did like that movie. I'm going to rent it so I can see it again. Last time was in theatre.

I heard the book was a good read but I never. It's one of those books one always intended to read. Another deathbed regret lined-up.

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post #5 of 5 (permalink) Old 04-17-2006, 02:17 PM
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RE: Past her prime

It be a MUCH better world if all the people were Scottish.
(Except for the purple skin,of course.)
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