Saturday 7 December 2019

Muriel Spark: An extraordinary life

Stannard's brilliant account probes the darker side of one of the 20th Century's most talented writers, says Frieda Klotz

Frieda Klotz

Muriel Spark: The Biography

Martin Stannard

Orion, €33

When Muriel Spark wrote her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, in 1992, she sought to record truth: "I determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence... Lies are like fleas hopping from here to there, sucking the blood of the intellect." Notoriously elusive, she wanted to set right the false facts that journalists and former friends had circulated.

However, truth is sometimes hard to pin down. Curriculum Vitae gives a precise account of Spark's life, but it skips over a lot too. Now, Martin Stannard's new, scrupulously researched book, Muriel Spark: The Biography, fills in the gaps her autobiography left out -- including depression, hallucinations, excessive drinking and unsuitable men. Stannard probes the darker, more complex aspects of her life. Stannard has written an authoritative and brilliantly readable book on one of the 20th Century's most talented writers.

Muriel Spark was an extraordinary figure by any measure. Born in Edinburgh in 1918, she grew up in a modest household where little reading went on, yet her poor roots didn't hamper her. She went on to become not just one of the leading novelists of the post-war era, but also an independent woman who lived a glamorous international lifestyle, loved clothes and men, and comfortably glided through the elite intellectual societies of London, Paris and New York.

It is impossible to sum up Spark in a few words -- Stannard's text is 537 pages long, excluding notes. Spark's early life, before her true success, is the most fascinating part of the story and Stannard creates a picture of an ambitious and unconventional young woman who enjoyed using her feminine wiles. In post-war London, "this dynamism, glittering from a witty, irreverent and beautiful young woman, soon secured her friends... She seemed both oddly proper and glamorous, placable yet capable of delivering a conversational killer punch if threatened... She was, to use her word, 'sexy' -- and she enjoyed that power."

Elegance appealed to her. She said she got inspiration from women's magazines, and when a journalist from the Daily Telegraph interviewed her in 1970, she wore "a 'flowing green dress' and insisted they 'drink Creme de Menthe to match it.'"

From an early age, Spark chose a life of adventure. When she was just 19, determined to leave Edinburgh, she married an older man. He worked in Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), and she joined him there only to find that he was mentally unstable and violent -- she once hid his gun from him, fearing for her safety. She loved the beauty of the African countryside, but the crassness

of the white colonisers repelled her. "The white people out there were very impermanent," she recalled. "One could see that it wouldn't last. They didn't know that."

Spark had a son by her husband, but she left him soon afterwards and returned to the UK. She later brought her son to Edinburgh, where her family took care of him until he grew up.

She went to London. Life was tough for the struggling young author, and it didn't help that she began to pop pills. Stannard says, "For some months she had been innocently popping Dexedrine, then readily available from chemist shops to assist dieting. It seemed an ideal drug to get her through this difficult time: she economised on food, lost weight, and her wits were sharpened for those long working nights." It also caused her to have hallucinations for several months.

Meanwhile, her personal life was full of drama. She always dressed well, even in poverty, and began an affair with a married man called Howard Sergeant. Their relationship was passionate. In his diary Sergeant recorded an evening when they walked together through Hyde Park after a Poetry Society meeting: "Muriel was wearing a very provocative dress which showed the first delicate curve of her breasts. Looked really lovely. I was glad that she had recovered her spirits and was in good form."

Spark's next lover was Derek Stanford, a fellow author and poet. They collaborated on many projects, and he took care of her tirelessly when she was ill during the Dexedrine episode. When Spark converted to Catholicism she dropped Stanford as a lover, leaving him devastated. He went on to write about her, and sold her letters, and she never forgave him. "For years the illusion of romance, of marriage, clouded her judgement of men," Stannard says. "She was, as she admitted, a bad picker."

Well-known figures peopled Spark's life as friends and supporters -- Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Macmillan, and the Queen of Greece are just a few. She also had an Irish landlady for many years in London, "Tiny" Lazzari, "a vivacious, chirruping Irish widow with a Cork accent, small of stature, big of heart". Yet her friends often became enemies. She had a habit of reinventing herself periodically, and discarding old faces. In Stannard's account, as Spark gets older she becomes temperamental, wildly demanding, and less sympathetic.

Spark asked Stannard to write this biography 17 years ago. She opened her vast store of personal records to him, answered his questions and offered interviews. Stannard says in the preface that, "She demanded no veto beyond the right to withdraw the imprimatur of 'authorised biography'." When she saw a first draft of this book, though, it was reported that her friend AS Byatt said, "She was very upset ... and had to spend a lot of time going through it, line by line, to try to make it a little bit fairer."

Muriel Spark: The Biography is a fascinating book full of hard information and gossipy tidbits. One wonders what details Spark must have made Stannard leave out.

Sunday Independent

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