Ferdinand Mount

The Go-Away Bird

Muriel Spark: The Biography, by Martin Stannard

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Muriel Spark: The Biography

Martin Stannard

Weidenfeld, pp. 627, £

There is no plaque yet on No 13 Baldwin Crescent, otherwise known as ‘Dunedin’. There ought to be. For on the top floor of this shabby yellow-brick house, hidden away between the Camberwell New Road and gloomy Myatt’s Fields, Muriel Spark wrote most of the four or five novels for which we’ll remember her. She was as happy in leafy, run-down Baldwin Crescent as she ever had been or was to be in her long, tense, proud, unforgiving life. She did, it is true, make an excursion to her childhood Edinburgh home to re-immerse herself in the speech of Morningside while she wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in four weeks. But all her other masterpieces — Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Bachelors and much of The Girls of Slender Means — were written within a glorious period of only five years in her two attic rooms in Camberwell. After she left, she never lived in Britain again.

Because she was so stunningly original and burst upon the leaden postwar scene with such a delicious sizzle, as though this was the first time we could afford proper fireworks again, it is easy to forget how beautifully rooted in their settings those early books are. She had only just begun writing novels at the age of 39, having thought of herself till then as a poet. Yet in a few masterly lines she gets up for us the clapped-out pubs and factories of Peckham and the boozy gangs wandering across the Rye as indelibly as she does the corridors of Marcia Blaine School for Girls and the Princess May of Teck Club, based, quite closely, on her times at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls and the Helena Club in Lancaster Gate respectively. She was a realist before she was a surrealist. As Fleur Talbot, her alter ego novelist heroine in Loitering with Intent, says: ‘When I first started writing, people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism.’

When her books ran thin, as they began to do all too soon after her golden flowering, it was because they no longer had much solid ground to take off from. These later stories were derived not from life but from the glossies and newspapers and film mags. They became as insubstantial and shadowy as those late paintings by Sickert that he worked up from newspaper photographs.

It is hard to read the early novels without an inappropriately seraphic smile breaking out on one’s face like the ghoul at the weepie in the Charles Addams cartoon. By contrast, I find her later books strangely hard to get through, though they are just as short, 50,000 words or so. It is like trying to operate an apparently simple gadget which has been supplied without some vital part though you cannot identify what it is. Those little macabre jumps into the future no longer take your breath away: ‘She will be found tomorrow dead from multiple stab wounds.’ The little nudges to the reader are no longer so winning: ‘Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?’. Even the most devoted fan may feel like whispering ‘Who cares?.’

I cannot help feeling that her exile from her material was part of the trouble. By then she was too famous for anyone to tell her anything. In any case, she was never one to admit error, except in her choice of men (‘I was a bad picker’). On the contrary, she claimed grandly that ‘it was Edinburgh that bred within me the condition of exiledom. It has ceased to become a fate, it has become a calling’, the calling of the real artist, just as it had been the calling of other high priests of modernism, such as Eliot, Joyce and Auden.

Yet it is also true that she simply could not get on with people and places for very long. As Martin Stannard shows in this massive biography, which is simultaneously inspiriting and dispiriting, for years ‘her only intimate relation to other human beings had been with her readers’. After leaving London, she moved between New York and Rome, travelling all over the place in between, accompanied by an ever-changing cast of gay cavaliers, some kind-hearted and solicitous for her welfare, others catty and freakish like the bizarre Baron Brian de Breffny, a Mormon genealogist who was the son of a London cabbie or possibly bookie. She never liked to warm her hands too long at any one camp fire.

But her gay friendships lasted better than most of those with her fellow writers. Ved Mehta said, ‘She went through people like pieces of Kleenex’. In Muriel’s own brief and sunny memoir, Curriculum Vitae, she claims that ‘I am a hoarder of two things: documents and trusted friends’. In reality, by the end she had accumulated a mountain of paper recording every transaction in her life but scarcely a single old friend, except her charming and level-headed companion, Penelope Jardine, in whose Tuscan priest-house she lodged for her last 20 years and more, only once or twice threatening to decamp or at least to stop paying her share of the expenses. Her devoted publisher, Alan Maclean, she eventually wrote off as ‘an indescribably filthy liar’. Of the poet and critic Derek Stanford, a queer fish admittedly but the only man she seriously loved and wanted to marry, her closing words were ‘I hate the man’s guts’. Her conversation became as brittle as her books, snapping off a topic the moment she tired of it, leaving her audience with a feeling of inadequacy.

At her death in April 2006, she was brewing up for a monster row with Stannard, describing the draft of his biography as ‘based on negative rhetoric and terribly mean and hostile and very poorly written’. In fact it is perfectly well written, sometimes rather witty, and painstakingly based on all the documents she gave him the run of. The worst you could accuse him of is now and then flinching from Muriel’s own plain speech. He refers, for example, to her ‘street-slang annotation’ on an enquiry from a reader and her ‘scribbling something uncomplimentary’ on a whingeing letter from Stanford, without spelling out what she actually wrote.

Above all, Stannard demonstrates with unfailing sympathy why she armed herself with such an adamantine carapace. She had come through a terrible mixture of relentless poverty, recurrent bad luck and dogging ill health. She needed all the defences she could muster to protect her reputation and her self-confidence. Her father, Barney Camberg, was a fitter and mechanical engineer at the North British Rubber Company all his life. As a member of the kingly tribe of Cohens he went first into the synagogue, but he was looked down on for not being in business like the rest of the Edinburgh Jewish community. Muriel described herself as a Gentile Jewess, which was to lead to a literally blood feud with her only child Robin, who insisted on being barmitzvahed, claiming that he was fully Jewish because his grandmother, Barney’s wife, Cissy, was also Jewish by maternal descent. Muriel fiercely disputed this. Stannard does his best to unravel the truth of the matter. But whichever of them was right, it scarcely excuses Muriel’s festering contempt for her son or her eventually cutting him out of her will at the end of her life, just as she had cut him out at the beginning by leaving him behind in Rhodesia at the age of five when she fled her mad and violent husband, Solly Spark. She had married Solly at the age of 19 to get away from her family, scarcely knowing him and soon wishing she never had. Quoting the title of her famous story, Muriel remarked, accurately enough, ‘I was really myself a Go-Away Bird’. She diagnosed herself as not the marrying type. As Stannard puts it nicely, her pram was always to remain in someone else’s hall.

When she went to Edinburgh in later years, she stayed, not with Cissy and Robin but with the High Sheriff or at the North British Hotel. On her last visit, she did not bother to see her son who was only a ten-minute walk away. Robin’s life was nothing to be ashamed of. He had risen in the civil service to become Chief Clerk to the Scottish Law Commission, then resigned to become a well regarded painter. But Muriel would concede nothing to him: he was only stoking up the row about their Jewishness because he wanted publicity for his lousy paintings which he couldn’t sell.

Not that she found life much easier back in London when she first set up as an independent woman earning her own living. She was turfed out of her job at the Poetry Society by a claque of querulous poets. Publisher after publisher whom she worked for or submitted work to went bust, and one went to prison. She was outstandingly industrious and competent — the publisher, Peter Owen, described her as ‘the best bloody secretary I ever had’. But nothing much went right for her, certainly not the weak and cowardly men she fell in with. Like Evelyn Waugh, she began to suffer from hallucinations, and for the same reason, addiction to chloral in his case, Dexedrine in hers (Waugh became a loyal admirer and told her he thought The Comforters was much better than Pinfold). After reviewing The Confidential Clerk, she got it into her head that T. S. Eliot was sending her threatening messages, encoding them in the theatre programme and in the play itself, and then going on to pose as a window cleaner to spy on her friends.

A little earlier, she had been baptised and confirmed, first as an Anglican, then as a Catholic, and she began the practice of retiring now and then to places of retreat like Allington Castle to restore her balance. At one point, she thought of becoming a nun. The Church remained a comfort and an anchor to her, a bulwark against the materialist philistines, although the joy that she had experienced on first reading Newman’s Apologia inevitably dried up a bit. Towards the end of her life she rarely went to church, except at Easter. She was, notoriously, more interested in theology than in morality. But she denied that her books were amoral or inhuman. They were simply true to life as everyone knew it really was but did not like to say. ‘I love all my characters; when I’m writing about them I love them most intensely, like a cat loves a bird.’

Certainly no writer could have been in person more like her books: exuberant and stony-hearted, switching without any sort of notice from charming and flirtatious to chilly and dismissive. You never knew where you were with her, and that’s how she liked it. She picked up the trick from Dame Edith Sitwell, whom she greatly admired as another woman who didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything except Art and the Catholic Church:

My dear, you must acquire a pair of lorgnettes, focus the glasses on that man and sit looking at him through them as if he were an insect. Just look and look.

And she did. It was just about the only piece of advice she ever took from anyone.