I realize you are no longer living, but that’s no reason for me to rudely withhold a fan letter. I’ve just finished the first volume of your collected novels, and I’m floored.
You kept me entertained for hours with your peculiar characters and the gossipy way you bring the reader into their tangle of intertwined lives. Not since discovering Alice Munro’s short stories have I been so utterly convinced of an author’s mastery of her genre.
You win. You really nailed the whole novel-writing thing.
My admiration had its unremarkable beginnings with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I was skeptical at first– just another mild-mannered coming-of-age novel?– but everyone was talking about Martin Stannard’s biography, and I figured I might as well catch up by starting with your best-known work.
Here was a little book following the education of some six Scottish students at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in the 1930s, under the tutelage of eccentric unmarried teacher Miss Brodie. You really fooled me with that unambitious-sounding plot. Little by little, without my noticing, you rounded out your characters’ identifying traits and quirks, unraveled their flaws, and scooted everyone a little closer together, until the Brodie set had taken center stage to claw their way through essential human dramas: betrayal, regret, unrequited love.
I rented the 1969 film version, the title role for which Dame Maggie Smith (Harry Potter, Sister Act) won an Academy Award, achieving that rarity in a novel-based film of character illumination and adding to the understanding of the novel itself.
Anyway, we were talking about you. I think I was already hooked on your writing when I started reading The Comforters, next up in the volume and possibly my current favorite novel. With Laurence Manders, heir to Manders’ Figs in Syrup, suspecting his sharp-minded, gentle Irish grandmother of smuggling diamonds, and that horrible nun Mrs. Hogg of being a witch, there’s plenty of intrigue to chase around. Then there’s his girlfriend Caroline, haunted by the disembodied sounds of a typewriter and narrating voice, and convinced that she’s just a character in a book. According to some, the germ of it grew out of your own nervous breakdown in the 1950s, but to me it reads more deliberately, working seamlessly in the novel as a brilliant device for talking about fiction, akin to Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler…
The Only Problem is also great: romantic triangles, a beautiful blond terrorist named Effie, a baby, and a rich, reclusive writer obsessed with the book of Job. But the only problem with Volume 1 comes next, with The Driver’s Seat, which really disturbed and upset me. What is it we’re supposed to learn from this psychotic young woman intent on ending her own life by getting a convicted killer to murder her? Seriously, Muriel, this one’s a little sick.
That brings us to Memento Mori, which could be my second favorite novel of all time, but that doesn’t look so good, now does it? I’m an equal opportunity librarian, after all, and I like a good Steinbeck novel or something by Marilynne Robinson just as much as the next bookworm. And what would Jane Austen say if she knew she’d been displaced? Would you mind asking her next time you two have a chat over tea?
Speaking of ghosts, Memento Mori is a powerful meditation on death. I already miss the characters, a tightly knit group of elderly writers, aristocrats, servants, and their relatives. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel whose protagonists were all well over 70, nor one in which mortality is handled with a balanced blend of humor and humility. I was fascinated by the different way each character heard and interpreted the mysterious telephone calls cautioning them to “remember you must die.” I felt as if I had received the phone call, too, and found myself relaxing my grip a little on the petty things it’s so easy to get hung up on.
Reading your work has felt deeply instructive, but not because I diagrammed the narrative arc. I don’t think the magic of your writing can actually be distilled into a formula, as Michiko Kakutani writes in the Times. Still, it makes a good script for one of those blockbuster plot workshops:
“Here is the recipe for a typical Muriel Spark novel: take a self-enclosed community (of writers, schoolgirls, nuns, rich people, etc.) that is full of incestuous liaisons and fraternal intrigue; toss in a bombshell (like murder, suicide or betrayal) that will ricochet dangerously around this little world, and add some allusions to the supernatural to ground these melodramatics in an old-fashioned context of good and evil. Serve up with crisp, authoritative prose and present with ‘a light and heartless hand’.”
Thank you, sounds delicious, but I’ve just eaten.
In closing, Ms. Spark, all that remains is to express my gratitude for the many novels you left us when you died, and for waiting until the ripe age of 39 to launch your writing career. In a youth-obsessed literary culture, that must have taken courage, and it’s certainly heartening for slow-goers like me.
Cheers, Muriel, and see you in Volume 2.