In Memory of Dame Muriel Spark: 1.2.1918 – 13.4.2006
“The greatest Scottish novelist of modern times” (Ian Rankin)
It was with great sadness that we learnt that Muriel Spark had died in Florence on Thursday April 13th, 2006. For the last twenty-six years she had lived in the village of Civitella della Chiana, Tuscany, in the house owned by the sculptor Penelope Jardine, who had answered Spark’s advertisement for an assistant and who became a valued friend and companion. In 2005 Dame Muriel was made an honorary citizen of Civitella and it is there that she is buried.
But she will be forever associated with Edinburgh - not only because it is her birthplace but also because of the huge success of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. However, that novel is the only one of hers that is set in her native city. Ruaridh Nicoll said that ‘Spark may have written the great Edinburgh novel but she was never bound to Scotland. She took readers from Watergate to the hills of Switzerland and out to Jerusalem. She became a Roman Catholic in 1954, believing this would allow her “to see human existence as a whole”.’
Her literary breakthrough came in 1951 when she beat seven thousand other entrants to win The Observer short story competition with ‘The Seraph and the Zambezi’. At the time The Observer commented: ‘Muriel Spark’s success was a peculiarly happy result. She is a practised writer, but not in the field of the short story: indeed this was the first she had ever written. Again, she genuinely and urgently needed the prize money to give her leisure for writing the poetic drama which she had long been planning. And we are confident that this story is a literary discovery which justifies our search.’
Since that prize she has won many others. Among the most acclaimed were the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1978; the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry in 1992; Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1996; and she was conferred as a Dame in 1993.
Such diversity of honours proves what a world-class writer she was.
She never returned to Edinburgh to live but she said of it: ‘It was Edinburgh that bred within me the conditions of exiledom: and what have I been doing since then but moving from exile to exile? It has ceased to be a fate, it has become a calling.’ Perhaps this self-enforced exile (living in South Africa, London, New York and Italy) allowed her to escape the literary conventions of any particular country. ‘Being at an angle I find a help. It means one has a different perspective, a new angle of absurdity.’
A S Byatt admires that angle. ‘It was the originality of the idea I admired. You had the feeling that it wasn’t Spark the writer who was judging the characters but some unchanging Divine Justice. This allowed her to have her detached, even flatly sardonic tone. She was a very moral writer, but in a wicked sort of way.’
Diversity of place, plot and character distinguish Spark’s novels but, as Ian Rankin comments: ‘they all have the same dark heart’. Yet no two tell the same story and her originality also lies in how she structured her novels. By completely understanding the conventions of English literary narrative she dared to challenge them and wrote novels unlike anyone else. Mark Lawson commented that ‘she was one of the most original prose stylists ever’ and Willy Maley said that ‘she was somebody who wrote with bravery and daring.’ A L Kennedy observed that ‘she could do in a sentence what would be three or four paragraphs for anyone else’ and Julian Barnes gave the opinion that ‘Memento Mori is one of the great British novels of the last fifty years.’
Original, brave, daring, wicked, moral – all this makes her out to be a formidable character. Yet for those who knew her she was warm, courteous, funny and open. She was charmed and delighted to have a Society in her name that was based in Edinburgh. She kept in close touch with us and took especial interest in our meetings and our invited speakers.
In her last letter to me she wrote that she hoped I would be able to visit her in Italy. The week I was in Tuscany, hoping to do just that, was the week she died. Although I did not meet her I can assure all the Society’s members that she lived in one of the most beautiful places in the world and was highly regarded and loved by the Italians she lived among.
The Press Association asked me for a tribute to her. On behalf of the Society I said that we were deeply saddened by her death but her poetry, her novels – indeed all her work - prove that Muriel Spark was a writer who was always in her prime.
Chairwoman, The Muriel Spark Society