Posts Tagged ‘muriel spark’

Many of you will remember I hosted a year long reading event for Muriel Spark’s centenary in 2018. I read a lot of Spark that year, but didn’t get to them all, and I became a very firm admirer of her work. Territorial Rights was Muriel Spark’s fifteenth novel. Set in Venice it was written during the period Spark lived in Italy, one of only three of her novels to be set there.

I thought it was marvellously Sparkian, it is deliciously odd, with a dark seam as ever flowing through it. Muriel Spark is endlessly readable – and unique in her storytelling. Story strands weave together in a complex – though never confusing – manner, coincidences abound, and there is more than a little comedy to boot.

Young art student Robert Leaver arrives in Venice from Paris, booking in at the Pensione Sofia which is run by sisters Katerina and Eufemia. Before the war – the war, around thirty years in the past looms large in this novel – the pensione was the Villa Sofia, owned by a Bulgarian count. Katerina and Eufemia were young women then, and remember those times keenly.

Then Curran turns up, an older wealthy man, who also knew Venice during the war. Robert Leaver used to live in his flat in Paris, but their coming to Venice at the same time is merely a coincidence, one of several in this novel. There is something mysterious about Curran, he’s a man with a past. Curran opts to stay at the much more expensive Lord Byron Hotel.

“He was often in London, often in the South of France, often in Capri, sometimes in Florence and less frequently nowadays in Rome. He hardly ever went to Germany unless to buy a picture and he left Switzerland alone. Venice was very much his territory; it changed less than other places with the passing of time.”

Robert’s latest interest – aside from any art studies he claims to be undertaking – is Bulgarian defector Lina Pancev. Lina is at least a decade older than Robert, and lives in building by the canal that looks like it needs demolishing. Lina defected from Bulgaria when she was on a student exchange trip, but she is very much still a product of her communist upbringing. Lina is searching for the grave of her father – a man allegedly involved in an assassination plot – he was himself murdered at the end of the war. Curran appears very interested in what Lina is doing, he tells Robert he should stay away from her and talks about her with his old friend, the mysterious socialite Countess de Winter.

“Violet de Winter, chief agent of Global-Equip Security Services Ltd for Northern Italy and adjacent territories, had been feeling the pinch of modern immorality, as she put it. Over the past ten years her business, on the GESS side, had deteriorated by seventy-five per cent largely because unmarried lovers no longer chose Venice as the most desirable place to be together and, moreover, the lovers’ husbands and wives no longer seemed to care if they did. ‘The bottom has fallen out of the love-bird-business,’ she frequently told her old friend Curran, who, in his turn, had always found her useful in many ways.”

Next to turn up out of the blue is Arnold Leaver, Robert’s father. A retired boys’ school headmaster, he arrives in Venice with his mistress Mary, the former cook from the same school. Bumping into Robert at the Pensione Sofia it all gets a little awkward – as Robert’s mother; Arnold’s wife remains at home in Birmingham. Arnold and Mary speedily decamp to the Lord Byron too.

Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, Arnold’s wife Anthea is anxious to discover just what her husband is doing in Venice. She decides to put a private detective agency from Coventry on the case, and tells her good friend Grace Gregory all about it. Grace isn’t sure that getting a detective agency involved is the right thing to do at all, and takes matters into her own hands. In the company of her lodger, Leo, Grace travels to Venice to find out just what Arnold is up to. Grace was formerly the matron at Arnold Leaver’s school, and young Leo was a pupil – she was also we discover, once Arnold’s mistress.

So, the scene is well and truly set for chaos, confusion, and revelations from the past. Then, Robert goes missing.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable Muriel Spark novel – perhaps one that is less well known than some, but with many of the elements that I enjoy in her writing.

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One of the novellas I read in November for #novnov was The Abbess of Crewe a Muriel Spark novel I had been meaning to read since the read-a-long I hosted in 2018. Beneath the oddness and the wit in Muriel Spark’s novels there is usually something rather dark or disturbing going on, and this one is no exception.

“The self-controlled English sun makes leafy shadows fall on this polished table and across the floor. A bee importunes at the window-pane. The parlour is cool and fresh. A working nun can be seen outside labouring along with two pails, one of them probably unnecessary; and all things keep time with the season.”

Famously of course, The Abbess of Crewe is a satire on the Watergate Scandal – which was very much still a hot topic in the newspapers at the time the hurriedly written novel came out. I was a very young child during the Watergate Scandal, my knowledge of it coming from that film All the President’s Men when I was in my teens or early twenties. I don’t have a detailed, encyclopaedic knowledge of who did what, when etc – and when reading this novel that doesn’t matter at all. This edition comes with an excellent introduction written by Ali Smith at the end of which she provides a list of the probable equivalent roles of Spark’s characters to the real life figures they parody.

Muriel Spark replaces the American seat of government with a nunnery in the north of England. The politicians and their aides with nuns. It could only really have come from the extraordinary mind of Muriel Spark – and of course she does it well. While it might not be my favourite Spark novel – there is so much to admire in this novel, the clever plotting and detail that make it very much a part of a recognisable Sparkian world.

Following the death of Hildegarde the Abbey of Crewe is in need of a new Abbess – and an election will be held. There are two contenders for the role – Alexandra and Felicity. They are very different women; Alexandra is very traditional, part of the old guard. Felicity is free-love loving, consorting with Jesuit priests and keen to make big changes. Alexandra and her hangers on are trying to manage the coming election – and are concerned as Felicity appears to be gaining in popularity.

“Walberga says sharply, ‘This morning the polls put her at forty-two per cent according to my intelligence reports.’

‘It’s quite alarming,’ says Alexandra, ‘seeing that to be the Abbess of Crewe is my destiny.’ She has stopped walking and the two nuns have stopped with her. She stands facing them, drawing their careful attention to herself, lighthouse that she is. ‘Unless I fulfil my destiny my mother’s labour pains were pointless and what am I doing here?”

The abbey is bugged as part of the process of ensuring that Alexandra becomes the Abbess of Crewe. Walls inside and trees outside are all wired for sound – and the sisters in the abbey are all unknowingly assisting in the wiring. Alexandra listens in to the recordings, ready to use anything she hears to her advantage. Keeping a close eye – and ear – on all the sisters, and visitors to the abbey. Embracing the twentieth century the sisters are given courses in understanding electronics and surveillance. During mealtimes, where the nuns sit in silence they listen dutifully to bible readings, which will suddenly go off into little bits of technical instruction – slipped in subliminally – and apparently not noticed by the listeners. Another thing these poor unsuspecting sisters don’t notice is the food they are subjected to – heavily disguised pet food is dished up each day. Food Alexandra considers perfectly nourishing, it is of course bought cheaply in bulk. Only Alexandra and her minions know what is going on.

When Felicity’s thimble is apparently stolen from her sewing basket – it unleashes a nationwide scandal. However, it is her love letters to the Jesuit priest Thomas that both Felicity and Alexandra are most concerned about.

“…a Jesuit, or any priest for that matter, would be the last man I would myself elect to be laid by. A man who undresses, maybe; but one who unfrocks, no.”

After all it was Alexandra who instructed two young Jesuits to retrieve the letters. The missing thimble draws Felicity’s attention to the letters having been touched by someone other than herself. Suddenly, the abbey is under all kinds of scrutiny after Felicity calls the police and flees the abbey.

Alexandra is a brilliantly drawn character – I have seen reviewers refer to her as Nixon (or even Trump) in drag which is really quite funny. A power hungry megalomaniac who will do anything to get what she wants; she manipulates all around her.

This novella is brilliantly imagined, laugh out loud funny with a touch of something a little darker. Living in a world where political scandal is not just something that happened in 1970s America – this sharp little novella remains as relevant as ever.

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In 2018, I started the #readingMuriel2018 reading challenge – and during that year read an awful lot of Muriel Spark – though I didn’t manage everything she wrote. I had fully intended to read The Finishing School at the end of that year of reading, as it was her final novel. However, it has sat on my tbr along with at least one other Spark novel that I bought to read in 2018 but didn’t manage to get to.

In her introduction to this edition, poet Jackie Kay describes this novel which was written when Muriel Spark was eighty-six as a comic and satirical swansong. It is a novel about passion and creative jealously, beginnings and endings, writing fiction, reality and imagination. It is interesting to note that in Muriel Spark’s first novel The Comforters the central character is a writer who begins to hear a typewriter tapping out the words she speaks or thinks. In The Finishing School we meet two writers, one of them, a student at the school is apparently turning out some potentially brilliant stuff at quite a rate, while the other, a teacher, is seriously blocked. The other Spark novel one can’t help but recall is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – where another teacher has an enormous impact on her young students.  

“‘You begin’ he said ‘by setting your scene. You have to see your scene either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.’ Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent…”

The Finishing school of the title is College Sunrise, currently located in Ouchy on the edge of Lake Geneva. The school is run by Rowland and Nina Mahler, the school is peripatetic, moving around Europe, a different place each year leaving a few debts in their wake. The couple support themselves with what they make from the school as Rowland struggles to write his novel. Rowland teaches the creative process, while Nina teaches other more frivolous aspects of life.

“When you finish at College Sunrise you should be really and truly finished,” Nina told the girls. “Like the finish on a rare piece of furniture. Your jumped-up parents (may God preserve their bank accounts) will want to see something for their money.”

This year they have nine students – all from different privileged backgrounds, a mixture of nationalities they all seem to be in their late teens. We don’t really get to know these students in any meaningful way, and what we do see is not always likeable. Chris Wiley is one of them, at almost eighteen he is already writing his first novel about Mary Queen of Scots, unconcerned that she has been written about many times before, he is confident he can bring something new to the story. Chris starts to seek out new angles to the story of the Queen and the story of Darnley’s murder. Rowland who is struggling with his own writing becomes very irritated by Chris’s burgeoning success.

Chris has one of his fellow students keep his computer and discs in her room, away from prying eyes. It soon become obvious to everyone that Rowland is especially bothered by Chris and his writing – and the reader starts to wonder how far his creative jealousy and rivalry will push him. Rowland watches Chris, riffles through his bag – and in the end begins to write his observations of Chris into his own novel.

Meanwhile Nina is becoming more and more aware that her marriage is probably over, Rowland is more married to his novel she thinks than to her. She begins an affair.

“‘Do you find,’ said Rowland to Chris, ‘that at a certain point your characters are taking over and living a life of their own?’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Chris said.

‘I mean once you have created the characters, don’t you sort of dream of them or really dream of them so that they come to you and say ‘Hey, I didn’t say that.’

‘No’ said Chris.

Rowland’s jealousy begins to get a little out of hand, as does Chris’s attempts to thwart him. A publisher begins to take some interest in Chris – more attracted it seems by his age than his actual writing.

In the Finishing School Spark is as clear sighted as ever – she knows what she wants to say, and in it we see many of the preoccupations from her earlier novels. In the title it is tempting to see Spark having another little laugh, perhaps knowing this would be her final novel, although I did read somewhere that when she died a couple of years later she had another unfinished novel in progress. The Finishing School is witty and satirical and has been described (so I’m told) as the perfect partner to her famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

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Aiding and Abetting was my final read of 2019, it was a strange, quirky little tale from Muriel Spark. Her inventiveness and altered view of the world are never dull. Spark’s satire is never in short supply in this novel, in which she takes one of Britain’s most notorious murder cases as her inspiration.

“Lucky Lucan believed in destiny. By virtue of destiny he was an earl. His wife had been destined to die, according to his mad calculation. It was the madness of a gambler.”

In 1974, Lord Lucan allegedly murdered his children’s nanny – in mistaken identity for his wife, attacked his wife – and then disappeared into the night. It has since been generally assumed that the 7th Earl of Lucan died by his own hand that same night, though his body was never found. However, there were many who thought he had manged to escape, for decades there were rumoured sightings of him all over the world. Some people always believed that he had been helped by his network of wealthy friends who had provided him with money and opportunities to pass through international borders. These people, his aiders and abetters. The case has fascinated for decades, and Muriel Spark’s unusual take on it, is wickedly subversive.

“‘I have come to consult you,’ he said, ‘because I have no peace of mind. Twenty-five years ago I sold my soul to the Devil.’”

When, more than twenty years after the case hit the headlines, a man walks into psychiatrist Hildegard Wolf’s Parisian office claiming to be Lord Lucan she has one particular reason for doubt. For, Dr Wolf already has another patient claiming to be the missing aristocratic murder suspect, and they clearly can’t both be telling the truth. Perhaps neither of them is. Both men bear a passing resemblance to the missing Earl bearing in mind the passage of time, each of them able to spin a fairly credible tale.

Dr Wolf is something of a strange character herself, for a start her method of therapy is quite unorthodox, she mainly talks about herself. She is also hiding a secret from her past, a secret one of her Lucan claimants knows all about. It is made clear that if she doesn’t keep the Lucan secret, then her secret will also be revealed.

Dr Wolf is not the only one trying to discover the true Lord Lucan. One of Lucan’s old friends, and the daughter of another acquaintance (who wants to write a book) team up in a bid to finally unravel the mystery.

“People who want to write books do so because they feel it to be the easiest thing they can do. They can read and write, they can afford any of the instruments of book writing such as pens, paper, computers, tape recorders, and generally by the time they have reached this decision, they have had a simple education.”

One of the things I really liked about this novel is that Muriel Spark reminds us that at the heart of the mystery is a young woman who was brutally murdered. So often Sandra Rivett is almost an add on to the mystery. If Lucan really did have people helping him escape justice – and despite Lucan being declared dead in 1999 we may never really know this – they did so in the knowledge that he had done a terrible thing. To those aiders and abetters, she really was unimportant.

There is a great little twist at the end of the novel – would you expect anything less? – as Spark explores the nature of the Lucan myth in her own inimitable fashion.

Anyone familiar with Muriel Spark will know she never shied away from difficult or even distasteful themes, and with this novel she certainly treads a fine line between the satirical and the downright unpleasant. She is I think just clever enough to stay on the right side of that line, though some may think the subject matter inappropriate to be satirised in this way. However, what Spark does do well is to remind us that a young woman died horribly, and if Lucan survived that terrible night – he must have had help and plenty of it.

A personal note: I am struggling with the blog at the moment, I haven’t been well for weeks, and despite being off work and able to blog whenever I want to – I find I don’t often want to. Posts have been a bit lacklustre I suspect lately – reflecting my mood, so thank you for sticking with me while I get back to normal.

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During my yearlong #ReadingMuriel2108 event last year – I read a lot of Muriel Spark novels, though not all of them, so I have several I still want to read soon. I was delighted therefore that The Mandelbaum Gate fitted into the #1965 club. The Mandelbaum Gate is something like twice the size of the majority of Spark’s fiction, yet while it can get a little confusing from time to time, it is very compelling and really quite brilliant.

The opening is quite typically Sparkian, with British diplomat Freddy Hamilton ruminating on various kinds of poetry, and which of them he should try to compose in thanks to his weekend hostess.

The setting is Israel and Jordan in 1961, the start of the Adolf Eichmann trial. Relations between these two nations – who barely recognise one another is precarious at best. The Mandelbaum Gate was at this time (and until 1967) a guarded checkpoint between the Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem. It was very much a symbol of the divided nature of the relations between the two states. Due to his diplomatic privileges Freddy is able to pass back and forth through the gate with no problems – though generally anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport is unable to pass through the gate to Jordan. Each weekend Freddy passes through the Mandelbaum gate to spend the weekend with his friends Joanna and Matt Cartwright.

In Israel at this time, on a tour of the Holy Land is Barbara Vaughan, a thirty-something, spinster schoolmistress and catholic convert, whose mother was Jewish. Her part Jewish ancestry making her anticipated travel through the Mandelbaum Gate rather problematic. Barbara has been told of the dangers she could face if she tries to get into Jordan through the Mandelbaum Gate – but Barbara; single minded, knowing just what she wants, is not easily dissuaded. Barbara’s heritage of course, a mirror image of Spark’s own.

“At Joppa, then, when Barbara came to be leaning over the sea-wall, she said to Saul Ephraim, who reminded her much of the Aaronson cousins of her youth, ‘My Gentile relations tried too hard to forget I was a half-Jew. My Jewish relations couldn’t forget I was a half-Gentile, Actually, I didn’t let them forget, either way.’

‘Quite right. Why should you forget what you are? Said Saul ‘You were right.’

‘I know that. But one doesn’t altogether know what one is. There is always more to it than Jew, Gentile, half-Jew, half-Gentile. There’s the human soul, the individual. Not ‘Jew, Gentile’ as one might say ‘autumn, winter.’ Something unique and unrepeatable”

Freddy is a rather unexciting fifty-something year old, with a demanding mother back at home in England. He is a rather passive figure in the main, his life in Jerusalem one of some routine, as he haltingly learns Arabic and resists Abdul Ramdez’s father’s rather suspect insurance scheme. He is a generally quite a charming man, but he and Barbara get off to a shaky start.

Barbara is hoping to meet up with her archaeologist fiancé Harry Clegg, who is in Jordan working on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Barbara has kept her engagement to Harry secret from her family, and her friend and headmistress Miss Rickward – aka Ricky. Their marriage is dependent upon Harry’s first marriage being annulled by the Catholic church. Barbara enlists Freddy’s help in getting into Jordan – after which things get fabulously complicated.

Freddy wakes up having completely lost two days of his life – with no memory of what happened during them.

“On Saturday the 12th of August 1961 when Barbara Vaughan had last been seen, Freddy had accompanied her from the Cartwrights’ front door to Matt’s car outside in the roadway… This was the last thing he remembered until he was walking along his usual route from the Mandelbaum Gate to his hotel on the following Tuesday, which was the 15th of August.”

Barbara disappears, Harry’s in Rome seeking his annulment. Michael, Barbara’s cousin, covering the Eichmann trial arrives and Miss Rickward, rather surprisingly also turns up. There are a host of wonderful characters, including Suzi and Abdul Ramdez and their wily, slightly sinister father and the adorable gift shop owner Mr Alexandros who has befriended Freddy.

Muriel Spark shows her brilliance at short stories too I think – as alongside the main narrative are some glorious smaller stories. We glimpse the odd relationship between Freddy’s mother and her ageing companion, through the letters he receives and writes to them.  Miss Rickward – the headmistress of the school Barbara works at is also strangely fascinating, clearly, she has developed some kind of fixation on her friend and employee. Her story is particularly surprising.

Spark’s writing is brilliant in this novel, she slowly winds up the tension and with this being Spark territory we never quite know where she is taking us. Alongside the tension and the political thriller aspects of this novel though there is also Spark’s humour with her wonderful sense of the absurd.

In some ways this appears to be the most conventional of Muriel Spark’s novels. However, throughout we glimpse those darker, odder elements that is such a recognisable part of her storytelling.

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Following a wonderful year of #readingmuriel2018 this seemed the perfect book to end 2018 with.

Alan Taylor first met Muriel Spark in Arezzo in 1990, she was already seventy-two and had been living in Italy with her companion Penelope Jardine since the 1970s. Taylor had gone to Arezzo especially to interview Muriel Spark. From this first meeting there blossomed a mutual, fond friendship which only ended with Spark’s death.

In Appointment in Arezzo, Alan Taylor tells the story of Muriel Spark, using his knowledge of the writer, as well as his conversations and friendship with Muriel and Penny. Taylor and his family became regular visitors at San Giovanni; Muriel Spark’s home in Italy, he tells of the family’s first holiday there, when Muriel and Penny were away travelling, and the Taylor family were left in charge of the house and the dogs. There were other times the family stayed with Muriel and Penny and their household is a charmingly chaotic, colourful one, a place of real warmth I felt.

“As we got out of the car, Muriel, dressed in an elegant trouser suit, emerged from a gnarled door, beaming broadly and greeting the children as if she’d known them all their lives. She had in her hands two notebooks, one of which she presented to each of the children. Jennifer’s was called ‘Confidential’ while Michael’s was ‘Underground.’ ‘Hide them from the customs officials,’ Muriel whispered.”

Alan Taylor was to accompany Muriel on several trips abroad – arranging for her to speak at the Edinburgh book festival – an event that had the whole of Edinburgh fighting for tickets – well you can hardly blame them. We witness Muriel in Manhattan, and Taylor recalls the years that Muriel Spark wrote for the New Yorker – and had her own office in their building. When the New Yorker celebrated its seventy fifth birthday, it invited Muriel Spark to take part in a festival, and due to Penny’s fear of flying, it was Alan Taylor who accompanied her.

“Throughout our stay in New York Muriel seemed carefree as I imagined she had been when she first arrived there in 1961, fascinated by everything and everyone. It was easy to forget that she was in her ninth decade and in constant pain. I couldn’t help but compare her with the elderly cast of Memento Mori. ‘How primitive life becomes in old age,’ thinks one of them, ‘when one may be surrounded by familiar comforts and yet more vulnerable to the action of nature than any young explorer at the pole.’ Muriel’s approach to ageing – and the infirmity that was its inevitable accompaniment – seemed to be to ignore it wherever possible.”

It is clear that the families became close, and Alan Taylor gained a deep understanding of Muriel Spark’s work, her character and personality. It seems to have been an understanding born of great respect for her work and affection for her as a person. It is obvious however that this book is in no way supposed to be a complete biography – it is the story of the Muriel Spark who was Alan Taylor’s friend.

“No life can be wholly recaptured in words. Something is always missing or unnecessarily included, or over-emphasised, or mis-recalled or made more of, or less of, than it merits. Scott Fitzgerald said that there never could be a good biography of a good novelist, because if he is any good he is too many people; Muriel would certainly have agreed with him.”

Taylor returns to those years before he knew Muriel Spark – and recounts briefly the years Muriel Spark herself covered in Curriculum Vitae. Her upbringing in Scotland, her brief disastrous marriage and the beginnings of her writing career.

However, Taylor certainly doesn’t shy away from those more controversial aspects of her life. He confronts the very difficult relationship with her son; Robin, relating aspects of their correspondence – which certainly shows another side to the story. He also confronts Muriel Spark’s attitude to her Jewish roots – one of the biggest arguments she and her son Robin had. He acknowledges Spark’s prior suspicion of biographers – especially following her experience with Derek Stanford – who had so betrayed her and whose unofficial biography had so infuriated her.

Taylor gives us Spark’s thoughts and feelings on all the key moments in her life, and her long career in writing. Taylor’s portrait is hugely affectionate, a warm, honest portrayal of a woman he quite obviously felt very in tune with. It is a wonderful portrait, and a wonderful book. It provides a fabulous companion to Curriculum Vitae – and for me really completed the picture of a writer I have come to admire so much.

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Apologies to anyone who hates roundup type posts – you may want to look away for a few days. The end of December has crept up on me as it always does, and as well as being a little behind on reviews – I have three round up/best of posts coming up.

I’m not going to review the whole of the #readingMuriel2018 year – if you would like to see how previous phases went go to the bottom of the post. For me it has been a wonderful reading year – I had never intended to try and read all Muriel Spark’s novels (twenty-two I believe), though I have still read more than I expected. Last year I read and enjoyed two novels by Muriel Spark, and they gave me the idea to read more. I have read fourteen books by Muriel Spark this year (and one was the Complete short stories) and one book about her (finished late last night) – eleven of these were used for my A Century of Books.

November and December – phase 6 was to read the later novels of Muriel Spark – those two published in the early 2000s; Aiding and Abetting and The Finishing School, her autobiography Curriculum Vitae, Martin Stannard’s biography of her or Appointment in Arezzo – a friendship with Muriel Spark by Alan Taylor. I had The Finishing School and Aiding and Abetting at the ready – but haven’t managed to get to them. I will definitely be reading some of those books I didn’t manage this year in 2019.

So in the end, I read Curriculum Vitae and Appointment in Arezzo and between the two of them I got a more complete picture of Muriel Spark than Curriculum Vitae alone gave me.

I think there were fewer people joining in this final phase – which I was expecting – apologies if I have missed anyone. Please let me know if I have.

My friend Sian read Curriculum Vitae – and enjoyed it, saying it was interesting to get her side of things having heard a lot of negative things about Muriel Spark in relation to her son. She especially enjoyed the bit when Muriel Spark dealt with that anti-Semitic nun. Marcia from BuriedinPrint also been reading Curriculum Vitae, though I don’t believe she has reviewed it yet. I know she enjoyed the Scottish bits. Mary read Spark’s autobiography saying it “shines light on her novels’ contexts and characters, but I found it bitchy and boastful.”

Monica from Monica’s Bookish Life read and reviewed Aiding and Abetting – a novel based around the disappearance of Lord Lucan, she found it to be another page turner from Muriel Spark with an ironic twist at the end. Mike from LT rated Aiding and Abetting just three stars. I know Chrystyna had both Aiding and Abetting and The Finishing School on her Christmas reading pile, but I believe is planning on finishing them in January – it looks like I may be joining her.

I spotted Melissa from Twitter reading The Finishing School – though I can’t be sure she was deliberately joining in #ReadingMuriel2018 or not. Melissa seemed a little underwhelmed with it. It seems Mike was too, saying “while it contains some satirical humour, is very poorly wrapped up in its conclusion.”

So that’s it – a year of Spark, and I for one have thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you to everyone who has joined in during the year. If you missed any of the previous phases – you can read about them below.

Phase 1 here
Phase 2 here
Phase 3 here
Phase 4 here
Phase 5 here

I will continue to read Muriel Spark, and in fact I have two more Polygon editions winging their way to me. It seems I have begun collecting a few of them – I do have three in other editions too. Those Polygon volumes do look pretty shelved together, perhaps I will get them all in time. So, you can expect to see more Spark reviews on this blog in 2019 (if I don’t get too distracted by other things).


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This last phase of #ReadingMuriel2018 is a kind of – sweeping up all that is left phase. Those following my original schedule can choose between the final two novels that Spark published, her autobiography Curriculum Vitae or other biographies written about her. I chose her autobiography, because having read so much by Muriel Spark this year, I really wanted to understand a bit about who she was.

I certainly enjoyed Curriculum Vitae, it is a short, though thoroughly readable autobiography, although I can’t say I really got to know Muriel Spark herself – for me she remains rather elusive. Though Muriel the child, is perhaps a little clearer than Muriel the grown woman, the writer, the mother – it is that later Muriel who I founder harder to really envisage. Young Muriel; a child who took simple joy in a bicycle, who loved visiting her grandparents at their shop in Watford.

“It was an exceptional bike. I found I could make up poetry and stories in my head as I whizzed along, ringing my bell to scatter such of the sauntering population, with their little dogs, as were in my way.”

Born to a Jewish father and an English, Presbyterian mother Muriel Spark does paint a touching, colourful portrait of her Edinburgh childhood. Butter came from the Buttercup Dairy Company, bread rolls bought from the baker, fresh and warm from the oven. Through a variety of anecdotes, we see young Muriel grow up in an environment where her mother just doesn’t sound the same as the other mothers. School was James Gillespie’s High school for girls, and here Muriel was to be taught by Miss Christina Kay. This section of Curriculum Vitae concerning Muriel’s childhood and schooldays was my favourite part of the book.

“I fell into Miss Kay’s hands at the age of eleven. It might well be said that she fell into my hands. Little did she know, little did I know, that she bore within her the seeds of the future Miss Jean Brodie, the main character in my novel, in a play on the West End of London and on Broadway, in a film and a television series.”

Muriel Spark doesn’t ignore the difficult or painful aspects of her life, but neither does she go into great detail – certainly her account is unsentimental which may be a good thing. However, it feels as if she really wasn’t comfortable revealing too much. At just nineteen, Muriel Camberg as she was then, married S.O.S as he was often called, Sydney Oswald Spark, who was thirty-seven. Muriel followed him to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where she was soon to regret her marriage. Muriel didn’t see herself staying long in Africa, she disliked the attitude of the white community toward the black people who they so clearly looked down on. Her marriage didn’t really last very long, long enough for a son Robin to be born, by which time the war in Europe prevented Muriel returning to England very soon. S.O Spark is presented as having had mental health problems and had tried to persuade his wife to have an abortion. Muriel refused, and their son Robin was born in Bulawayo in 1938.


With her marriage over, Muriel embarked on the lengthy process of obtaining a divorce but decided to keep her husband’s name. In 1944 she was able to get a passage from South Africa to England, but she left Robin behind for the time being. He was still a little boy and it was probably safer that way – there was no knowing if Muriel’s ship would make it home in one piece. Her son arrived some time later – by which time Muriel had settled in London and begun work of some secrecy, with the Foreign Office which brought her into contact with POWs. When Robin arrives, he is installed with Muriel’s parents in Edinburgh where she visits him from time to time. This peculiar arrangement continued, and Robin was effectively brought up by his grandparents, a fact Muriel Spark herself rather glosses over in her autobiography.

Later she begins work as editor for the Poetry Review – an experience she was to use in her novel Loitering with Intent, and it is in this later section of Curriculum Vitae that we see some of Spark’s bite. The people she worked alongside here and knew through the Poetry Society are portrayed as a bunch of petty individuals – the relationships between who got to be rather toxic. There are those who clearly annoyed her, and she uses her book to totally dismiss them.

“Perhaps my most annoying contestant was a banker and amateur literary man of sixty, William Kean Seymour, a born mediocrity. He told me he had himself very much wanted the job of editor and had been disappointed when it came to me. I had occasion to remind him of this in later letters, fortunately salvaged by me.”

She relates a particularly unpleasant exchange by letter with birth control campaigner Dr Marie Stopes, who is not shown here in a very good light. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder at what Muriel Spark’s treatment of these people was – why did she provoke them quite as much as she seems to have done? Those who come in for a bit of a roasting are the former friends who she finds have sold her letters to an American university. Muriel Spark leaves us in no doubt about what she thinks about those by whom she feels let down and betrayed, though there is just a hint of vitriol in her account.

All in all, I found this a very readable and quite fascinating little book though not as revealing as I had hoped. The book ends with the beginnings of Muriel Spark’s writing success – and I wonder if she had meant to write another volume of autobiography and never quite got around to it.

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Read for phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 Symposium is a short, engaging novel with a fairly large cast of characters.

This is a very clever novel, beautifully textured, I loved the way the narrative moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing a little bit more about a group of wealthy, privileged people. It is a novel about what happens when these types of people come together, about the thin veneer of respectability that might exist in such circles. We are though in typical Sparkian territory, and there is also robbery and murder on the agenda and more than a few surprises.

“‘Here in Scotland,’ said Magnus. ‘people are more capable of perpetrating good or evil than anywhere else. I don’t know why it is, but so it is. That gives me an advantage.”

Hurley Reed; an American painter and his partner Chris Donovan a wealthy Australian widow are hosting a dinner party. Hurley and Chris’s dinners are legendary, invitations much sought after, those who are invited will spend time anticipating the menu. Four other couples are to attend the dinner party, and at the beginning of the novel Spark introduces us to them in a way which could be confusing, but isn’t, Spark never allows her reader to be anything else than interested in finding out more about these people.

Lord and Lady Suzy – Lady Helen Suzy is just twenty-two, her husband considerably older, they have only been married about a year. The couple have recently been burgled, while they were asleep upstairs – a fact Lord Suzy is simply outraged about.

Ernst and Ella Untzinger, Ernst is a successful man, involved in the world of international finance. His wife Ella has been looking for a job to keep her busy, the couple have been befriended by Luke a PhD student from the states. Luke is currently moonlighting with a domestic service agency – helping out at posh dinner parties and the like.

Margaret and William Damien are newlyweds. They have recently returned from honeymoon and taken up residence in the London apartment that William’s wealthy Australian mother (a friend of Chris Donovan’s) has bought for them. Margaret is the main protagonist of this novel, a young woman who met and married William within four months.

“The Murchies made their living out of quarrying granite and other stone. They had a well organised small business about which Hilda had found out before she left Australia. Dan Murchie of Murchie & sons, Quarriers and Extractors, Mining Equipment Supplied, was about to retire. But the family business was involved in a sub-contractual way with the Channel Tunnel; and Hilda assumed they needed that sort of money which is necessary to make very much more money. If Margaret had not met William casually in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s, she would have suspected, and without rancour, that the Murchies might be after William’s, that was to say, her, money. It was a situation that Hilda could not have it in her to be too sure of, too cynical about. People did fall in love, quite simply.”

With her long red hair – Margaret has the strange habit of arranging herself too look like a pre-Raphaelite painting. William’s mother; Hilda who has just arrived in London is expected to arrive at some point during the evening – however she is rather unavoidably detained, as she is being murdered as the dinner party progresses.

Annabel Treece and Roland Sykes; a TV producer and genealogist are cousins, and the characters we probably get to know the least well. The cousins are close, and it is only Roland’s homosexuality that prevents them being sexually attracted. Roland’s expertise as a genealogist will play a part in unravelling a mystery about one of their fellow guests.

Hurley Reed and Chris Donovan have professional domestic help at their home, their butler Charterhouse is assisted on the evening of the dinner party by the aforementioned Luke. The reader soon realises that there is something about these servants that is rather suspicious. Just how is that Luke is able to sport such an expensive watch, for instance?

It is Margaret Damien (nee Murchie) who remains the most interesting character. Gradually we get to know a little more of her backstory – originally from Scotland, she moved to London and met her husband in the fruit and vegetable section of Marks and Spencer marrying him with almost unseemly haste. Margaret does have the misfortune to having been linked to a couple of suspicious deaths before. She has a particularly close relationship with her rather mad uncle – who spends most of his time locked away in a hospital in Scotland though he is allowed out for a family Sunday lunch once a week. In Margaret’s past there is even a community of Marxist nuns, one of them who is surprisingly quite sweary.

“So it happened that shortly after Margaret Murchie had joined the community as a novice the BBC duly arrived: Miss Jones, a team of five and their cameras. The first thing they did was to change the lighting arrangements in the recreation room and refectory, clobbering through the hall with their unnecessarily stout boots. Sister Marrow appeared in the hallway. ‘What the fucking hell do you think you’re doing?’ she enquired of the chief cameraman, who was immediately joined protectively by the other four technicians.”

You never know what you’re going to get from Muriel Spark, and her nuns in Symposium are a comic delight. There are plenty more surprises before everything falls into place. This is a darkly, sophisticated novel, and I completely loved it.

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The nights are drawing in on this side of the planet, which means Phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 is coming to an end already. Phase 5 has been all about the novels Muriel Spark published in the 1980s and 1990s. This roundup coming out a couple of days early, to make way for other things.

Loitering with Intent (1981) – shortlisted for Booker Prize
The Only Problem (l984)
Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
Symposium (1990)
Reality and dreams (1996)

Were what we had to choose from.

I had already read A Far Cry from Kensington, it made my books of the year list in 2017, so I was looking forward to reading more from the same period of Spark’s writing. After thoroughly enjoying Loitering with Intent and The Only Problem, I now view the 1980s as a period in Muriel Spark’s writing that I really engage with. I am squeezing Symposium into the very end of this phase 5 period, but it looks like I shall be reviewing it at the beginning of phase 6.

Sian read Loitering with Intent too, but it didn’t quite tick all the boxes for her, she decided she might be all Sparked out. Sometimes, we read the right books at the wrong times, I know that all too well. Meg also read Loitering with Intent and found Spark’s wonderful characters to be really quite a bunch – they are! Loitering with Intent does seem to be a favourite with many people, I have had a number of comments on the blog and on Twitter telling me it’s their favourite Spark. Michael from LT who continues to work his way through all of Spark’s novels rated it five stars calling it the most autobiographical of Spark’s novels. Jacqui from Jacquiwine reviewed Loitering with Intent during the summer, calling it ‘a marvellous piece of meta fiction about the work of writers’

Grier has also read The Only Problem, which I am glad to say she enjoyed too. Jennifer agreed with me, that the ingredients of this one could only have come from the imagination of Muriel Spark. An academic writing a book on the Book of Job while his estranged wife runs around with French terrorists and a policewoman masquerades as a housekeeper. The Only Problem was another five-star read for Michael.

A Far Cry from Kensington is such a good novel, it is probably the novel that really made me want to read a lot more by Muriel Spark. Mary read A Far Cry from Kensington, rating it 4 stars and calling it witty, clever, fun. Caroline from Bookword, reviewed it too saying how Spark’s depiction of the publishing world in the 1950s, which she knew, reveals how few people care about the written word and how many of them are more concerned with their reputation, connections or just hanging on to their job. Michael from LT was perhaps slightly less enamoured, rating it three stars, calling it more catty than clever.

Monica from Monica’s bookish life read and reviewed Symposium, which she found compelling enjoying the unexpected twists and turns. Jennifer joined me in squeezing Symposium into the end of the month. I enjoyed it a lot – though my review won’t be up for a few days. Michael rated it 4 and half stars but admits it does get a bit crowded with its large cast of characters. Though I can’t say I found it confusing, which is always the worry with a large cast of characters.

Michael from LT is the only one I have seen reading Reality and Dreams, rating it three and a half stars, calling it a thin rehash of themes already familiar to Spark novels containing echoes of other Spark novels.

Another post that dropped into my blog reader recently about Muriel Spark came from Lizzy – at Lizzy’s Literary life. She visited Edinburgh and joined a walking tour of sites associated with Muriel Spark.

Phase 6 starts on the 1st of November, just a few days away, and it seems unbelievable that we are here already. Phase 6 is a choice between Spark’s final two novels:

Aiding and Abetting (2000) and The Finishing School (2004)
Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) and the biography
Appointment in Arezzo: a friendship with Muriel Spark – Alan Taylor by Martin Stannard (2017).

I have Curriculum Vitae for my 1992 slot of ACOB, I also really want to read Appointment in Arezzo, which I recently bought, it looks excellent. Though that will be dependent on my finishing ACOB with time to spare.


Let me know if I have missed your thoughts/review for Phase 5 – and I will try to remember to edit you in. Also, I would love to know if you’re planning to join in with the last phase of #ReadingMuriel2018 – and what you plan to read

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