Posts Tagged ‘#ReadingMuriel2018’


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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The eighties are turning out to be a favourite period in Muriel Spark’s writing for me. A Far Cry from Kensington (1988) that I read last year was one of my books of the year, and Loitering with Intent (1981) that I read last month was fabulously entertaining. My second read for phase 5 of #readingMuriel2018 was The Only Problem, it’s so brilliantly quirky that it could easily become one of my favourites overall.

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 – could any of this come from anyone other than Muriel Spark?

“Harvey was a rich man; he was in his mid-thirties. He had started writing a monograph about the Book of Job and the problem it deals with. For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world; that God did permit all suffering and was therefore, by logic of his omnipotence the actual author of it, he was at a loss how to square with the existence of God, given the premise that God is good.”


This religious theme is certainly a familiar one for Muriel Spark, but don’t worry you don’t need to be religious or have a theology degree to get on board with this one.

Canadian scholar Harvey Gotham is living in a small remote cottage in France, in the grounds of an empty château. He spends most of his time thinking, writing and talking about the Book of Job. Harvey is obsessed with the question of suffering, and why God would allow it. Two years earlier, Harvey had separated from his wife Effie when they had been travelling with friends in Italy and Effie stole some chocolate as a protest against capitalism. Harvey walked away from the car that day in disgust and hasn’t seen Effie since.

Now, Harvey’s friend and brother-in-law Edward arrives at Harvey’s cottage – at the request of his wife; Ruth – Effie’s sister – to talk to Harvey about Effie and to persuade him to give her a divorce. Edward is puzzled at the sight of baby clothes hanging on the washing line outside the cottage, and Harvey explains he uses them to deter the local women from calling on him with offers of help, which they will if they know he is a man alone. Little does Harvey know what trouble this habit with the washing line will bring him. Things in Effie’s life have certainly moved on, she has a new man in her life and is expecting his baby.

Months later and Ruth has moved in with Harvey bringing Effie’s baby with her. She seems she has left Edward and Effie is not all that interested in the baby Clara. I found this interesting considering Spark’s difficult relationship with her son, though perhaps I was reading too much into it. Harvey doesn’t get much say in any of this, and he has bought the Château at Ruth’s suggestion, although he sometimes still works in the cottage. Harvey is more concerned with Job than his own domestic arrangements.

“It is the only problem. The problem of suffering is the only problem. It all boils down to that.”

So, Harvey is more than a little surprised, to see a photo-fit of a woman looking remarkably like Effie in a French newspaper report about a terrorist group. The FLE have been carrying out armed robbery and planting bombs in supermarkets. Effie is said to be associated with them, and she has previously been arrested for shoplifting in Trieste. Unable to lay their hands on Effie herself, the French police turn their attentions to her estranged husband. Part of Harvey really still loves Effie – and he refuses to believe that she is the woman in the paper.

The Only Problem is a wonderfully thought provoking, entertaining novel I found it compulsively readable, darkly humorous and surprising. Really excellent stuff.

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loitering with intent

For those joining in with #ReadingMuriel2018 September and October is phase 5 – that is the novels of the 1980s and 90s.

Published at a time when Muriel Spark’s writing career was already well established, Loitering with Intent is a novel about writing. It is a wonderful novel, reminding me somehow of Momento Mori maybe as it’s packed with eccentric characters.

Fleur Talbot is our narrator, looking back on her early days as a writer from some later period. She returns us to September 1949, a gloomy time of continued rationing. Fleur is living in a London bedsit, it boasts a gas ring operated by putting pennies and shillings in the slot. Her landlord is trying to find ways of getting more money out of her, and she needs a job. She has a feckless boyfriend called Leslie – and Leslie has a wife Dottie – and Dottie is a sort of friend of Fleur’s, no one seems to find this strange.

“I don’t know why I thought of Dottie as my friend but I did. I believe she thought the same way about me although she really didn’t like me. In those days, among the people I mixed with, one had friends almost by predestination. There they were, like your winter coat and your meagre luggage. You didn’t think of discarding them just because you didn’t altogether like them.”

Fleur is also writing her first novel, called Warrender Chase which appears to be oddly foreshadowing events in the real world.

Fleur gets a job at the Autobiographical Association; founded by Sir Quentin Oliver. A group of eccentric individuals meet to write their autobiographies, and thereafter to bury them for seventy years – until such time that anyone named in them is dead. Fleur appointed to a secretarial position is employed to type these memoirs and look after the stationary cupboard. Sir Quentin’s clients she is told form a very special circle and her work is to be top secret. The place is Sir Quentin’s flat in Hallam Street, presided over by housekeeper Beryl Tims, and where Sir Quentin’s elderly mother Lady Edwina also resides, a woman given to sudden incontinence and strong opinions. The rest of the association is made up of a small group of peculiar aristocrats and an unfrocked priest. Fleur can’t help but introduce a little bit of fiction into the dull first chapter of Sir Eric Findlay’s autobiography – no one it seems has in fact written very much. One of the novel’s themes is the difference between fact and fiction – and how a writer writes them.

“While I recount what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel the author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.”

Life and work at Hallam Street are rather outside of the ordinary. It isn’t long before Fleur starts to suspect that there is something a little shady about Sir Quentin. He is obviously wealthy – whereas the other members of his group are much more impoverished. Fleur thinks that perhaps Sir Oliver is blackmailing his clients, he has hinted after all that their memoirs contain all kinds of revelations. Despite Beryl’s insistence that Edwina is senile and past it – Fleur recognises that she is anything but, her mind razor sharp, Edwina and Fleur become unlikely friends.

It is Fleur’s own novel that fills her head – and after working all day at Sir Quentin’s flat she returns home to her bedsit to work on her novel Warrender Chase.

“My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better. All day long when I was busy with the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did. I took no notes except in my mind.”

loitering with intent2

We come to learn something of this novel – with its characters of Charlotte and Prudence who bare a passing resemblance to Mrs Tims and Lady Edwina. Fleur’s struggle to finish her novel and get it published is the story at the heart of this novel, one that includes the disappearance and reappearance of the manuscript. Fleur is surprised by how events in the real world keep showing up in her work. She is sure that this isn’t deliberate on her part – words and phrases from her book show up from time to time in her life.

Fleur is a fabulous narrator, engaging and funny – all of life’s absurdities seem to gather around her. She is perhaps one of my favourite Spark characters to date, and I wondered how much of Muriel Spark herself is in this portrait of a young writer and secretary.

It is the ending of this novel that I particularly love – without giving too much away – there is something completely joyful about it – and in that final line I felt it was Muriel speaking to us of her own life too.

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(Posting this a day or two early as I had to make way for my Elizabeth von Arnim day post tomorrow.)

Phase 4 of #readingMuriel2018 is drawing to a close, and this phase has been about the short stories, poetry and essays of Muriel Spark. Not surprisingly, I think there has been a little bit of a dropping off now we have reached this point of the year. I know not everyone likes poetry, short stories and essays, and have concentrated on reading some more of the novels from previous phases of #Reading Muriel2018. So, I don’t have any other blogs to link to, because I think all the readers who have joined in this time have been non-bloggers from Facebook/Twitter/Librarything – and I do have some of their thoughts to share with you. Though if I have missed your review/blog post – please let me know.

I had originally planned to read just a few of Spark’s short stories and a few essays. However, that big book of complete stories was just so readable that I really couldn’t help but keep reading it – and over the course of the two months read the whole thing. With everything else I have had to read over the summer, I haven’t managed to get around to any essays or poetry.

The stories were great however, as with any large collection there were some I liked better than others, a few are pretty bizarre – many are just wonderful. My favourites were The Go Away Bird, Snobs, The Girl I left Behind Me and Come Along Marjorie. I ended up writing two reviews for this collection.

IMG_20180722_170142Mary also read The Complete Stories, tweeting that they were “original, crackling sharp wit. Preferred the older stories. Some-very odd.” Jennifer had the Complete stories to keep her company too. Sian read The Go Away Bird and other stories – a lovely old orange penguin edition. For Sian, The Go Away Bird was the stand out story too, calling it beautiful and shocking. I know Chrys is planning to start the stories soon, she has a lot to look forward to I think.

Chrys did read the collected poems, and I was looking forward to her thoughts on them as I have never read any of Spark’s poetry. Chrys decided she liked the older poetry best. These were two of her favourite lines.

“The cat subsiding down a basement
Leaves a catlessness behind it.”
(from Elementary 1951)

Michael from the Virago group – who is reading all of Muriel Sparks books this year – read The Golden Fleece essays – which is the book I have. He gave them 3.5 stars saying some pieces are outstanding while others are humdrum. He also advised that it would probably be best to not read them before having read Muriel Spark’s autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Useful to know, I have Curriculum Vitae lined up for phase 6 (Nov/Dec).

So, Phase 5 starts any day now – and I have a mighty three Spark novels lined up. This time we are back to novels – the novels of the 1980s and 90s.

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

If you’re looking for a recommendation – I read A Far Cry from Kensington last year – and it will almost certainly remain one of my favourite Spark novels.

I have got Loitering with Intent, The only Problem and Symposium in the lovely Polygon editions. Somehow, without planning it all these three all fit into unticked off years in my centenary of books. For those following my ACOB progress I am acutely aware that I have used quite a number of Spark novels in my ACOB – but it was inevitable in a year when I am reading a lot by Muriel Spark.


So, then – are you planning in reading along with me? If so what will you be reading?

cofA shout out to Chrys – who has been reading along with us all year – who today sent me a lovely little volume, The Muriel Spark society lecture by Ali Smith in a sweet little volume. I intend to read it on the bus on the way to the theatre tonight, thank you Chrys very much.

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In one way, I probably made a mistake with my purchase for phase 4 of #ReadingMuriel2018, I bought the entire Collected Stories. It runs to almost 600 pages, and with the amount I have scheduled to read during August I doubt I will get the whole volume read. I do really wish I had the time, because judging from the first few stories that I have read, Muriel Spark was a wonderful short story writer. What I should have gone in search of, was an old copy of The Go-Away Bird and other stories (1958) sadly, no longer in print in a separate volume. Never mind, I am overjoyed to discover Muriel Spark was such a good short story writer, if the rest of this large volume continues in the same vein as the first few, I might go as far as to say I prefer her short fiction to her novels.

It is unclear how (if at all) this volume is organised – nothing in the contents suggests the stories are arranged chronologically or thematically. However, the first five stories in the collection – and the ones I’m writing about here, all have an African setting, and were (an internet search revealed) written in the 1950s or 60s. The sixth story in the collection, was clearly set (and so I assume written) in the 1990s.

These first five stories – three of which are from The Go Away Bird and other stories – reflect the years Muriel Spark spent living with her husband and young son in what was then called Southern Rhodesia. These five stories take place in a region, generally referred to as the Colony. A place where Afrikaans is spoken alongside English, a racially divided society, where men out-number women and where violence is common.

The Go-Away Bird – a story a little over 60 pages long (I do like a long short story) – is a splendid opening to this collection.

“All over the Colony it was possible to hear the subtle voice of the grey-crested lourie, commonly known as the go-away bird by its call, ‘go’way, go’way’. It was possible to hear the bird, but very few did for it was part of the background to everything, a choir of birds and beasts, the crackle of vegetation in the great prevalent sunlight, and the soft rhythmic pad of natives, as they went barefoot and in single-file, from kraal to kraal.”
(The Go-Away Bird)


Daphne du Toit grows up on her uncle’s farm – she goes away to school, but the holidays are spent socialising with the neighbours from farms many miles away. Her uncle is called Chakata by the natives he loves, it is a name that has stuck, and he hasn’t been called James for decades. As a child Daphne doesn’t have many play mates but she loves to listen out for the go-away bird – and as she grows up she befriends the often-drunk Donald Cloete. It is Donald who gives Daphne the first clue as to the mystery surrounding Old Tuys, who has worked for Chakata for years, but the relationship between the two is boarding on murderous and Chakata asks Daphne to begin taking a gun out with her once she has reached a certain age. So why, Daphne wonders, does her uncle keep Old Tuys around?

Daphne has intended going to England, and though the war in Europe interrupts her plans she finally does in 1946, staying with her mother’s family, and launching herself on society. But the echo of the go-away bird remains – and she meets a young man who himself will be going out to the Colony soon. In time Daphne returns with stories of London bomb damage, to find her uncle laid up with rheumatism, Old Tuys having completely lost his faculties.

The shock ending of this story is typically Sparkian – and dark though it is – I loved it.

In The Curtain Blown by the Breeze we meet Mrs Van der Merwea, one of the poor whites, who occupies a remote territory. Her husband is in prison, and while he is away Mrs Van der Merwe begins to slowly change her character. The change is facilitated by a group of English nurses, looking to be entertained. Naturally, they get more than they bargained for, though at least life is no longer predictable.

“At that time many of the men looked like Rupert Brooke, whose portrait still hung in everyone’s imagination. It was that clear-cut ‘typically English’ face which is seldom seen on the actual soil of England but proliferates in the African Colonies.”
(Bang-Bang You’re Dead)

The narrator of Bang-Bang You’re Dead is Sybil, a writer, who shows film reels of her life in Africa to acquaintances in Britain. Sybil watches the film nonchalantly, explaining idly how she never kept in touch with the other people in the films. She answers their questions unemotionally, recalling privately the time when the films were taken. Gradually, Spark reveals the truth behind Sybil’s film reels in true Sparkian tradition. It is a brilliant story, subtle and clever, revealing so much of an ex-pat community in less than forty pages.

The Seraph and the Zambesiis the oddest of these five stories. The narrator finds themselves obliged to stay with poet and journalist Samuel Cramer, as there’s no room at the hotel, being just before Christmas. Cramer owned a petrol pump and garage, four miles south of the Zambesi river. He is planning a Nativity Masque at his garage. On Christmas Eve, during the performance, the Seraph appears.

“This was a living body. The most noticeable thing was its constancy; it seemed not to conform to the law of perspective, but remained the same size when I approached as when I withdrew. And altogether unlike other forms of life, it had a completed look.”
(The Seraph and the Zambesi)

The Pawnbroker’s Wife takes place in a very odd little boarding house on the coast of the Cape of Good Hope above a Pawnbroker’s shop. The eponymous wife – is a teller of tall tales, and her boarders are invited from time to time to sit with her and her three daughters and hear her tales. She won’t allow any contradiction.

the-complete-short-stories-paperback-cover-9781786890016These stories were a real joy, in some respects they feel different to Spark’s novels, and yet they nevertheless contain Spark’s tell-tale wit, superb story-telling and wonderful twists. I shall continue to dip in and out of this collection, and hopefully will drop in at least one more review – time etc permitting. With such a large collection, there is bound to be some variance in quality – but what I have read so far gives me very high hopes for the rest.

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not to disturb

On the very last day of Phase three of #ReadingMuriel2018 I decided to read Not to Disturb on my kindle – I hadn’t realised just how short it is. However, I was too tired to read it all that night, so saved some for the next morning. I’m planning to read a few short stories at the very least for phase four although it won’t be till later this month I don’t think.

“To put it squarely, as I say in my memoir, the eternal triangle has come full circle.”


Muriel Spark is well known for weaving bizarre situations through her fiction, odd characters nursing dark thoughts, overly concerned with death and religion. Not to Disturb has all that, in spades. A novella sized 96 pages, Not to Disturb is dreamlike and illusory, like those passageways one blunders through in dreams, where everything is so familiar yet doesn’t make complete sense. It is compelling though, peopled with some extraordinary characters including a sinister butler and a ‘lunatic’ in the attic.

“At that moment a long wail comes from the top of the house, winding its way down the well of the stairs, followed then by another, winding through all the banisters and seeping into the servants’ hall.”

In a large house near Geneva, Baron and Baroness Klopstock have locked themselves into their library with their young secretary Victor Passerat. An argument ensues between the couple and their handsome young secretary. Their instructions are that they are not to be disturbed. Downstairs, the servants – wait for what they see as the inevitable demise of those three in the library. The servants are directed by Lister, the butler. In the lodge, the porter tells his nervous wife that nothing will happen at all.

“ ‘…You all get your own supper tonight.’
‘What about them?’
‘They won’t be needing supper.’
Lister stands in the doorway, now, watching his young aunt routing among the vegetables for a few carrots which she presses between her fingers disapprovingly.
‘Supper, never again,’ says Lister. ‘For them, supper no more.’”

In the servants’ hall, all is tightly controlled calm, as the staff prepare for a lucrative payoff following the tragedy, by selling their story to the highest bidder. They are, unsurprisingly an odd group; Eleanor is Lister’s aunt, despite being younger than him, Pablo is the handyman, Heloise, is the youngest maid, pregnant, though she doesn’t know who the father is. Monsieur Clovis; the chef, has an assistant called Handrian, but they all take their lead from Lister.

Upstairs, the baron’s brother – and heir – howls with rage, throwing plates at the woman employed to care for him. Outside the house, a car is parked with two people sat inside, they are waiting for their friend, the baron’s secretary. From time to time they come to the door asking for him, but always receive the same reply, that the baron and his secretary are not to be disturbed.

“‘How like,’ says Lister, ‘the death wish is to the life-urge! How urgently does an overwhelming obsession with life lead to suicide! Really, it’s best to be half-awake and half-aware. That is the happiest stage.’”

The servants endure a long night, as a storm starts to rage above their heads. It is a night of a series of extraordinary and rather bizarre events. A visit from both a prince and a Reverend on a motorbike. A wedding is conducted; Heloise is married to the ‘lunatic’ in the attic in a scene that is quite disturbing, and perhaps could only have been written by Spark.

The morning brings exactly what the household staff had expected, and finally it is time for them to step out into the light.

Muriel Spark’s 1971 novel is clearly a satire on other kinds of novels, the Golden Age mystery particularly and those novels of the past which concerned themselves with the servant problem. This is a clever, and darkly humorous novella, shot through with Muriel Spark’s unique creativity.

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