Christmas Critics

Article excerpt

Biographers are routinely tempted to slide into sycophancy on the one hand or contempt for their subject on the other. In Muriel Spark: The Biography (W. W. Norton, $35, 627 pp.). Martin Stannard avoids these pitfalls. Stannard's book, which crossed the Atlantic earlier this year, occasioned a slew of reviews, including a perceptive account by Bernard Bergonzi for Commonweal. Alas, perceptive or not, most of these pieces touched on only a handful of Spark's books--the same handful. And the dozen novels she published after 1970 got particularly short shrift, with the exception of Loitering with Intent (1981) and A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), both of which seemed to fit neatly with a reading of Spark's fiction as transmuted autobiography.

There's another way to read Spark, untethered to notions of fiction as disguised memoir. In 1960, Evelyn Waugh, not a man to dispense idle compliments, wrote to her: "How do you do it? I am dazzled by The Bachelors. Most novelists find there is one kind of book they can write. ... You seem to have an inexhaustible source." The reader's job, and delight, is to explore each book on its own terms.

A recurring term of dismissal for Spark's later novels is "slight." Slight? Compared to what? One of my favorites is her next-to-last book, Aiding and Abetting (2000), based on the actual case of a corrupt aristocrat, "Lucky" Lucan, who escaped after committing a brutal murder in 1974 and has never been found. The police suspected that his upper-class cronies had aided him in his flight and his fugitive existence. Spark imagines Lucan still alive and on the run--and with a double. When the two Lucans show up independently at the office of a rogue psychiatrist in Paris, both, claiming to be the real Lucan, Spark's story is set in motion.

Is the glimmer of the full moon "slight"? Are the dark Scottish Border ballads Spark loved "slight"? Like Spark, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare is a novelist who started as a poet and never relinquished that vocation. Like Spark's work, his fiction has a strong whiff of the uncanny. And if Spark's imagination was nourished by what she called

"the steel and bite of the ballads, so remorseless and yet so lyrical," Kadare found something similar in the epic verse of his native land.

Much of Kadare's adult life was spent under the Communist regime of Enver Hoxa, who ruled Albania from 1945 until his death in 1985. In 1990, Kadare emigrated to France, where he continues to live. His latest novel to be translated into English, The Accident (Grove Press, $24, 176 pp.), is set in the recent past, spanning (in retrospect) a twelve-year period from the early 1990s to the first years of the new millennium. …