Magazine article The Spectator

Serious but Not Solemn

Magazine article The Spectator

Serious but Not Solemn

Article excerpt

Towards the end of the Seventies I was asked to write a short, critical study of Muriel Spark's novels. I accepted, with some trepidation and misgivings. At least I hope there were misgivings. There should have been, first because nothing equipped me for the task apart from my admiration for her novels and, perhaps, the fact that I had, at long last and after many false starts, written a novel myself and had it published.

The second reason to hesitate was more cogent. I had enjoyed her novels from the start. Memento Mori and The Bachelors were as clever and witty and as much fun as preBrideshead Waugh; they delighted us as undergraduates. Yet the question nagged: how serious was she? Difficult, I thought, to write a 'New Assessment' (this being the title of the series to which my little book would belong) of a writer whose 'seriousness' was in doubt. It is, in any case, hard to pin down comedy, and the task wasn't made easier by her own remark, 'I was asked to write a novel and I didn't think much of novels -- I thought it was an inferior way of writing.' Indeed she always considered herself a poet, and conceived her novels as poems, the chief influence on them being The Border Ballads.

Death strikes as abruptly in her novels as in the Ballads, or indeed in Waugh.

I wrote the book, but was never satisfied with it. Looking back over it in the days since her death, I find it makes some good points, yet I cannot rid myself of the impression that she escaped me. She was hard to pin down, slippery as a trout or mercury. She herself was polite about it, chiefly (I guess) because I had not trespassed on her private life -- she was harsh and unforgiving towards those who did. Friendly relations were established, letters and postcards occasionally exchanged.

I saw her seldom and never, to my regret, took up the invitation, several times given, to visit her in Tuscany. I certainly didn't know her well, and surmise that few did, perhaps nobody in the years of her success and celebrity, except the sculptor Penelope Jardine with whom she lived in Tuscany, and on whose support she depended. Of her conversation I recall little. She told me once that her favourite character in fiction was Madame Maigret, an interesting choice. …

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