Magazine article The Spectator

The Go-Away Bird

Magazine article The Spectator

The Go-Away Bird

Article excerpt

Muriel Spark: The Biography

by Martin Stannard

Weidenfeld, £25, pp. 627,

ISBN 9780297815921

? £20.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

There is no plaque yet on No 13 Baldwin Crescent, otherwise known as 'Dunedin'. There ought to be. For on the top floor of this shabby yellow-brick house, hidden away between the Camberwell New Road and gloomy Myatt's Fields, Muriel Spark wrote most of the four or five novels for which we'll remember her. She was as happy in leafy, run-down Baldwin Crescent as she ever had been or was to be in her long, tense, proud, unforgiving life.

She did, it is true, make an excursion to her childhood Edinburgh home to re-immerse herself in the speech of Morningside while she wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in four weeks. But all her other masterpieces - Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Bachelors and much of The Girls of Slender Means - were written within a glorious period of only five years in her two attic rooms in Camberwell. After she left, she never lived in Britain again.

Because she was so stunningly original and burst upon the leaden postwar scene with such a delicious sizzle, as though this was the first time we could afford proper fireworks again, it is easy to forget how beautifully rooted in their settings those early books are. She had only just begun writing novels at the age of 39, having thought of herself till then as a poet. Yet in a few masterly lines she gets up for us the clappedout pubs and factories of Peckham and the boozy gangs wandering across the Rye as indelibly as she does the corridors of Marcia Blaine School for Girls and the Princess May of Teck Club, based, quite closely, on her times at James Gillespie's High School for Girls and the Helena Club in Lancaster Gate respectively. She was a realist before she was a surrealist. As Fleur Talbot, her alter ego novelist heroine in Loitering with Intent, says: 'When I first started writing, people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism.'

When her books ran thin, as they began to do all too soon after her golden flowering, it was because they no longer had much solid ground to take off from. These later stories were derived not from life but from the glossies and newspapers and film mags.

They became as insubstantial and shadowy as those late paintings by Sickert that he worked up from newspaper photographs.

It is hard to read the early novels without an inappropriately seraphic smile breaking out on one's face like the ghoul at the weepie in the Charles Addams cartoon. By contrast, I find her later books strangely hard to get through, though they are just as short, 50,000 words or so. It is like trying to operate an apparently simple gadget which has been supplied without some vital part though you cannot identify what it is. Those little macabre jumps into the future no longer take your breath away: 'She will be found tomorrow dead from multiple stab wounds.' The little nudges to the reader are no longer so winning: 'Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?'. Even the most devoted fan may feel like whispering 'Who cares? .'

I cannot help feeling that her exile from her material was part of the trouble. By then she was too famous for anyone to tell her anything. In any case, she was never one to admit error, except in her choice of men ('I was a bad picker'). On the contrary, she claimed grandly that 'it was Edinburgh that bred within me the condition of exiledom. It has ceased to become a fate, it has become a calling', the calling of the real artist, just as it had been the calling of other high priests of modernism, such as Eliot, Joyce and Auden.

Yet it is also true that she simply could not get on with people and places for very long. As Martin Stannard shows in this massive biography, which is simultaneously inspiriting and dispiriting, for years 'her only intimate relation to other human beings had been with her readers'. …

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