THE BOOK SHE FEARED; Scotland's Greatest Female Novelist Was Terrified Her Life Story Would Be Inaccurately Told by Her Appointed Biographer -- but He Has, in Fact, Done an Admirable Job; BOOK OF THE WEEK

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

THE BOOK SHE FEARED; Scotland's Greatest Female Novelist Was Terrified Her Life Story Would Be Inaccurately Told by Her Appointed Biographer -- but He Has, in Fact, Done an Admirable Job; BOOK OF THE WEEK


Byline: Geordie Greig

MURIEL SPARK: THE BIOGRAPHY by Martin Stannard (Weidenfeld, [pounds sterling]25)

AS DAME Muriel Spark lay dying she felt tortured by her biographer. On her desk in the first-floor study of the Tuscan home she had shared for more than 30 years with her companion Penelope Jardine, Scotland's greatest woman of letters had scribbled notes expressing acute distress, fearful that her life was going to be inaccurately and misleadingly portrayed by the biographer Martin Stannard, who has loitered with intent for more than a decade, trawling public libraries and private archives, her friends' memories and also interviewing Spark herself.

What she initially read in draft form prompted her to suggest hundreds of corrections, some of which she feared were ignored. This made her anxious that her life story, which she had tried so carefully to protect -- in Curriculum Vitae, her selective autobiography, she only included facts of which she had documentary proof, would be presented in a way that she did not recognise as a true reflection.

She felt that details from her life were being unfairly hijacked even though she had agreed for Stannard, Evelyn Waugh's biographer, to write her life, and even signed a contract with him. "Both women suffered the biografiend with benevolent fortitude and good humour," Stannard optimistically states on his first page. That was not quite the case at the end. Shortly after Spark died, I saw and read the final cri de coeur notes on her desk, scattered among her many spectacles, dictionaries and the powerful magnifying glass aiding her declining vision.

Frozen in time, her desk, actually an old door that she had brought from her New York flat via Rome to her Tuscan home and laid on top of a trestle, stayed untouched for many weeks after her death on 13 April, 2006. But Stannard never saw this final scene because, according to Jardine, from 1999 he and Spark never spoke, communicating only by fax and letter.

He titles his book Muriel Spark: The Biography and its research into her life certainly is detailed and fascinating, the tale of her epic struggle to become the acclaimed and important novelist against a background of a mad, violent husband, a son who turned against her and myriad dismal boyfriends who never seemed to bring her happiness, one deviously selling their love letters. But is it the biography? It is certainly the most definitive so far but will not, I suspect, be the last.

Born in 1918 in a small rented flat in Edinburgh, Spark became a global literary celebrity after the New Yorker published The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in a single issue of its magazine. Her life takes two paths, the epic dedication to her writing, overcoming poverty, loneliness and unsupportive publishers, but always adventurously experimenting with her fiction, seeing herself as a poet who wrote novels.

She carved a niche as a key voice of fiction in the 20th century. …

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THE BOOK SHE FEARED; Scotland's Greatest Female Novelist Was Terrified Her Life Story Would Be Inaccurately Told by Her Appointed Biographer -- but He Has, in Fact, Done an Admirable Job; BOOK OF THE WEEK
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