If you’re intending to read anything by Muriel Spark, I’d suggest you don’t do so in a public place. Because of her I have been shushed in libraries and given disapproving looks at the bus stop on the Brompton Road; I have cackled and sniggered and fallen about while waiting for friends, food and all modes of public transport. It can be quite embarrassing.
I first came across Spark when working in a little second-hand bookshop off the Charing Cross Road. A battered tome of her selected works was on sale in the outside pile, desolately stationed there to be picked over by tourists and dampened by rain. Not having much to do (the shop closed a month later, not necessarily because I’d worked there) I started reading one afternoon, and was hooked. For while Muriel Spark makes you laugh out loud, she also makes you think – she must, I feel, have been a formidable dinner-party companion, quietly sitting there with her razor-sharp tongue.
She’s been somewhat neglected recently. Cheery old Phil Larkin can be studied in schools, but generally Spark is not. Yet she comes from the same tradition. Her books are steeped in the austerity of 1950s Britain. When I think of her work I think of clean lino floors, A-line skirts and the tail-end of ration books. She evokes worlds captured by George Orwell and Alan Sillitoe, yet unlike those male literary icons, she handles death, sex and general misery with a lightness of touch that makes you guffaw even as you are shocked by the awful truth of her vision.
Memento Mori, the title of one of her earliest and finest novels, doesn’t immediately scream ‘comedy’. However, even on repeated readings this slim book still makes me howl with laughter. Muriel Spark had the – some would say rather Catholic – ability to think of the wake rather than the funeral. Memento Mori does not, as its title suggests, face the topic of death head on. Instead, it looks ironically askance at it, inviting us to do so as well, suggesting that comedy is the best kind of reminder of mortality there is.
The novel revolves around an ageing circle of cantankerous literary friends who all start to get telephone calls reminding them, ‘Remember, you must die.’ Each responds to the mystery caller in his or her own characteristically revealing way: Dame Lettie Colston by contacting the police; her sister-in-law Charmian, the fading famous writer, with abstracted equanimity; her garrulous and intellectually inferior husband Godfrey, by speeding off in his car to a young girl in a flat off the King’s Road; Charmian’s conniving helper Mrs Pettigrew, the villain of the piece, by applying more hair-dye; and Jean Taylor, Charmian’s retired but still dedicated old maid, by saying a couple of Hail Marys in her long-stay hospital bed.
Although Spark wrote Memento Mori in her early forties, she manages to depict the characteristics of old age and our irrational fear of it without ever being patronizing:
‘It is like wartime,’ Miss Taylor remarked.
‘What do you say?’
‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.’
She is wandering in her mind and becoming morbid, thought Dame Lettie.
In her brilliant account of her early life, Curriculum Vitae, Spark wrote that the stroke her grandmother suffered when she herself was 11 and her own subsequent role minding her ‘formed a starting point for my future novel, Memento Mori’. Perhaps this early experience is what makes her depiction of the tragi-comic process of ageing so painfully, brilliantly true. Yet it is also Spark’s gift for creating characters that ensures Memento Mori is, like all her work, so entrancing, and ultimately so amusing. Spark’s people race across the page, revelling in their own overblown eccentricities and oddities, yet somehow becoming the more real because of them. I would definitely plump for Spark’s short, sharp, damning clarity over hundreds of pages describing Madame Bovary’s inner torment any day. She can illuminate her characters through brilliant flashes, as when she brings the motley crew in Jean Taylor’s hospital ward alive by merely listing their previous careers:
First came a Mrs Emmeline Roberts, seventy-six, who had been a cashier in the Odeon in the days when it was the Odeon. Next came Miss or Mrs Lydia Reewes-Duncan, seventy-eight, whose past career was uncertain, but who was visited fortnightly by a middle-aged niece, very bossy towards the doctors and staff, very uppish . . . Next again lay Miss Jessie Barnacle who had no birth certificate but was put down as eighty-one, and who for forty-eight years had been a newsvendor at Holborn Circus.
Needless to say these elderly women, confined to their beds, manage to be much more entertaining than you would at first expect, and provide some of the funniest moments in the book. As a ward, they are wonderfully anarchic, giving vent to those feelings anyone has experienced when in hospital, trapped by the attention of doctors and nurses. The Holborn newsvendor, Granny Barnacle, is particularly adept at this, especially when a new Sister Burstead (or ‘Sister Bastard’) comes on the scene:
She would scream to God that the nurses were pulling her arms from their sockets, she would swear by the Almighty that she wasn’t fit to be sat up. She moaned, whenever the physiotherapist made her move her fingers and toes, and declared that her joints would crack.
‘Kill me off,’ she would command, ‘and be done with it.’
‘Come on, Gran, you’ve got to get exercise.’
‘Crack! Can’t you hear the bones crack? Kill me off and – ’
‘Let’s rub your legs, Gran. My, you’ve got beautiful legs.’
‘Help, she’s killing me.’
It always makes me smile to think that Muriel Spark – a woman who aged gracefully but by no means quietly, moving in later life to New York and then, with the sculptor Penelope Jardine, to Italy – is on the side of the raucous, the rebellious, even if it is a rebellion conducted within the confines of a hospital bed.
In her books, Spark takes the ordinary – death, Edinburgh schoolmistresses, workers in Peckham – and makes it into something extraordinary. Yet the most extraordinary figure of all has to be Spark herself. And like all her best characters, she’s a bit of a mystery. You never find out in Memento Mori who is behind the telephone calls, just as I doubt that, even with the publication of her long-awaited biography, we shall ever find out quite what gave Spark her own intensity and integrity as a writer. I can see how her publishers might be having a hard time marketing her, moving from the abstract cover designs that graced her first editions into swirly, vaguely chick-lit territory recently. Her fiction, like her varied life, doesn’t fit into any given category, which is precisely what makes it so interesting, so bleakly comic, and still so readable today.
© Emma Hogan 2009, Slightly Foxed Issue 24
Illustration by Daniel Macklin