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 u
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