A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 22 March 1997
First awarded in 1993, the biennial Cohen prize already has a splendid record of honouring the Awkward Squad. The initial winner, Sir Vidia Naipaul, kept up his reputation as an Olympic-standard grouch with some apres-moi- le-deluge thoughts about the death of the novel. In 1995, Harold Pinter refrained from cursing US foreign policy in the atrium of Coutts Bank, but he did chill the blood with some gruesome passages from Webster's plays. Pinter was paying tribute to his English master at Hackney Downs - a theme pursued by Dame Muriel when she gave the pounds 10,000 portion of the prize reserved for a beneficiary selected by the winner to arts projects at her alma mater, James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh.
It was there, 70 years ago, that the nine-year-old Muriel Camberg wrote what she calls "an intended improvement" of Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin". Browning's little rival clearly foreshadowed the fearless writer who, in a recent TV profile, scorned the "timid' authors of her age. In the 40 years since she published The Comforters, she has kept timidity at bay with one succinct and stringent fable of spiritual or social life after another. Because she has no time for English sentiment, and shuns the picturesque detail of character and place that many readers enjoy, Spark can strike the unconverted as a dry and cold contriver of intellectual puzzles. Yet it is just this theologically inclined asperity that makes her voice so precious and unique.
An impatience with Anglo-Saxon platitudes began early. In the postwar years, the penniless young writer worked for the conceited nonetities of the Poetry Society (Now, I'm glad to say, a much saner place.) There she had a memorable run-in with the batty Marie Stopes - birth-control pioneer and dreadful poet. Superbly comic echoes of that period surface in her memoir Curriculum Vitae and in the 1980s novels Loitering With Intent and A Far Cry from Kensington.
In her brisk, bracing tragicomedies, poky offices and bedsits (or the odd Tuscan villa) act as backdrop for a metaphysical drama that - in the words of Andrew Motion, who chaired the judging panel - "transfigures the commonplace and makes what is ordinary marvellous or sinister or strange". As Ben Okri, another judge, said afterwards, "It's time to bring elegant seriousness back into fashion". Reading Spark would be a painless way to manage that - and a few ousted politicians may have some time on their hands to do so pretty soon.
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Pro-Russian rebel 'admits to shooting down plane'
- 2 Israel has discovered that it's no longer so easy to get away with murder in the age of social media
- 3 Israel-Gaza conflict: The myth of Hamas’s human shields
- 4 Amy Winehouse unpublished 2004 interview: ‘Ten years from now I’ll be 30, so I’ll maybe have one baby’
- 5 Dutch paedophile club to fight their ban at the European Court of Human Rights
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vladimir Putin is given 'one last chance' to end hostilities in Ukraine
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains