A week in books

In jail, they call it gate fever - the reckless delirium that overtakes inmates as their release date nears. On Wednesday night, I caught a trace of it in Virginia Bottomley's manner as the Heritage Secretary handed Dame Muriel Spark the third David Cohen Prize (worth pounds 40,000 in all) for a lifetime's achievement in British literature. Quoting Miss Jean Brodie back at her creator, the minister defined education as "a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul". Now that, as grizzled veterans of the Sixties will know, sums up the core of the "progressive" child-centred teaching that Mrs Bottomley's colleagues have tried for nigh on 18 years to expunge from our classrooms. Collective responsibility? No thanks. As Miss Jean once reminded her charges, "Cleopatra knew nothing of the team spirit" - not a sentiment we'll find among the coming manifesto bromides.

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.

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