BOOK REVIEW / The Sparklet tells all: 'Curriculum Vitae' - Muriel Spark: Constable, 14.95

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The Independent Culture
Dazzled as I have often been by the brilliance of Muriel Spark's writing, and enchanted by her wit and mordancy, until I read the jacket material on this book I had not really thought of her as 'one of the greatest living writers in the English language'. I do not dispute the claim, but reading the blurb as I opened the pages of her memoir instantly changed my frame of mind. This was not going to be just the story of a life, I realised, but a Contribution to Literary History.

Ms Spark evidently intends it that way. 'Is it fair to scholars and students of literature,' she asks, assuring us that nothing she writes here cannot be supported by documentary evidence or eye- witnesses, 'to let them be misled even on the most insignificant matters?' Demonstrably not, and if you wish to know the exact date in 1937 on which Ms Spark sailed for Africa, or the specific address in Vicarage Gate where she had lodgings in the early 1950s ('largely the scene of my novel Loitering With Intent'), this is the book for you.

If, on the other hand, you are not contemplating a critical study of the Sparkian oeuvre you may wish there were a little less unnecessary detail in the book, and a lot less reliving of old grievances. Much the best part of it is a delightful evocation of middle-class life in the Edinburgh of the 1920s, where Ms Spark, nee Camberg, seems to have enjoyed an altogether happy childhood with a thoroughly attractive pair of parents - laughing, lively people, blessed with a mixture of Scottish good sense and Jewish zing. From the nuances of the guinea (furriers preferred to be paid in it) to the rosettes of pink sealing-wax with which Mrs Camberg poshed up little Muriel's dancing shoes, the book's early passages are full of curious detail, exactly, wryly and lovingly recalled.

Even the chapter about schooldays, which presupposes an intense interest in the originals of Miss Jean Brodie and Co, is full of enjoyable surprise, and every now and then, in the best Spark manner, a sudden glimpse of the unexpected or even the macabre pulls one up short. She remembers, for example, the 'death-taps' of Pavlova's fingernails on the floor of the stage, 'like claws', as her dying swan dies once more at the Empire Theatre, Edinburgh; or expresses her interesting admiration for 'managerial-type speech', as adopted by 'the more successful young politicians of the last decade' - Major or Gummer, one must incredulously suppose.

Things begin to go wrong about halfway through the book. This may be partly the effect of the New Yorker, which originally published much of the work, and which has perhaps infected Ms Spark's copy with some of its notorious heavy-handedness (soon to be purged, we may assume, by the brisk and relentless Tina Brown). In these embattled islands we hardly need to be told what the dole is ('meagre weekly unemployment pay'). We really do not need half a page to be advised how best to remove one's invalid grandmother from her bed to her commode. Andre Maurois, we are solemnly informed here, was 'the French author', Mr Baldwin was 'the pipe-puffing former Prime Minister', Afrikaners are 'people of South African Dutch origin'. As recently as 60 years ago, says Ms Spark, as if recording a historical curiosity, 'I made at least one pot of tea for the family every day' - but is there a household in Edinburgh that does not still brew a daily pot?

Despite the attentions of the New Yorker fact-checkers, moreover, several errors that might be misleading to students have crept into the book. Seven Pillars of Wisdom has no The in the title; St Antony's College, Oxford, has no H in its name; there is no such thing as an Afrikaans policeman. And is it really possible for Ms Spark, 'on the way' from John Masefield's house to Oxford station, to have popped into a pub in Broad Street for a double rum?

More particularly, though, it is success that spoils the book. Ms Spark never lets us forget that she is a famous novelist re- examining her often difficult climb to glory, and a streak of retrospective bitterness disfigures her memoir. Sometimes this makes her sound like a disgruntled divorcee of much coarser temper. 'That was a laugh,' she says, in telling us of a family friend entrusted with her welfare on a long sea-voyage (he spent his time lasciviously chasing her). 'Small thanks she got,' she says of her mother's kindness to the unfortunate Sydney O Spark, the author's husband and begetter of her famous name. Various other unsatisfactory men get their come-uppance, and a bitchy but not very interesting dispute at the Poetry Society, where Muriel Spark was employed in the 1940s, is described to us in full resonance.

There are satisfactory men too - the Sparklet, as she was sometimes known, was evidently very sexy - and there are staunch women friends. The story, though, which takes us to the beginning of her celebrity, and is to be followed by another volume in which 'friends, famous and obscure, abound', is sprinkled with reproach and sorrow. Murder, suicide, madness, hallucination, disillusionment - all are here, and are reflected in a sensibility which seems to be kaleidoscopic in its moods and responses, now touchingly affectionate, now waspish, now sentimental.

Curriculum Vitae is an odd book, and to my mind not a very attractive one. I do not doubt that the blurb is right - Ms Spark is a splendid novelist; but admirers who are, like me, neither scholars nor students, and who don't much care what Marie Stopes impertinently asked her in 1948, or what Derek Stanford wrongly wrote about her in 1977, would do better to stick to her fiction.

(Photograph omitted)