Muriel Spark: the biography, By Martin Stannard

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It remains a mystery why Muriel Spark commissioned Martin Stannard to write her authorised biography 17 years ago. She had just published her rather sterile Curriculum Vitae: A volume of autobiography (1992), which had ended with the publication of her outstanding first novel The Comforters (1957). A second volume of memoirs did not appear, although it was planned. At the age of 74, and beginning to suffer from ill-health, Spark clearly wanted to add to the 19 novels that she had published to date, not to mention her stories and poems. In retrospect, this was a wise decision. She went on to publish three more life-affirming novels before her death in 2006 at the age of 88.

Stannard was known to Spark as the scholarly biographer of Evelyn Waugh who could bring her cv up to date. She had reviewed his account of Waugh's later years, which covered the time when Waugh helped to get her established as a novelist. Along with Graham Greene, Waugh and Spark made up a triumvirate of literary converts to Catholicism who came to dominate postwar British letters.

It seemed to be a match made in heaven. But Stannard was not a harmless academic. Spark regarded the relationship between her life and work as "fundamental" and had spent over half a century rewriting her wilderness years in her fiction. At one point, Stannard was going to call the biography "The Nine Lives of Muriel Spark", which, apart from her love of cats, indicates the astonishing number of places where she reinvented herself: Edinburgh, Southern Rhodesia, Milton Bryan, Kensington, Aylesford, Camberwell, New York, Rome, Tuscany.

This approach was quickly rejected as Spark could hardly be confined to one locale for any length of time. Her restlessness was tempered by an abiding sense that her life-experience could be transfigured in fiction. But this negates the very idea of biography, which deals with the untransfigured. That is why Spark, a mixture of the "nun and tigress", is said to have gone through the manuscript of this biography with her usual fearsome rigour.

Stannard is particularly interesting on Spark's early, unredeemed years before both her conversion to Catholicism in 1954 and her success as a novelist, especially with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1961. Born in 1918 into a lower-class family in Edinburgh, Muriel Sarah Camberg was constitutionally an outsider even from the tiny Scottish Jewish community from which her father had sprung. The poverty, cultural diversity and Calvinistic work ethic which characterised her family had a profound effect on the adolescent Spark. By taking in tenants, who could be unruly and even anti-Semitic, her parents managed to save enough money to privately educate herself and her brother. This was how she went to the rather prim James Gillespie's High School for Girls, where she was famous for her poetry and taught by Miss Christina Kay - who inspired Brodie.

The roots of Spark's subsequent rootlessness can be found in Edinburgh. This was a city of contradictions, grand and provincial, poetic and exact, where she was both at home and utterly alienated. After her beloved father died in 1962, Spark moved to New York, then Rome and, finally, Tuscany. Permanently on the move, in barely lived-in apartments, the "second half of her existence began to rewrite the first".

There were a great many events and individuals in the first half of her life which Spark wished to transform or consign to outer darkness. Aged 19, in a quest for adventure, she decided to travel to southern Africa with her much older husband-to-be Sydney Oswald Spark (known appropriately as SOS), where she lived from 1937 to 1944.

There she gave birth to her son Robin and discovered that Sydney had a violent nervous disorder, to the extent that she had to hide his hand-gun. She obtained a divorce and managed to raise her son while working part-time. In 1944, she left Robin in Africa and travelled to London in an extraordinarily dangerous journey on a troop ship. During the war she worked as a secretary for the "black propaganda" unit close to Woburn Abbey. She attained this plum job because she happened to be reading Ivy Compton-Burnett, a favourite of her interviewer.

A mixture of serendipity, industry and ruthlessness made up Spark's early years. Her son was raised in Edinburgh by her parents and her role as General Secretary of the Poetry Society in the late 1940s was characterised by endless and bitter internecine squabbling. Stannard spends a good deal of time on Spark's extended love affairs with Howard Sergeant and Derek Stanford, which gives a strong sense of how difficult it was to be a free and powerful women in postwar London. She was a notorious "bad picker" of men.

She might well have continued as a critic and occasional poet if it were not for the publication of "The Seraph and the Zambesi" (1951), which won the Observer short story prize (beating many thousands of entries). Her "magic realist" story, well before its time, transformed her life. After it was published, she began writing for the Observer. The story also attracted the attention of Alan Maclean, the fiction editor of Macmillan, who published her fiction and plays for nearly three decades.

Spark's breakdown in 1954, caused by taking Dexedrine (a form of speed but available over the counter), resulted in paranoid hallucinations. This was the height of her suffering but she was finally "released from Babel" by her conversion to Catholicism, which gave her a sense of order and coherence. It was shortly after this period that her remarkable post-war novels were produced, Memento Mori (1959), The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means (1963).

Stannard is a gifted biographer with a fine turn of phrase. He understands Spark's "chameleon tendency"; that she had a "death wish on all close relationships", and that the more successful she became, the more she "revealed her steadily increasing youth". There are a few blind spots - Robin refused to co-operate - but this account will not be surpassed. While her innovative fiction radiates pure pleasure and genius, her biography shows just what had to be sacrificed for these gifts to shine.

Bryan Cheyette's study of Muriel Spark is published by Northcote House