A S Byatt: 'She dressed tragedy as high comedy'

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The Independent Online

Muriel Spark's books were structured like nobody else's. She was one of that generation, just before my own, of powerful female writers - Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Penelope Fitzgerald. After them came feminism, and novels by women became much more limited to women's "issues". One of my favourites is 'The Driver's Seat'. It is about a woman who decides she's going to get herself killed. At the beginning she is buying garish clothes to attract a murderer; at the end she has found him and is dead. The character devises and executes the plot, and it says something very odd about who is "responsible" for evil. The murderer is a kind of victim.

It was the originality of the idea that I admired. You had the feeling that it wasn't Spark the writer who was judging the characters, but some unchanging Divine Justice. This allowed her to have her detached, even flatly sardonic tone. She was a very moral writer, but in a wicked sort of way.

Malcolm Bradbury saw what she was doing before anyone else. Echoing James Joyce (on God), he said Muriel was "like God paring his fingernails".

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie', her most famous novel, was for me too close to real people and events. I preferred the spiky little allegories that came after it, in which the most terrible things happened, but told in the mildest, most deadpan way.

In that genre, 'The Public Image', about a film star working to make her private life conform to her public image is both comic and subtly surprising. The early 'Memento Mori', too, was a wonderful book, about a "danse macabre" of moribund old people. It feels like high comedy, and is - but turns out to be darkly tragic, as well - again the mixture of chill observation and implacable moral structure.

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