When I’d finished puzzling over A Far Cry From Kensington, I decided I’d had enough Muriel Spark for now. There are just so many other books I really want to read, after all. But then I remembered that I’d picked up a copy of her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, from the public library’s discard sale (it’s shocking, really, what great stuff I’ve found there!), so I used the last of my Spark momentum to give it a try — and I ended up reading it straight through with much enjoyment. The first lines alone are entirely winning:
I am a hoarder of two things: documents and trusted friends. The former outweigh the latter in quantity, but the latter outdo the former in quality.
Predictably, for Spark, there’s a sting lurking there: she’s writing because “so strange and erroneous accounts of parts of my life have been written since I became well known, that I felt it time to put the record straight.” That is, people who are not friends to be trusted have spread misinformation, and she is countering their version with her own, which contains “nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses.” The book is, then, a kind of “gotcha!” But it doesn’t seem nasty so much as pointed: be careful what you say about me! And why not, after all? As she says, “Lies are like fleas hopping from here to there, sucking the blood of the intellect.”
The first part of Curriculum Vitae is a series of episodic pieces about Spark’s experiences growing up in Edinburgh in the twenties and thirties. It includes bits on buying bread and making tea, on shopping for “commodities,” and on neighbors, friends, and family. Though in some respects she had a hard childhood, she reflects on it with resolute satisfaction:
Sometimes I compare my early infancy with that of my friends whose very early lives were in the hands of nannies, and who were surrounded by servants and privilege. Those pre-school lives seem nothing like so abundant as mine was, nothing like so crammed with people and amazing information. I was not set aside from adult social life, nor cosied-up in a nursery, and taken for nice regular walks far from the madding crowd. I was witness to the whole passing scene. Perhaps no other life could ever be as rich as that first life, when, five years old, prepared and briefed to my full capacity, I was ready for school.
Her years at school were “the most formative years of my life, and in many ways the most fortunate for a future writer.” It was at Gillespie’s High School for Girls that she met Miss Christina Kay, who “bore within her the seeds of the future Miss Jean Brodie.” “She entered my imagination immediately,” Spark says of Miss Kay, and she offers her own as well as classmates’ recollections of this “exhilarating and impressive” woman.
After school Muriel worked in various secretarial positions, and then in 1937 she married Sydney Oswald Spark: “I was attracted to a man who brought me flowers when I had flu. (From my experience of life I believe my personal motto should be ‘Beware of men bearing flowers’).” They lived in Rhodesia, where he had a teaching job. “It was in Africa,” Spark says, “that I learned to cope with life”:
It was there that I learned to keep in mind — in the front of my mind — the essentials of our human destiny, our responsibilities, and to put in a peripheral place the personal sorrows, frights and horrors that came my way. I knew my troubles to be temporary if I decided so.
They weren’t easy years. She found the colonial apparatus and attitudes in Rhodesia bizarre and isolating. Her marriage fell apart due to her husband’s “severe nervous disorder,” and in 1939 she filed for divorce. In 1944 she moved back to England, where she went to work “in the dark field of Black Propaganda or Psychological Warfare,” helping to create misinformation campaigns to undermine German morale. Many of her experiences from this time ended up, she observes, in some of her later fiction, but it isn’t until after the war that her life comes to be shaped around her literary ambitions.
First she worked on a journal called Argentor, “the official quarterly journal of the National Jewellers’ Association.” Then she stepped in as editor of the Poetry Review — and it’s here, in recounting the eccentric personalities, egos, and feuds of the poetry world, that you sense her really settling in to put the record straight. She’s got a particular genius for quoting writers to their own disadvantage, like Robert Armstrong, “a physically and morally twisted, small, dark fellow, a veritable nightmare” who takes umbrage at her decision not to name him on the journal’s front cover. “I had been working hard for the opportunity to put the Society and yourself on the map,” he self-aggrandizingly complains; “I had also put in some groundwork with influential friends so I am puzzled and assume something must have arisen to sidetrack your promise.” “This was a mere taste of things to come,” Spark says, almost gleefully, before quoting her sharp reply and then noting, “I never in future put this man’s name on the front cover.” She was eventually dismissed from her position: “I was delighted to get out of that scene of strife and of that mortal sin of art, pomposity.”
The last part of Curriculum Vitae takes us through Spark’s various jobs and writing projects up to the completion and success of her first novel, The Comforters. Since then, Spark reports,
I have passed the years occupied with ever more work, many travels and adventures. Friends, famous and obscure, abound in my life-story. That will be the subject of another volume.
As far as I can tell, she never wrote that other volume. Too bad, because that I’d like to read! There’s a sense, at the end of Curriculum Vitae, that she’s really just getting started on the good stuff.