Putting the Record Straight: Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae

Curriculum Vitae SparkWhen 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.

sparkwritingFirst 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.

“I was Mrs. Hawkins”: Muriel Spark, A Far Cry From Kensington

farcryMy local book club met last night to discuss Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington. We always try to follow some kind of thread from one book to the next; after reading two novels by Elizabeth Taylor we were thinking about other mid-20th century women novelists and while Muriel Spark seemed like an obvious choice, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie seemed a little too obvious, plus some of the group had read it before. (I hadn’t, but was finally prompted to by this discussion.) We chose A Far Cry From Kensington a bit randomly from among her other novels — I think the Amazon description of it as including “shady literary doings and a deadly enemy; anonymous letters, blackmail, and suicide” may have been decisive, because, after all, how tempting does that make it sound?!

So. Well. Hmm. I guess I could start by noting that I didn’t do terribly well with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — it’s not that I didn’t like it or find it interesting, but as I reported at the time, I struggled to make sense of it. The comments I got on that post helped me see how I might do better, but they didn’t do much to prepare me for A Far Cry From Kensington, which I found even more baffling — formally baffling, because it seemed to jump around from genre to genre and tone to tone; thematically baffling, because I couldn’t understand why it included the different elements it included; and baffling to me as a reader because in spite of all the things about it that bemused me, I didn’t hate it, and in fact I kind of liked it. Despite my confusion, I didn’t resent the book the way, say, Mrs. Hawkins, in the novel, resents Hector Bartlett’s The Eternal Quest, a study of the Romantic-Humanist Position.” I may not really get Muriel Spark’s fictional method or mission, but she’s so obviously artful about whatever it is she’s doing that I feel confident she is not the novelistic equivalent of a pisseur de copie…which is the epithet Mrs. Hawkins so fatefully hisses at the insufferable Hector.

Mrs. Hawkins — large, observant, acerbic, insomniac — is the best thing about A Far Cry From Kensington. I was actually going to write my whole post about the advice she hands out so confidently (and bafflingly! why does she give us so much advice?), but while googling around for insight into the novel, I came across this piece by Maud Newton, which is not only good about Mrs. Hawkins’s advice but smarter about the whole novel than I can be. So I will quote only this one bit of it:

It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise.

Even Mrs. Hawkins doesn’t know why she can’t help calling Hector a pisseur de copie (“a hack writer of journalistic copy,” she helpfully explains) but she can’t stop doing it and won’t retract it, either. She’s really quite virulent on the topic of Hector’s terrible writing:

Pisseur de copie! Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it . . . His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.

Little does she know that drawing this line in the rhetorical sand will cost her not one but two jobs in publishing, which the novel endlessly reminds us are both hotly desired and terribly recompensed.  Spark is acidly funny about the cliquishness of the publishing world, in which a word in the right place from the right celebrity author means more than any amount of dedication to literature. “Ah yes, in fact, books,” says one of Mrs. Hawkins’s employers:

Yes, many of our staff here are in fact fairly interested in books. One of our senior colleagues in fact was saying at a meeting only the other day that he thought he might perhaps have a shot at getting back to his first love — books.

Hector has the backing of a famous novelist, Emma Loy, who exercises her influence against Mrs. Hawkins (only, years later, to end up herself a victim of Hector’s malice, as Mrs. Hawkins placidly relates). Hector’s vengeful plotting against Mrs. Hawkins goes far beyond getting her fired, though, and realizing the extent of his insidious scheming is both amusing and, again, baffling. Spark lays her clues out so ingeniously that it’s easy to miss “that glint of a thin trail, like something a snail leaves in its slow path” even though, unlike Mrs. Hawkins, we know we’re looking for it.

Right up to the ‘reveal,’ in fact, the novel seems more random than plotted itself — which may, of course, be part of Spark’s art. And then I was surprised, rather than satisfied, by the conclusion, which draws together elements as disparate as a hysterical, ultimately suicidal, Polish refugee and the absurd pseudo-science of radionics (“no more a subject for mockery,” Mrs. Hawkins observes, “than the claims of all our religions”). And what about the parts that seemed unrelated to that plot, like Mrs. Hawkins’s brief, violent marriage (“Now, it is my advice to anyone getting married, that they should first see the other partner when drunk”), or the unwed mother in the upstairs attic whose father proposes to Mrs. Hawkins because “it would be good for Isobel to have a mother” (“at the age of twenty-nine, I wasn’t minded to take on a girl of twenty-two as a daughter”), or “the Boys” she goes to work for who “always got up when we came into the room” (“Is that American or is it homosexual?”)? I don’t understand why these are the ingredients of the novel — and yet each, in its own way, in the reading moment, was interesting or funny or temptingly quotable.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: The Crème de la Crème?

I’ve finally read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: that’s one more potential “Humiliation” winner gone!


I very much enjoyed reading this novel. And yet I felt as if I understood better what it was about than why it was written as it was. Miss Jean Brodie is a fabulous character, as charismatic as a creation as she is as a teacher. I can’t disagree with Hal Hager’s effusive remarks in my sleek Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition: “Irrepressible, imperious, and irresistible, she has joined the ranks of those fictional characters who, through the sheer power of their lives on the printed page, endure in memory and in the culture from which they spring.” Long before this meeting with Miss Brodie on the page, I felt I knew her, partly from having seen (though years ago) the film with Maggie Smith, and partly also from the general circulation of lines from the novel: “For those who like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like”; “You are the crème de la crème”; “I am a woman in my prime.”

The novel’s a fascinating study in the problematic allure of charismatic leadership: Miss Brodie’s fascination with fascism (“She had returned from Germany and Austria which were now magnificently organized”; “the German brown-shirts, she said, were exactly the same as the Italian black, only more reliable”) has a comic aspect but is also frighteningly apt, and reflective of her own power over her “set” — though that power proves more wishful or elusive than the forms of authoritarianism she so admires. Miss Brodie is perhaps the agent of her own undoing as a leader, as she fiercely individualizes her girls and preaches the evils of “team spirit” (“phrases like ‘the team spirit’ are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties”). It’s no wonder that this tension between leading and following eventually causes the set to implode.

The novel is equally preoccupied with the complications of sexual feelings: repression, desire, speculation, displacement. The girls’ prurient fascination with sex, and especially with Miss Brodie’s sex life (real and imagined), shows how entwined these feelings are with charismatic leadership, I thought: teaching, for instance, is always a kind of seduction, an attempt to win over hearts and minds, and Miss Brodie’s allure holds as long as she (knowingly or not) effectively channels her students’ erotic longings. Once they outgrow her — once they have sexual experience and power of their own, for instance — her grip on them begins to weaken.

There’s lot to think about in Spark’s strange, acerbic novel, lots to be amused and appalled at. But I was disoriented by some aspects of its style: I can’t see yet how they help me appreciate the tangle of emotions and politics and personalities the novel brings together. For instance, why does Spark insist so repetitively on characterization by tagline — there’s Rose (“famous for sex”), Mary (dies in the fire), Monica (mental math and fits of anger),  Eunice (does the splits), Sandy (“small, almost nonexistent eyes”). I appreciate that we need to get them all sorted, and that these are shorthand ways of indicating some fundamental things about them, but why reiterate their tags so incessantly? And why does Spark love prolepsis so? The chronology of the novel as a whole is quite an intricate braid of events from 1933 to 1939, but there’s a constant flitting still further ahead to the girls’ futures, as well as to Miss Brodie’s eventual end. Perhaps it is a way to signal that, intense as the school experience is, it is only a short interlude — or, the other way around, to bring out the lasting effects of early influences? I’d be interested in anyone’s ideas about  unities of form and content! My expectations were very high for this novel, and I’m a bit disappointed that at this point it seems more glittery than brilliant.