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Spark [née Camberg], Dame Muriel Sarahfree

(1918–2006)
  • Martin Stannard

Dame Muriel Sarah Spark (1918–2006)

by Frank Monaco

Frank Monaco / Rex Features

Spark [née Camberg], Dame Muriel Sarah (1918–2006), poet and novelist, was born on 1 February 1918 at 160 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh, the second child of Bernard (Barney) Camberg (1885–1962), mechanical engineer (fitter) at the North British Rubber Company, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Maud (Cissy), née Uezzell (1888–1974), daughter of Thomas (Tom) Uezzell, and his wife, Adelaide, née Hyams, of Watford. Muriel's father, a Scottish Jew whose parents had married in Kovno, Lithuania, was the ninth child of eleven and the seventh to be born in Edinburgh. Her mother was brought up as a Christian but married Bernard Camberg in the East London Synagogue on 1 February 1911. Adelaide Uezzell, a huge influence on her granddaughter, always maintained that she was a 'gentile Jewess', and Muriel later used the phrase to describe herself, her mother, and her grandmother as the children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers.

Early life and marriage: Edinburgh, Watford, and Southern Rhodesia, 1918–1944

Muriel Camberg grew up in a small, crowded flat with her brother, Philip (1912–2001), and various lodgers, amid a host of Jewish relations in Edinburgh. The extended family, however, extended rather to Watford, then a quiet market town, and to Cissy's Christian relations. At 288 High Street Adelaide and Tom Uezzell ran a ‘shop-of-all-sorts’ (later demolished). Nearby, Cissy's brother, (Thomas) Philip Uezzell (Uncle Phil), and his wife, Alice, lived with their six children. Uncle Phil was a railwayman turned tailor, Alice a cook for gentlemen's clubs in London. They were, like Muriel's father, of the skilled working class but there was always a sense, encouraged by Adelaide, that the Cambergs were socially superior. Tiny, brisk, and smart-tongued, Adelaide was dismissive of Alice and her more rough-and-tumble brood. The Cambergs visited Watford for Barney's fortnight's summer holiday from the factory, and the Uezzells frequently travelled to Edinburgh. When Tom died in 1926, Adelaide first lived with Phil's family but, quarrelling with them, was taken in by the Cambergs and installed in Muriel's bedroom. During the next six years, until Adelaide's death in 1933, Muriel's bed was a sofa in the kitchen. For the last three, Adelaide was crippled by two strokes, her speech scrambled by aphasia. Muriel, fascinated by the old lady, spent many hours in her company and remembered her warmly for her spirited defiance.

Muriel's autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1992), depicts her mother as embarrassing, English, nervous, and showy, her father as Scottish, steady, and taciturn. She always found her brother dull. He was a rationalist, she imaginative and gifted. Both attended James Gillespie's, a small, fee-paying merchant school. It was there that Muriel flourished in the juniors under the wing of a charismatic teacher, Christina Kay, whose spirit was immortalized in her sixth and most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Kay cherished the nascent writer in Muriel, as did two other teachers, her poems regularly appearing in the school magazine and in a book of Edinburgh schools' writing, The Door of Youth (1931). In 1932 she won the city's schools competition to mark the centenary of Sir Walter Scott's death.

Muriel matriculated in 1934 but her parents could not support further study for university. After a précis course at Heriot-Watt College and jobs teaching English and in a department store, she left on 13 August 1937 for Southern Rhodesia, aged nineteen, to marry Sydney Oswald Spark (Solly or SOS), a schoolteacher of Jewish origins. They had met at a dance at Edinburgh's Overseas Club and become engaged, and he had gone on ahead to take up a job in Fort Victoria. Thirteen years her senior, he seemed adventurous and mature, an intellectual. They married in Salisbury registry office (neither had religious faith) on 3 September 1937, a few days after her arrival, and on 9 July 1938 their only child, Samuel Robin, was born in Bulawayo after a long and agonizing labour. By then the marriage was already in ruins.

Solly, unstable and given to firing off his revolver in enclosed spaces, had lost jobs in Britain and was soon in trouble with the Rhodesian authorities. With the outbreak of the Second World War, all civilian passages to the UK were stopped. Nevertheless, Muriel Spark determined that she must escape, first setting up independently with Robin and supporting herself with secretarial jobs, then placing him in a Gwelo convent boarding school and making her way to South Africa, where in 1944 she took a troop ship to Liverpool.

Catholicism and fiction: London and New York, 1944–1966

Having three times won prizes for her poetry and prose in the Rhodesian eisteddfod, Spark headed for London to establish her literary career, but first worked as a telephonist for Sefton Delmer's black propaganda unit at Milton Bryan, near Woburn Abbey. Memories of this scenario figure in her New York novel The Hothouse by the East River (1973), memories of her tortured time in Africa in a series of brilliant short stories written in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly 'The Go-Away Bird' and 'Bang-bang You're Dead'. Her son Robin returned in 1945 and went to Edinburgh, where he was brought up by her parents. From 1947 to 1949 she was editor of the Poetry Society's Poetry Review and became the society's general secretary. In these circles she met and began a tempestuous affair with the poet and editor of Outposts, Howard Sergeant (1914–1987), introduced payment for published work, and generally irritated the old guard (particularly Marie Stopes) so much that first there was a mass resignation from the council and then Spark was sacked. Setting up a counterblast magazine, Forum: Poetry and Stories, she began an affair with the poet Derek Stanford (1918–2008), her closest companion for almost a decade.

Spark and Stanford edited four books together—on Wordsworth (1950), Emily Brontë (1953), Mary Shelley (1953), and Cardinal Newman (1957)—while she produced her own work: poems and essays; biographies of Mary Shelley (1951) and John Masefield (1953); and a selection of Emily Brontë's poetry (1952). The relationship began to collapse with her reception into the Roman Catholic church on 1 May 1954. About January 1954, while she was starting instruction, she suffered terrifying hallucinations, detecting coded, threatening messages in T. S. Eliot's writing. This was due to her overdosing on Dexadrine (later known as ‘speed’) prescribed as slimming pills. Suffering the depression common to withdrawal from dextro-amphetamine poisoning, she left London for The Friars, a Carmelite retreat in Kent, moving on to a cottage in the grounds of the Carmelites' nearby Allington Castle, to write her first novel. The young Alan Maclean, brother of the traitor Donald Maclean, had commissioned it for Macmillan on the basis of her short stories (she had won the Observer Christmas story competition in 1951 with 'The Seraph and the Zambesi') and on the recommendation of Graham Greene, who, along with David Astor and A. J. Cronin, supported her financially.

Throughout this difficult period, 1954–5, Stanford was Spark's chief ally: organizing the ‘plight fund’, and acting as her agent and go-between. She would often travel to London to visit him and for regular consultations with her lay psychoanalyst and spiritual counsellor, the Jungian Father O'Malley. It was O'Malley who introduced her to Tiny Lazzari, an Irish Catholic landlady in the unfashionable London suburb of Camberwell. Spark lived there, at 13 Baldwin Crescent, for a decade from 1955. Her much-acclaimed first novel, The Comforters (1957), was completed there and it remained her London base when she became an international celebrity with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and for three years (1962–5) spent half her life in New York. She loved Tiny Lazzari dearly as a kind of surrogate mother and as her first ‘dragon’ gatekeeper. An affectionate portrait of her appears in Loitering with Intent (1981) as Milly Sanders. It was only in 1965, when Spark was planning to move to Rome, that she relinquished her Camberwell flat.

Always experimental in her fiction, Spark might be considered the first British post-modernist. At the same time she was a theological (rather than a religious or proselytizing) writer. The Comforters, in the words of the Times Literary Supplement, is 'a novel about a character in a novel who has finished writing a study of the Novel and goes away to write a novel', and the heroine might either be a character in that novel or its author (TLS, 22 July 1957). The moral problem is how to love, as her religion demands, her repulsive and interfering co-religionist Mrs Hogg. The intellectual problem is how to represent the apparent disjunction between body and soul. Caroline's sense of being part of someone else's story reflects the sense throughout Spark's work of alienation and of the human race's being part of God's (incomprehensible) story. Time is elastic in her fiction, plunging backwards and forwards through analepsis and prolepsis, rendering the narrative present fragile and illusory. There is mankind's time and there is God's time. The two overlap and interweave.

Crucial to Spark's theology was the book of Job. She abandoned writing a book on the subject when her breakdown overwhelmed her. In 1955 she reviewed Jung's Answer to Job. Her The Only Problem (1974) concentrates on a character writing a treatise on Job. The 'only problem', and one to which Spark constantly returned, was how a benevolent and omniscient God could create a world of ubiquitous suffering. In this respect the holocaust represented a particular difficulty. The only answer was that the anthropomorphic notion of God must collapse.

Spark's early satires, written in London between 1957 and 1961, generate a powerful, yet comic, sense of loss in a fallen world. In Memento Mori (1959) the Catholic characters feel unthreatened by anonymous telephone messages reminding the elderly cast that they must die. The Bachelors (1960) reads like a pastiche of Eliot's The Waste Land (1922). A sense of evil, both terrifying and playful, haunts all her writing. Dougal Douglas in The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), a likeable mischief-maker with two bumps on his head, lies throughout to subvert the hypocrisy of those who surround him. 'What she has devised', Gerald Sykes noted, 'is an unponderous way of putting matters like Good and Evil and Death and Revelation back into a novel which also deals with contemporary British life' (New York Times Book Review, 28 Aug 1960). Her Catholicism was unconventional. She found the blind faith of her co-religionists tiresome, rarely attended church, and confessed only on her deathbed. Yet her faith was absolute.

Spark's life was characterized by continuous transformation: from humble Edinburgh childhood to the epitome of literary chic; from poet to novelist; from agnostic to Anglican to Roman Catholic; from the metropolitan to the rural. This she described in 1962 as a movement 'from exile into exile' (Edinburgh-born, New Statesman, 10 Aug 1962). She abandoned each existence, closed the door on it, and began again, leaving in her wake a litter of disputes with friends, lovers, and publishers. Among these, in her early days as a novelist, in addition to Sergeant and Stanford, were Alan Barnsley (1916–1986, the novelist Gabriel Fielding), Rayner Heppenstall (1911–1981), who produced her first radio plays, Alan Maclean (1924–2006), and Christine Brooke-Rose (b. 1923) and her husband, Jerzy Peterkiewicz (1916–2007).

In New York Spark lived in a functional service apartment in the Beaux Arts Hotel. After the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the novel began to generate a small fortune. Jay Presson Allen's adaptation became a West End and Broadway hit, followed by a film directed by Ronald Neame (1969), for which Maggie Smith won an Oscar. The New Yorker provided an office overlooking Times Square and its flashing Time / Life sign. 'When it says “Time”', she told Shirley Hazzard, her confidante there until Hazzard married Francis Steegmuller, 'I write. When it says “Life” I want to go out' (Stannard, Muriel Spark). She often did go out, with Hazzard to concerts and films, with her much-prized agent, Ivan von Auw, to jazz clubs, and with younger friends to bars and discotheques. In New York she quickly transformed her public image with the help of Elizabeth Arden, diets, designer clothes, and jewellery. She bought a racehorse. Photographs of her over the next decade appear to reveal her steadily increasing youth. She became a star, not only in the literary firmament but also in her whole appearance. In New York she wrote what was perhaps her masterpiece, The Girls of Slender Means (1963), and what was intended to be her magnum opus, The Mandelbaum Gate (1965). But, despite the fact that the latter won the James Tait Black memorial prize, she was unhappy with the book. It concerns a gentile Jewess and was based on Spark's trip to Israel and attendance at Adolf Eichmann's trial in 1961, an experience she found acutely distressing.

Queen of letters: Italy, 1966–2006

In 1966, when New York's literary culture became too invasive for her, Spark moved to Rome. There she lived first in the elegant Hotel Raphael, just off Piazza Navona, and then in three rented flats. The second of these, in Palazzo Taverna, was distinctly grand with a vast Renaissance salone of which she furnished only one corner. Throughout, she kept herself to herself, her closest companions being homosexual males: Eugene Walter, Dario Ambrosiani, Brian de Breffny, and Count Lanfranco Rasponi. Having begun as her parents' princess, she transformed herself into a queen of letters. In Rome the settings of her novels—The Public Image (1968), The Driver's Seat (1970), Not to Disturb (1971), The Hothouse by the East River (1973), and The Abbess of Crewe (1974)—became more international and their style even more experimental, influenced by the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and often written in the present tense. The Driver's Seat she considered her best, because best constructed, the story of a woman seeking her own murderer. Neurosis (epitomized by New York itself in Hothouse) seethes through them all: human cruelty, sexual perversity, and political corruption render human life bestial. Abbess, a black comedy loosely based on the Watergate scandal, is set in a nunnery.

In 1968 Penelope Jardine (b. 1932), daughter of the colonial governor Sir Douglas Jardine, became Spark's part-time secretary to support her own creative life as a painter and sculptor. They grew to be close friends but did not at first consider a shared household. Spark was buying a studio apartment overlooking Lake Nemi (the setting of The Takeover, 1976), and Jardine San Giovanni, a dilapidated priest's house and adjoining deconsecrated church in rural Tuscany near Arezzo. Spark, however, soon sold the studio, bought the small flat that Jardine rented in Vicolo del Gallo in Rome, and by the early 1970s had made San Giovanni her home, with Jardine as devoted companion, cook, housekeeper, driver, and secretary. They remained together until Spark's death, relentlessly travelling Europe. At San Giovanni Spark wrote her autobiography and nine more novels, mellowing as she adjusted to rustic life and as the house was steadily renovated. At first her work dealt with the very rich and their servants: The Takeover and Territorial Rights (1979). Two quasi-autobiographical works—Loitering and A Far Cry From Kensington (1988)—were followed by Reality and Dreams (1996), Aiding and Abetting (2000), and The Finishing School (2004), taking her back to where she had begun: to the contemplation of the creative process and its relation to spirituality, to transformations and transfigurations. All her later writings, particularly Symposium (1990), discuss love and how to distinguish this from possessiveness. The moral problems of her fiction often centre on resistance to attempted ‘takeovers’, the complicated truth of lived experience airbrushed because one person's identity requires the demolition of another's.

Spark saw this scenario in her relationship with Stanford and with her son. Stanford became an incubus to her, writing Muriel Spark: a Biographical and Critical Study (1963), and selling her letters to him. A Far Cry from Kensington lampoons him as the pisseur de copie, Hector Bartlett. Ultimately, however, it was Robin who presented the greater irritation. As an orthodox Jew, he insisted that Spark and her mother were Jewish through the female line and in 1998 revealed that he possessed his grandparents' ketubah, or Jewish marriage certificate, with the implication that Spark had suppressed this information in her autobiography. When a storm blew up about this in the British press, she was furious and responded with cutting remarks. Philip Camberg, who had married a Jewish woman and emigrated to America to become a research chemist then a ‘value engineer’ (cost-cutter) for US Naval Systems Air Command, fully supported his sister's account and received poison-pen letters for his trouble. Spark cut Robin out of her will, leaving everything to Jardine.

Among those who expressed admiration for Spark's work were W. H. Auden, Graham Greene, Sir Frank Kermode, David Lodge, Evelyn Waugh, Tennessee Williams, and John Updike. She became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1963, and was appointed OBE in 1967, DBE in 1993. She received numerous honorary doctorates, was appointed CLit in 1991 and a commander of the Ordre des Arts and des Lettres in 1996, and won the David Cohen British Literature prize for lifetime achievement in 1997. She sold her literary manuscripts to the University of Tulsa and her personal archive to the National Library of Scotland.

After fourteen years of terrible suffering from osteoporosis, malfunctioning hip replacements, fractured ribs and vertebrae, shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia, Spark finally succumbed to cancer of the kidneys on 13 April 2006, at Villa Cherubini, a private hospital in Florence, and was buried in the village cemetery at Civitella, Val di Chiana, close to San Giovanni. Her funeral on 15 April was quiet, some forty people, mostly local, attending, including one male cousin from her father's side, who had come from London for his first visit to be a representative of her family. The news was broken on the day of the burial and immediately the international media were log-jammed with grief at her death and praise for her achievements. 'No other writer', Jenny Turner remarked, 'has ever come close to imitating [Spark's] special narrative voice. In its waspishness, its spirit, its curiously posh Scottish-camp, it is one of the great creations of postwar writing' (The Guardian, 17 April 2006).

Sources

  • M. Spark, ‘How I became a novelist’, John O'London's Weekly (1 Dec 1960)
  • D. Stanford, Muriel Spark: a biographical and critical study (1963)
  • A. Hamilton, ‘Alex Hamilton interviews Muriel Spark’, The Guardian (8 Nov 1974)
  • D. Stanford, Inside the forties: literary memoirs, 1937–57 (1977)
  • M. Spark, ‘My Rome’, New York Times Magazine (13 March 1983)
  • J. Mortimer, ‘The culture of an anarchist’, Sunday Telegraph Magazine (20 March 1988)
  • M. Spark, Curriculum vitae (1992)
  • S. Schiff, ‘Muriel Spark between the lines’, New Yorker (24 May 1993)
  • M. Stannard, ‘The letter killeth’, The Spectator (6 June 1998)
  • Sunday Herald (16 April 2006)
  • Scotland on Sunday (16 April 2006)
  • The Times (17 April 2006)
  • Daily Telegraph (17 April 2006)
  • The Guardian (17 April 2006)
  • The Herald [Glasgow] (17 April 2006)
  • M. Stannard, Muriel Spark (2009)
  • WW (2006)
  • personal knowledge (2010)
  • private information (2010)
  • b. cert.

Archives

  • NL Scot., personal archive
  • University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, literary manuscripts
  • BBC WAC
  • BFI, Joseph Losey MSS
  • Emory University, Atlanta, Robert Woodruff Library for Advanced Studies, Derek Stanford MSS
  • Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Lauinger Library, Alan G. Barnsley papers
  • Princeton University Libraries, Harold Ober archive
  • Ransom HRC
  • Saint Michael's College, Vermont
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Victoria Library, Canada, literary notebook
  • Washington University, St Louis Library, John Smith archive

Film

  • BFINA, Booked, N. Bigsby (director), Channel 4, 27 May 1998
  • BFINA, documentary footage

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1955–74, Getty Images, London, Hult. Arch.
  • M. Gerson, modern bromide print, 1961, NPG
  • M. Gerson, photographs, 1963, NPG
  • J. Bown, photograph, 1965, repro. in The Observer (19 July 1992)
  • C. Mydans, photographs, 1965, Getty Images, London, Time and Life Pictures
  • photographs, 1967–97, PA Photos, London
  • photographs, 1983–2005, Camera Press, London
  • S. Hyde, bromide print, 1984, NPG
  • J. Bauer, photograph, 1985, PA Photos, London
  • photographs, 1987–91, Rex Features, London, Sipa Press
  • T. Leighton, bromide fibre prints, 1988, NPG
  • U. Andersen, photographs, 1991–2002, Getty Images, London
  • B. Tulloch, pencil and wash, 1993, NPG
  • S. Pyke, photographs, 1997, Getty Images, London, Premium Archive
  • photograph, 1997, Rex Features, London
  • M. Hardie, photographs, 2004, Rex Features, London
  • A. Moffat, oils, Scot. NPG
  • F. Monaco, photograph, Rex Features, London [see illus.]
  • T. Pilston, photograph, repro. in The Independent (1 Aug 1992)
  • obituary photographs
(1849–)
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)