By Elaine Showalter
Sunday, May 23, 2010; B06
By Martin Stannard
Norton. 627 pp. $35
In the fall of 1962, the British writer Muriel Spark (1918-2006) came to Manhattan thinking about a change in her life. Her sixth novel, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1961), had catapulted her into the ranks of celebrity authorship, and the New Yorker, which had printed "Brodie" in a single issue, gave her an office; from her 18th-floor window she could see the flashing neon sign of the Time/Life building at Rockefeller Center. As she told a friend, "When it says 'Time,' I write. When it says 'Life,' I want to go out."
The sign is a neat metaphor of Spark's creative rhythm: alternating intense, monastic literary work with frenetic affairs, followed by exhaustion and breakdowns. But by the 1960s her days as a struggling young woman writer in bohemian London were over, and she had entered her own prime as a famous author, traveling widely and finally settling in Italy with a devoted retinue of gay escorts and her companion Penelope Jardine. She entertained with lavish abandon in Rome, had a wardrobe of evening gowns and bought a racehorse from the Queen. During these years, however, Spark was also an imperious literary diva, who feuded bitterly with agents, editors, publishers, scholars, journalists, family and friends, and became increasingly estranged from her only child.
Invited by Spark in 1992 to write her biography, Martin Stannard is sympathetic, perceptive and nonjudgmental, but not even he can get past the disturbing aspects of her career, particularly her relationship to her son Robin. At 19, eager to escape provincial Edinburgh and her working-class Jewish father and Christian mother, Muriel Camberg married an older man, Sydney Oswald Spark, and moved to Southern Rhodesia, where he had procured a teaching job. By 1938, when Robin was born, Ossie was already showing signs of psychological illness; he became abusive and unstable. After putting 4-year-old Robin in a convent boarding school, Muriel got a divorce and sailed to London in the winter of 1944, leaving her son behind. When Robin finally joined her in September 1945, she sent him to Edinburgh to live with her parents. She -- and Stannard -- rationalize these choices as best for the child, and necessary for a divorced mother in wartime needing to earn a living. But Robin never returned to live with her; as one of her London boyfriends noted, "There seems little maternal feeling in Muriel."
While Spark was certainly not the only woman writer to face the tensions between creativity and maternity, her relationship with Robin became increasingly antagonistic. He was bar mitzvahed in 1952 and became an Orthodox Jew, while she had a religious conversion in 1954 and became a Roman Catholic. Robin had artistic ambitions that Spark belittled and discouraged. In 1983, he resigned his civil service job to study painting, and had several exhibits; in her view, he was "not Gauguin." Their final break came in 1998, when he accused her of concealing her Jewish origins, arguing that her mother may have been Jewish too. Spark told a reporter that Robin was jealous and wanted publicity: "He can't sell his lousy paintings and I have had a lot of success. . . . He's never done anything for me except being one big bore." At the end of the year she cut him out of her will.
In the 1950s, Spark had educated herself in the lives and work of Victorian women writers, editing the letters of the Brontës and those of Mary Shelley with her lover Derek Stanford, and proposing a book on "the intellectual and social emancipation of women during the 19th century." She had begun to write short fiction as well as poetry, but her unconscious sexual, spiritual and vocational tensions began to surface in thoughts of becoming a nun, dependence on Dexedrine and finally a breakdown characterized by paranoid delusions and hallucinations. She began to "imagine secret codes in everything I read," and was convinced that T.S. Eliot was spying on her friends and sending her threatening messages in his play "The Confidential Clerk." With the help of friends and a lengthy sojourn at the Carmelite priory in Kent, Spark slowly recovered and wrote her first, semi-autobiographical novel, "The Comforters" (1957). Four more novels followed in quick succession.
Spark addressed her spiritual malaise in her religious conversion and re-ordered her sexual life by telling Stanford she "desired . . . to live in chastity." According to Stannard, in her fiction Spark had interrogated her feelings about sex and decided that she was "not much inclined" toward it with either men or women. She channeled her passion and anger in her satiric fiction; Stannard calls her a "great comic artist of the macabre." When she published her attempt at a more serious problem novel about Israel, "The Mandelbaum Gate" (1965), the critic John Gross lamented that she had lost her "inhuman touch." But she regained it in her subsequent novels and especially in "The Driver's Seat" (1970), an unnerving and indeed terrifying fable about a woman who sets up her own murder by a serial killer. Stannard is an excellent guide to this novel in particular, and to Spark's affinity with European postmodernism in general. It's not clear whether he liked Spark, but he surely admires her work, and with this meticulous biography, he has placed her among the major British writers of the postwar generation.
Elaine Showalter is a professor emeritus of English at Princeton University and the author of "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx."