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The Wingchair Critic
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The late Muriel Spark, DBE wrote some of the 20th century's greatest novels, 'Memento Mori' (1959), 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' (1961), 'The Girls of Slender Means' (1963), 'The Driver's Seat' (1969), 'The Takeover' (1976) and 'Loitering With Intent' (1981) among them.
Spark's many second-tier novels, such as 'Robinson' (1958), 'The Public Image' (1968) and 'Symposium' (1990) are often equally fascinating; over the course of her long career as a novelist, Spark produced very few outright failures, the most prominent being 1984's 'The Only Problem,' a book that, ironically, Spark seemed especially devoted to.
Though the wider literary world has yet to fully appreciate the fact, Spark was an equally great short story writer, and also wrote plays, poetry, literary biographies, children's books, essays and book reviews. But Spark was a weak poet at best, even if, as she often stated, she conceived her novels "poetically," and was not greatly known in her lifetime as a poet or an essayist.
'The Golden Fleece: Essays' (2014), edited and prefaced by Spark's longtime companion Penelope Jardine, is the first collection of Spark's essays to appear in book form, and may partially explain why Spark was not more highly regarded in the essay form.
The compositions are grouped by theme, not chronology, an understandable scheme, but one which nonetheless works against the book as often as for it. It quickly becomes apparent that there are two broad types of 'essays' included: pieces to which Spark gave serious thought, time, and attention and which are worthy of her international reputation, and what might be called 'incidental' pieces of a much looser, improvised and conversational nature, as if written quickly, perhaps to fulfill a small professional obligation, and with little further concern.
Though the author's sense of humor remains intact and present ("the very thought of his touching my manuscript now offended my guts"), in the 'incidental' compositions Spark seems to have little to say and very little drive to want to express it. Many of these pieces also convey a coy and self-indulgent quality, and certainly do not suggest they were produced by an "intellectual monster" of the type that Sybil, the protagonist of Spark's deservingly famous short story, 'Bang~Bang You're Dead,' feared she might be at heart.
The reader learns, for example, that Spark likes to take careful note of the neckties worn by newscasters; she believes the newscaster should purchase the necktie in question if drawn to it, but not wear it, or any other, on the air, or indeed, at any other time.
In 'Love,' Spark conveys that she doesn't like to watch human beings "making love," but "nothing is more attractive and moving" than witnessing "a couple of young hares making love" outside her window in Florence. Her final say on the subject? "Love makes the world go round."
Is Spark simply attempting to prove that she's a classic 'English eccentric,' if one by way of Edinburgh?
Though the 'essay' totals four paragraphs, the answer to a potentially interesting topic like 'The Books I Re-Read and Why' is only: Proust's 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu' and the Old Testament.
Some are not essays at all: 'Pensee: The Supernatural' is only 57 words long, and ''My Most Memorable New Year's Eve' only 71, with several others being only slightly longer. Clearly, the word 'essay' was being interpreted as broadly as possible by Jardine and Spark, who added notes to the manuscript before her death in 2006.
As a result of these factors, 'A Spark Miscellany' or 'The Nonfiction of Muriel Spark' would have been more accurate descriptions of the book's contents.
Though it has been widely known for decades that Spark admired the work of Mary Shelley, Walter Scott, Cardinal Newman, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Brontes, Baudelaire, Proust, Eliot, and Max Beerbohm, Spark writes "the contemporary German author I most admire is Heinrich Boll," and readers will also learn she thought very highly of Henry James and Georges Simenon. The teenage Muriel loved Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind' (1936), while the adult Muriel finds it "bad art" but--nevertheless--"impressive."
The volume is redeemed by the longer 'legitimate' essays, including critically important Spark compositions like 1960's 'What Images Return' and 'How I Became a Novelist' and 1970's 'The Desegregation of Art,' which is a piece of art in itself, and represents Spark at her vital nonfiction best. Especially considering the cultural, social, and political climate of the West during the last quarter century, it is worth underscoring that, in the latter, Spark unconditionally rejected 'the cult of the victim' so prevalent today.
Spark is almost equally accomplished in her fluid, keenly observational writing about Ravenna, Tuscany, Venice, Rome, and Istanbul, while her pieces on Mary Shelley, Robert Burns, Emily Bronte, the Victorians, Cardinal Newman, Guy Fawkes and felines, among others, are sophisticated, dynamic and intellectually engaging.
In her review of Carl Jung's 'Answer to Job' (1952), Spark takes the great Swiss psychologist to task for ignoring the epilogue of the Book of Job, but clearly doesn't grasp the full range of Jung's complex, complicated thinking. Here, Spark appears to believe in and conceive of the Christian God in a very literal sense, where Jung's understanding of the Christian God, and his application of that understating, is far more figurative throughout all of his work, even excessively so.
As Spark notably controlled public facts and information about her personal life during her lifetime, genuine admirers of Spark's writing, thought and vision will most likely approach 'The Golden Fleece' enthusiastically, but many are likely to be disappointed by the offhand, extemporaneous feel of at least a third of the selection, which seems present, and obviously so, only to pad out the volume. If the lesser pieces would have been placed in an appendix at the back, the book would have been the finer for it.
Potential readers may also be wondering why New Directions is publishing, at the end of April of this year, a second collection of Spark's essays entitled 'The Informed Air: Essays.' The New Directions volume is, oddly enough, simply another edition of most of the same material included in 'The Golden Fleece,' though the organizational scheme is different. Jardine edited and prefaced both volumes, though her preface in the New Directions volume has been slightly altered.