Dame Muriel Spark dies, wrote "Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"
Dame Muriel Spark
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is possibly, maybe probably the most terrifying novel I've ever read. And you can rent the video -- the movie made from the novel is excellent. When I went looking for more stories from Muriel Spark, I found "Momento Mori" -- as funny as it is creepy -- and "The Mandelbaum Gate," about British people wandering around Israel and its neighbors. She was not one of many postwar novelists who were shrinking literature, trying to make it and its subjects smaller and more timid. She had ferocious courage in the stories she told, and they were very important if you were trying to do a decent job of understanding the world. She had no agenda other than observing -- and forgiving -- the flaws inherently within every human heart.
The Herald of course has every right to proudly call her "one of the most admired and beloved Scottish writers of her generation," but Scotland is only one of many nations around the world most of whose people speak, read, write and think in the English language most of the time. Muriel Spark was one of the greatest novelists of the English language in our times. There is absolutely nothing in her novels that makes them particularly British or Scottish or English. English was what she wrote best, but she used English to write about all the human beings she had observed. Her work is furiously universal, and burns with an obsessive need to consider what she believed to be the most important and troubling aspects of being a human being. I suspect she was very fortunate in the translators who turned her work into German, French and many other languages, but her powerful stories and human observations doubtless transcend all language barriers.
If you hold the palms of your hands in front of your eyes, fingertips pointed toward fingertips, you will notice that there is a letter M etched into each palm. The hands are the instruments of most sins, and when we contemplate one of these hand sins (when the lights are on), God gives us one final warning: Momento Mori -- Remember That You Will Die. And be judged for what you did.
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Glasgow Scotland UK
Monday 17 April 2006
Novelist Dame Muriel Spark dies
by ELEANOR COWIE
Dame Muriel Spark, one of the most admired and beloved Scottish writers of her generation, has died. The Edinburgh-born writer, known from an early age as "a poet and a dreamer," was buried at a private funeral in Tuscany on Saturday. She was 88.
Spark had lived in Italy since the late 1960s, first in Rome and later in a converted thirteenth-century church in Tuscany with her friend, Penelope Jardine, a painter and sculptor.
"Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life," wrote Spark in 1961.
She caught us all at an impressionable age with the captivating and dangerous Jean Brodie, eponymous hero of her most famous work. The novel, artfully set against a backdrop of pre-war Europe, where, in a manner Brodie would approve of, dictatorships were preferred over democracy, is regarded as one of the finest novels ever written about Spark's native city.
One of more than 20 novels written by Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie told the story of an Edinburgh school mistress devoted to her pupils whom she seeks to awaken to art, culture, passion and the exotic, thereby influencing their lives forever. But Brodie learns that such devotion exact a cost. In some respects, Spark's immortality was assured after the success of the work: glowing reviews led to a London stage adaptation, a Broadway play and later an Oscar-winning film starring Maggie Smith, as Jean Brodie.
Yet by the time The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published, Spark was already an established writer, having penned seven novels, three volumes of poetry and, since 1950, had been producing respected biographical and critical work about the Bronte family, Mary Shelley and John Masefield.
The Girls of Slender Means, widely considered by many to be her best novel, was published in 1963, and drew on her experience as a young woman struggling to survive as a writer in London. "I was literally starving," she once said. "It was awful. I had nothing to eat." Graham Greene, the novelist, gave her an allowance of £20 per month and some wine when she was poverty-stricken, on condition that she did not thank him or pray for him.
Born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh, 1918, the only daughter of Bernard Camberg, a Lithuanian Jewish engineer and Sarah Uezzell who was Anglican. She was taught in James Gillespie's school where she encountered teacher Christina Kay, her inspiration for Brodie. Although not solely based on Kay, Spark once remarked that the teacher "had it in her, unrealised, to be the character that I invented."
On leaving school, Spark took a course at Heriot Watt college and after a short time teaching English, went to work as a secretary in a department store on Princes Street.
She left home at 19 to marry schoolteacher, Sidney Oswald Spark, with whom she had a son, Robin, one year later. The family settled in Rhodesia -- now Zimbabwe -- but divorced after six years of "disastrous marriage."
In 1944 Spark returned to Britain where she worked for MI6 producing propaganda. It was an experience she later fictionalised in The Hothouse by the East River.
After the war, she settled in Edinburgh with her parents and Robin, who had stayed in Rhodesia for 18 months after her return to the UK. She retrained as a journalist before entering the literary world as a publisher's copy editor, poet and literary critic. She was general secretary of The Poetry Society and editor of The Poetry Review from 1947 to 1949.
Her first novel, The Comforters, in 1957 was a critical success. After a few more books, she moved to New York to get away from London literary circles. Yet, after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie became a hit on Broadway in 1966, Spark moved on again this time to Italy, to escape the literati in New York.
She said she found it useful to be an expatriate. "Being at an angle I find a help," she said in an interview. "It means one has a different perspective, a new angle of absurdity."
Most of Spark's novels are short and spare, with the plots often bizarre or macabre, satirical or blackly humorous.
In the 1970s The Driver's Seat, the main character searches for someone to murder her. And The Abbess of Crewe, a 1974 satire written after Watergate, is about the political machinations in an ecclesiastical community.
Her work also dealt with questions borne from her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Matters of morality and metaphysics were directly or indirectly referred to and examined in her fiction. She did not, however, evangelise or preach to those who did not share her faith. "I don't propagate the Catholic faith, but in a funny sort of way, my books couldn't be written by anyone except a Catholic," she said in 1997.
"It's the only religion I view as rational -- it helps you get rid of all the other problems in your life. There really is such a thing as beauty of morals.
"I don't like messages in novels. I don't like them being used as a propaganda machine, although what drives a novelist to deal with such situations is to improve the human race's understanding of itself." Along with Jean Brodie, Spark will be remembered for her wit, intelligence and her unique way of writing. She wrote in longhand, with little if any revision, straight into spiral-bound notebooks. She would never use a pen anyone else had touched.
In 1963, she became a fellow of The Royal Society of Literature, and in 1978 an honourary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was made a dame in 1993. In 2004, the Scottish Arts Council established a literary fellowship in Spark's name. Spark had received the David Cohen Literature Prize for lifetime achievement in 1997. Among her poetic works are 1952's The Fanfarlo and Other Verse and 1982's Going up to Sotheby's and other poems. Other well- known novels include Memento Mori (1959), The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), The Mandelbaum Gate (1975), which won Britain's James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Loitering with Intent (1981) and A Far Cry from Kensington (1988).
Gail Wylie, chairman of the Muriel Spark Society, said of the novelist: "She was very taken aback that a society like ours would want to exist on her behalf, but she was very appreciative of it. She kept in touch with us happily."
Spark is survived by her son, an artist living in Edinburgh.
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