|CARCANET PRESS/PN REVIEW|
the observer Sun 17 January 2010
Nothing can beat hearing it from the horse's mouth. Especially if the animal in question is the novelist they called "the Sparklet". So it's great, after learning about all the goings on behind the scenes from Martin Stannard's biography last year, to return front-of-house for the full performance: Muriel's Spark's early life as imagined by Spark herself.
Her autobiography, first published in 1992, has all the reverberating vigour of one of Miss Jean Brodie's aphorisms. While veracity might not be Spark's guiding light here, she certainly gives the impression of not wanting to fall into the deceitful traps of the memoirist. A series of images of childhood are delivered as just that: fleeting, almost unconnected impressions of the past. She is told that her paternal grandmother read the Bible all day and had hair so long she could sit on it, and so she pictures her "doing both at the same time".
Her vignettes appear to be randomly selected, but in fact reveal Spark as an energetic, insecure artist, unable to suffer gladly those she had labelled "fool". Even her husband, Sydney, from who she took her fortuitous surname, is held at arm's length like a dubious specimen: "If my husband had not been an object of pity, I would have been much tougher." Rather like the Edinburgh schoolmistress who first made Spark writing famous in 1961, she knows that poise and authorial tone are more than just literary style; they are central to any story. Without an attitude, a narrative means nothing. And it's hard for the reader not to conclude, as Spark did about the teacher who first inspired her to write, that "her dazzling non-sequiturs filled [the] heart with joy."