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How Muriel Spark Came Home to Scotland

The Usher Hall, in Edinburgh, is a formal venue, principally for classical music and recitals. Inside, red carpet and panelled walls generate a very Edinburgh kind of propriety. Voices are only ever slightly raised before a concert. People stand in small groups. This is not the kind of place—nor Edinburgh the kind of city—where one might cause a fuss. But it hosted a very different scene at the beginning of this year, when the journalist and publisher Alan Taylor joined up with the newspaper literary editor Rosemary Goring and the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s director Nick Barley to create their own performance. Instead of the usual restraint, the atmosphere in the foyer had been positively riotous, and, while there may have been no music playing, a fanfare of sorts was sounded in an announcement made by Barley when the three walked on the stage. “Look at you all!” he beamed to the sellout crowd, who cheered and clapped and stamped their feet in approval. “Here we are!”

This was Scotland commencing its year of celebrating the novelist Muriel Spark’s centenary—a writer born in Edinburgh, but who lived for most of her life in other places and died in northern Italy, in 2006. Despite the years away, Spark had always described herself as “Scottish by formation,” though she had seemed to have had little to do with the country of her birth and it even less with her. For years, reading lists of the great universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow were compiled without any of her contributions to the Scottish canon. Was she even Scottish? readers might wonder. After all, she’d left the country—rushed off to Rhodesia as a very young bride, had a child and a quick divorce, and then was down to London on her own, writing very English sounding novels with titles such as “A Far Cry from Kensington” and “The Ballad of Peckham Rye” and “The Abbess of Crewe.” After that, she’d had a stint in New York, with an office kept for her in the corridors of this very magazine, finally fetching up in Italy—first in Rome, then Tuscany, where she settled down with her partner, the artist Penelope Jardine. In addition, she had converted to Catholicism. In many ways, then, she was hardly “Edinburgh,” as people who live there often describe themselves. In fact, they might have said, the very opposite might be the case, what with her turning her back on a city that remains deeply rooted in the sort of conservatism that keeps its residents close, its habits traditional, and anything not “Edinburgh”—anything with a whiff of danger, say, or impropriety—under wraps.

Nevertheless, the author has finally been allowed to come home—the rumble of applause that greeted Nick Barley, in January, confirmed it. So what transpired, between Spark leaving the country of her birth and that cold night in January? Why have the people of the Edinburgh only now conceded that she was, perhaps, “Scottish by formation” after all?

Spark was born Muriel Camberg, to parents of Jewish and Lithuanian extract. She began writing as a girl, first verses and songs for her school magazine—she was described at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls as a “Poet and Dreamer”—then stories and essays, attempting, from the moment she returned from Africa to London as a single woman, to make her living as a writer. In 1947, she became the general secretary of the Poetry Society in South Kensington, and the editor of its magazine, Poetry Review; in 1950, she published a co-edited critical study, A Tribute to Wordsworth, then short stories and a collection of poetry. But not until her conversion to Catholicism did the novels start appearing: “The Comforters” in 1957, then four more in prompt succession. It was as though, released from the strictures of a Protestant upbringing, her writing, with its wild veering from satire to gravitas, could finally come out into the open. By then her son had been sent off to live with his father, and the only vestige of her past was her ex-husband’s name, which she retained. Cissy and Bernard Camberg’s daughter from Edinburgh had become Muriel Spark.

Praise for the early work swiftly followed—Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh wrote glowing reviews—but it was the publication of her sixth novel, in 1961, which drew for the first time on her Scottish past, that brought her real attention. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” first published in this magazine, is the story of a middle-aged teacher running a classroom of impressionable teen-age girls in prewar Edinburgh that, in its casting of its inhabitants’ crisp diction and sense of social propriety, articulated a city near identical to the one that existed at the time, and, to a large degree, today. (The film adaptation, too, which starred Maggie Smith and came out shortly after, seemed to sum up an era and a set of social types still recognizable in the areas of Bruntsfield and Morningside where Spark spent her early life.) The book was an instant best-seller, and has been in print ever since. No wonder Spark referred to it as her “milch cow.”

None of the other work that followed, though successful and widely published, was to capture the same readership. As Alan Taylor, Spark’s longtime friend, put it, Jean Brodie “reaches out to readers” in a way many of the other novels don’t, though each are attractive propositions—funny and dialogue-rich, jumping with incident and a merry sense of literary self-consciousness. It is not uncommon for Spark to rummage around within the contents of the novel she is writing and change it as she goes along, making conscious the artifice of her fiction. “Words are ideas” she famously said, signalling the modernist sensibility that is at the heart of all her writing, and reminding us that sentences and paragraphs have a charge that might affect us in a way that the pleasures of a traditional story, with its characters feeling things on our behalf, never will.

Perhaps it is that particular literary quality, her poet’s rigorous understanding of what another modernist, D. H. Lawrence, called “the jump of words along the line”—when set against the easy-to-read “Miss Jean Brodie,” with its mass-market appeal—that has confused her Scottish and British readers for so long. Was she serious, or in the blockbuster business? It’s a perfect example of Scottish antisyzygy, a mind-set that holds within it two completely opposite ways of being, and despite running its way as a theme through Scottish letters—from Hogg’s “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” to Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde”—it is not a feature that a country of Reformation and Enlightenment cares much to acknowledge. Another reason, perhaps, for the girl from Bruntsfield’s work being somewhat ignored.

Now, though, Muriel Spark is Edinburgh’s most famous daughter. The First Minister for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has been talking about her at public events and reading from her books; Alan Taylor has overseen a new edition of the entire collection of novels, each appearing in chronological order month by month; and exhibitions and shows about her life continue to draw crowds. She is everywhere. It’s the nature of centenaries, of course, that a writer may get a second chance, making friends with readers whom she didn’t attract the first time around. And it’s not as if Spark ever spoke out against her past. As far as she was concerned, she was never anything but “Edinburgh.”

But, still, everything about her defies summary. With books that range in style from comedy and romance and drama to satire and postmodern mashup and critique, she can’t be pigeonholed. In early photos, she is vivacious and moody, her auburn hair teased up and sprayed into an elaborate chignon, or, later, wild and woolly, as though she’s raked a brush through it just the once. A slash of dark lipstick, a ring or pair of earrings—and there she is. But who, exactly? Jew or Catholic? Crowd-pleaser or hermit? Where does she belong? For readers who like their writers straightforward, that they may more easily describe their art, Spark is a challenge: a split self of a woman who spells, like all Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes, nothing but trouble. She married at nineteen, moved to Africa, then left her husband and child there. She wrote carefully and caringly to her son, Robin, but also disinherited him. She created novels that are laugh-out-loud funny, while turning the mind to the gravest, deepest concerns of human life: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What do we know?

As the Edinburgh audiences continue to clap their hands as this year passes into the next, are they clapping for what Spark, in her work, has shown? About the impossibility of belonging? Or is it simply that her leaving, while not quite understood, is by now forgiven, even forgotten? Better late than never, perhaps. One could see it as clapping as a way of making up, at last, for an error, clapping as a kind of relief.

ViaNewYorker