For much of my life, I’ve lived out an existence parallel to a character in a Muriel Spark novel. I became enamored of her tragi-comic dramatis personae in the 1970s when we read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in English class at my all-girls grammar school in Northeast Scotland. Seeing the eponymous movie in Technicolor at the local cinema completed the epiphany.
It was hard not to be enraptured by Maggie Smith’s performance and archly affected vowels and consonants. Harder still not to be caught up in the plot in which Jean, “I’m in my prime” Brodie, the heroine of the Scottish writer’s best-known work, exerts a fatal influence upon six impressionable young pupils—“the crème de la crème.” Brodie, a teacher at a school for girls in 1930s Edinburgh who deliciously proclaims, “Give me a young girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life,”manipulates and influences her young protégés’ sexual, political, and religious development until one ends up dead and another betrays her.
Like many of Spark’s heroines, Brodie liked to control her own destiny, saw herself above the law, and lacked anything as pedestrian as a scruple or moral. Spark had the ability to create a panoply of larger-than-life, semi-grotesque, yet compelling characters who were both unique and somehow universal, who were easy to identify with. I certainly did.
The film—to which the New Yorker devoted an entire issue—helped introduce Spark’s existential satire and sly humor to an American audience. For me, it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with one of the masters of the genre often compared to Evelyn Waugh. It proved the start of a literary, geographic, and career odyssey that mirrored Spark’s own, and that of many of her characters.
After high school, I attended college in Edinburgh’s Morningside district, where Spark was born in 1918 to a Presbyterian mother and a Jewish father. Here, I inhabited the Edinburgh equivalent of Spark’s “dingy London bedsit.” Mine came with an elderly hissing pockmarked gas fire and matching elderly hissing pockmarked landlady. While the former gouged you out of your money, the latter served impoverished student lodgers crystal glasses of Amontillado sherry as a reward for taking the rubbish out, changing a light bulb, or listening to tales of a fiancé who died on the battlefields of the Crimean War. (OK, it might have been WWI.)
At the time, I was cackling my way through Memento Mori, Spark’s 1959 novel about death, blackmail, and scandal set in an English old folks’ home. The simple but brilliant plot device involves an anonymous telephone caller saying to all the principal characters, “Remember you must die,” the translation of the book’s title.
Spark liked to fictionalize her own experiences and perceptions, and I quickly realized that this was a way to kick start my own nascent literary ambitions. My Edinburgh bedsit formed the background for my elderly, sherry-addicted landlady to serve poisoned sherry to her lodger students in order to steal their grant money. Handwritten on foolscap, these first attempts at fiction never saw the light of day, but they did cement a lifelong love of the written word.
After college I landed in Wimbledon in London for my first proper grown-up job, supposedly as an assistant editor at a tiny publisher that issued facsimile editions of comics like the Gem, Wizard, and Hornet. My then-boss was a large, garrulous alcoholic who hit the Johnnie Walker as soon as the sun was over the yardarm; we parted ways less than a month later, when he discovered I couldn’t type, and I learned that he wanted nothing more than a highly efficient secretary, a task at which I failed miserably.
Spark too had worked in small London publishing houses, experiences she mined in A Far Cry from Kensington, her wry send-up of the 1950s publishing scene, published in 1988. In it, the widowed narrator Mrs. Hawkins, an editor in a publishing house, is surrounded by a collection of off-kilter idiosyncratic characters with whose lives the author wreaks havoc. The plot revolves around the corrupt antics of a self-congratulatory author Hawkins labels the pisseur de copie. He “knew the titles of all the right books, and the names of the authors, but it amounted to nothing; he had read very little,” she writes. It reminded me of my own pisseur de copie alcoholic boss, and once again I felt struck by our parallel lives.
After Wimbledon I moved to the expensive and terminally trendy Kensington district of London, where yes, Spark had once lived. It was a far cry from the seedy, run-down milieu of The Girls of Slender Means, Spark’s rapier-witted portrait of the travails of the desperate female inhabitants of a London hostel post–World War II, “when all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” In the novel, the girls flee a fire by stripping naked and smearing margarine over themselves in order to squeeze through a tiny window in the bathroom. Cruelly, the only one who doesn’t make it out is the overweight girl.
Coincidentally, I too lived in a hostel of sorts—a halfway house for ex-junkies. I was a support-group member, in theory there to help reformed addicts stay clean. The house offered drama galore. My fellow inmates often came with heartbreakingly sad histories. It wasn’t hard to imagine numerous Sparkian plot scenarios, with ensuing chaos, though no butter was involved.
Later, I morphed into a journalist, as Spark also did, and that career that eventually took me to New York City in the ‘80s, where, you guessed it, Spark was then living. Our paths briefly crossed once in the ’90s at a reading she gave following the publication of her 1992 autobiography Curriculum Vitae. Spark was a notoriously reluctant public speaker. And she was equally as reticent in person, when I encountered her in the elevator. Sadly, inspiration deserted me as I blurted out the tongue-tied and pathetically predictable, “Hello, I’m a big fan.” To which she replied, well, I’ve no idea what she replied. I suspect it was “Thank you,” or something so equally mundane that I didn’t even bother to record it in my diary of the time.
And with that, the spell I was under ended. For decades, Spark had been at the height of her popularity and influence, but times and tastes had moved on. As had mine. Compared to Brat Packs and New Journalism, Spark’s novels, shocking in her own day and age, felt old- fashioned and quaint, and her literary star waned.I finally got published in the late ’80s, with a short story that owed little to any Sparkian plot or character. But I will be forever grateful for her early inspiration, convincing me that I too could be a writer.
By the new millennium Spark was living in her final home in Tuscany, where she died in 2006. Since then, there’s been a flurry of novel reissues, biographies, and articles dissecting her prose, as well as a new essay collection—allowing her rediscovery by a new generations of fans. Rereading her beautiful, succinct prose, infused with satire and humor, is a treat, reacquainting me with a writer whose work was once as familiar to me as my own. Not everyone will get her. It requires a certain amount of work and imagination to truly appreciate her. But I couldn’t help reflecting how her circuitous, devious plots and eccentric characters are in keeping with those in such recent best sellers as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
As for my current scribbling, will someone please pass me those brochures of villas for rent in Tuscany….
-Ann Forbes Cooper
Ann Forbes Cooper is a writer, journalist, playwright, actor, and radio host who lives in upstate New York.