Ready, Steady, Spark


I know I am jumping the gun a bit on Muriel Spark Reading Week which starts tomorrow, but one must use the blogging time one has when one has it. And once I finish a blog post, I have a hard time not hitting the publish button. Plus, I figure the topic of my post might provide some guidance to anyone not sure where to start with Spark.

My first encounter with Muriel Spark came back in 1999. Her most famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was included in the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and I had decided to read the books on that list, so it was only a matter of time. I think I may also have gotten additional encouragement from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust.

As I started to make my way through Spark’s many novels and novellas, I quickly noticed that she definitely had a quirky side, and often a subversive side.  Upon analysis, it is easy to see how Spark’s novels are all clearly written by the same person, but at a cursory glance her books can seem like the work of many different authors. For instance The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a pretty straight forward narrative with characters who, while a little quirky, don’t seem too far outside mainstream ideas of normal. Despite making one chuckle and smile the novel ultimately ends up being more intense than those chuckles would initially indicate, but still a pretty conventional narrative structure. In contrast, with The Driver’s Seat, I almost immediately sensed that the book wasn’t a run of the mill tale of a woman off on a holiday. It is like a one-person psychological thriller that I found pretty intense. The Public Image on the other hand was less quirky and more amusing, but ratchets up the intensity in a different way. And then I ran into The Mandelbaum Gate which is so conventional it almost feels like Iris Murdoch could have written it. And I am not saying conventional is bad (god knows I love me some Iris Murdoch), but it is wholly serious and reads today like historical fiction about the early days of Israel and the accompanying religious and political tensions. But then I bounced back to the quirkier  side of Spark but this time with a decidedly much lighter touch in Aiding and Abetting And then there are those like the The Only Problem, and Loitering With Intent, where the quirkiness and intensity is almost entirely in service of comedy.

As I thought about the chameleon like quality of Spark’s work, I thought it might be easier to show my thoughts graphically. The graph is not perfect but it comes close to approximating the variation in the thirteen Sparks I have read. Just keep in mind that intensity doesn’t always mean serious.

The My Porch Quirktensity Index of the Works of Muriel Spark
among the 13 Spark novels/novellas I have read to date
(titles underlined are books that I particularly enjoyed)
[Note from the Simon Thomas Chair for I Can Read a Book But Not a Graph Studies: The higher a title is on the graph, the more intense it is. The further to the right it is the quirkier it is. But now that I have teased Simon, I realize that a 2 x 2 matrix generally does include arrows as part of the labels that help in comprehension. I will add those now.]

11 thoughts on “Ready, Steady, Spark

  1. Frances April 22, 2012 / 11:13 am

    Love that you can't back off the publish click. I am same. Have never “saved” a post in my life. And leave it to you to subject the works of Spark to a 2 x 2 matrix analysis. And I agree with all your placements!


  2. StuckInABook April 22, 2012 / 11:56 am

    Great post, Thomas! Love your graph (although a bit confused… are the axes labelled correctly? Do you have Mandelbaum Gate as low intensity and above average quirkiness, and Loitering With Intent as high intensity and below average quirkiness?) – this is exactly the sort of original and, yes, quirky post that I was hoping Muriel would inspire. Since you've read five more MS novels than I have, I feel a total fraud right now…


  3. Thomas at My Porch April 22, 2012 / 12:34 pm

    Harriet: I am glad you like it.

    Frances: I did do a quick one for later this week, that I have saved. But for some reason I don't find the need for instant gratification with that one, probably because it required less thought on my part.

    Simon: After making fun of you (note my changes to the graph heading) I realize you have a legitmate complaint about my graphic. On these types of graphs, the lines are not axes, they are dividing lines for the quadrants. My lack of arrows for the axes at the bottomand left made it confusing. I have rectified the problem. I am a big believer in the fact that graphs should be clearly understandable to all readers whether they are familiar with a particular type of graph or subject or not.

    And you shouldn't feel like a fraud. When I started reading Spark you were still in short pants.


  4. StuckInABook April 22, 2012 / 12:48 pm

    Haha! Thanks, Thomas. Now I understand it. (And I even studied graphs for my Further Maths A Level – but, to be fair, avoided them wherever possible on the exam papers.)


  5. Karen K. April 22, 2012 / 3:00 pm

    Love your graph. Math is not my strong point but if you incorporate literature, I can make myself understand! I've only read one Muriel Spark and I didn't see what all the fuss was about, but that was years ago when I just started reading classics and hadn't read much mid-century fiction. I'm sure I'd appreciate it more more now.

    And have you seen the great Dickens chart that the Guardian ran? I can't remember if you're a Dickens fan, but I found it delightful. Here's a link:


  6. skiourophile April 23, 2012 / 4:16 am

    This is wonderful. When I plot my own reading on here I see that the quirkiest/intensest I've got is Memento Mori, so I am so pleased to see that I have the potential to up my quirkiness. [bibliolathas]


  7. Karyn Reeves April 23, 2012 / 5:09 am

    Not knowing straight off when any of these titles were published (except the Penguin ones), I'd be interested to see your plot with the titles colour-coded in some way which reflected time, say by decade or early/late career, just to see if her novels became more or less quirky/intense with time, or perhaps she mixed it up. I've only read two of her novels so far, both early and consecutive: Robinson which I would certainly describe as intense, and Memento Mori, definitely quirky.

    (And the wonderful Terence Greer cover that you commented on, and the few others that I own, are posted here


  8. Séamus Duggan April 23, 2012 / 7:43 am

    Having misread the date and read my two Sparks last month – Robinson and The Go Away Bird I decided to leave writing my posts until closer to the time as I similarly can't resist the publish button. (Now I'm thinking – I wish that I'd written the posts straight away as I find it harder after even a week to gather my thoughts)
    Love this post and it's sending me off to find The Driver's Seat and The Public Image.


  9. Sophia April 26, 2012 / 3:27 pm

    Love this graph! But I am a little worried… I started my Muriel Spark experience with the two most intense and quirky books – does this mean I am about to descend into blandness? ;-)


  10. Thomas at My Porch April 29, 2012 / 10:13 am

    Simon: I took a class called The Language of Maps in college to satisfy a math requirement.

    Karen: I am not a Dickens fan, but I do love a literary chart.

    Bibliolathas: Of course my placements on the chart are pretty subjective.

    Karyn: I think you are right, publish dates would add interesting texture to the chart.

    Seamus: I find it so hard to gather thoughts on a book when too much time has passed.

    Sophia: I would never call a Spark book bland, so I don't think you should worry.


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