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.
[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.]