Friday, March 13, 2009

Fan Friday: Muriel Spark

In Muriel Spark's writing, "evil is never far away, violence is a regular visitor and death is a constant companion," or so says the Times anyway. I just finished a collection of Muriel Spark's Ghost Stories -- I particularly relished "Another Pair of Hands" and "The Portobello Road" -- and I have to say I did like that light touch, that sort of, "Oh dear, I've just died," approach to the ghost story. There's something refreshing about treating ghosts as a commonplace, rather than as Something Of Which You Should Be Very Afraid.

Normally I don't bother with biography, but I have to say I like this little detail, from her obit:

"In London [during the war] she landed a job with the Foreign Office in a secret division that disseminated black" propaganda, a brand of disinformation she described as "detailed truth with believable lies." The reports, broadcast on what masqueraded as a German radio station, used real names and addresses to lend veracity to invented stories, and the announcers were German prisoners of war. Although the fabricated news items were aimed at undermining the Nazis, there were times when they worked too well and surfaced as news in the British press."

This sounds like a premise for a novel, a recipe for insanity, or both (kinda reminds me of this novel Senselessness which is awesome and you should all go out and buy and I should write about later, because it surely deserves its own post).

I also like that she went through a post-war Dexedrine phase, apparently to stave off hunger during this period of rationing, which gave her severe hallucinations: "The words she had once manipulated turned on her, trapping her in a fog of anagrams and crosswords and convincing her that a code ran through the literature she read."

I suppose it's easy to be matter-of-fact about supernatural incidents slipping in on your orderly world when you're hallucinating six hours a day.

Michiko Kakutani has thoughtfully provided aspiring Sparks with a formula: "Take a self-enclosed community ... that is full of incestuous liaisons and fraternal intrigue; toss in a bombshell (like murder, suicide or betrayal) that will ricochet dangerously around this little world; and add some allusions to the supernatural ... Serve up with crisp, authoritative prose and present with 'a light and heartless hand.'"

How light and how heartless? Well, this is what Muriel had to say about her estranged son, who grew up to be a wannabe artists and a thorn in her side:

"He can't sell his lousy paintings, and I have had a lot of success. He keeps sending them to me and I don't know what to do with them. I can't put them on my wall. He's never done anything for me, except for being one big bore."

For some reason there's nothing more endearing to me than someone who freely admits they don't like their own children (or at least admits to a bit of benign neglect). Well, maybe someone who's a lousy mother, a worse housekeeper, and happens to see ghosts on a regular basis. That's definitely someone I'd like to have over for coffee.

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