"These years are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognize the years of one's prime..."
Muriel Spark was 43 and far from her literary prime when she and her unforgettable Scottish schoolmarm burst onto the scene together in a 1961 New Yorker short story. Since then both have flourished—The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a 1968 Broadway hit, won an Oscar for Maggie Smith in the 1969 film and this month is being telecast as a six-part PBS series with British actress Geraldine McEwan in the starring role. Spark, of course, has become a highly praised novelist on both sides of the Atlantic, and her latest book, Territorial Rights, was recently published.
"All of my characters," Spark says, "are part of myself—though I don't like to think so sometimes." Teacher Brodie and the author could be confused since both were born in Edinburgh, and Spark still writes her fiction in school exercise books that she has shipped from Scotland to her apartment in Rome. Yet the theme that recurs in all her novels is that nothing is what it seems. In Territorial Rights, kidnapping, terrorism, defection and blackmail lurk beneath the elegant facade of a Venice setting. Spark's wit has been justly noted and compared with that of Nabokov and Waugh. As one critic put it, "Her apparently glib novels comprise a serious attempt to probe the dark moral heart of man."
The author's next novel will be framed as an autobiography, but it won't be her own. "I make up a plot as I go along and never plan an ending," she says. "When I have one in sight, I race to it." Brodie took six weeks to write, Territorial Rights six months. "I don't revise my work. One draft and that's it."
Spark, now 61, is the daughter of a Scottish Jew who was a mechanical engineer. She had an Anglican mother and Presbyterian schooling, which left her with no particular religious conviction. At 36 she converted to Catholicism after helping to edit a collection of letters by Cardinal John Henry Newman, himself a convert. "I got in a position where I couldn't not believe," Spark explains.
To that point her life had been hard. She emigrated to South Africa at 18, married a teacher the following year and divorced him after the birth of a son, Robin (now 40 and a civil servant in Edinburgh). Muriel spent much of World War II trying to get out of Africa. Finally she left Robin behind in a convent school and came home on a troopship. Joining British Intelligence, she worked with German defectors broadcasting propaganda to their homeland.
After the war Spark took typing jobs to support herself while writing poetry and short stories at night. When a publisher urged her to try a novel, she recalls thinking it was "an inferior way of writing." Spark was often sick and on her uppers. A friend told Graham Greene that she needed a patron. "He liked my stories and sent a wire applying for the job," she laughs. His stipend lasted 18 months, long enough for her to get good reviews for The Comforters, in 1957. She and Greene have met only once—at a party—but still correspond. "He was a bit shy about the whole thing," she confides.
A lover of opera and race horses (she has owned two), Spark leads a more inhibited life-style than when she first moved to Italy in 1967. "I'm just great at lying around yakking my head off," she declares. American expatriate Gore Vidal is a friend, and she frequently visits him in Ravello. But Spark is apprehensive about terrorists. "Sometimes I can't go home at night because the streets are roped off," she says. "And my cats are allergic to the tear gas that comes in my window." Spark persists, writing as much as six hours a day in longhand. The author of 14 novels, plus criticism, short stories, biographies and poetry, says, "My fingers ache by nightfall. That's what they mean by writer's cramp."
She began as a poet and believed novels were 'an inferior way of writing'