She was born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh, to a Jewish father and an English (and Anglican) mother, and was educated at James Gillespie's High School for Girls. In 1934–35 she took a course in "Commercial correspondence and précis writing" at Heriot-Watt College. She taught English for a brief time and then worked as a secretary in a department store.
On 3 September 1937, she married Sidney Oswald Spark, and soon followed him to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Their son Robin was born in July 1938. Within months she discovered that her husband was a manic depressive prone to violent outbursts. In 1940 Muriel had left Sidney and Robin. She returned to the United Kingdom in 1944 and worked in intelligence during World War II. She provided money at regular intervals to support her son as he toiled unsuccessfully over the years. Spark maintained it was her intention for her family to set up home in England, but Robin returned to Britain with his father later to be brought up by his maternal grandparents in Scotland.
Spark began writing seriously after the war, under her married name, beginning with poetry and literary criticism. In 1947, she became editor of the Poetry Review. In 1954, she decided to join the Roman Catholic Church, which she considered crucial in her development toward becoming a novelist. Penelope Fitzgerald, a contemporary of Spark and a fellow novelist, remarked how Spark "had pointed out that it wasn't until she became a Roman Catholic... that she was able to see human existence as a whole, as a novelist needs to do." In an interview with John Tusa on BBC Radio 4, she said of her conversion and its effect on her writing: "I was just a little worried, tentative. Would it be right, would it not be right? Can I write a novel about that — would it be foolish, wouldn't it be? And somehow with my religion — whether one has anything to do with the other, I don't know — but it does seem so, that I just gained confidence…" Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh supported her in her decision.
Her first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957. It featured several references to Catholicism and conversion to Catholicism, although its main theme revolved around a young woman who becomes aware that she is a character in a novel.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) was more successful. Spark displayed originality of subject and tone, making extensive use of flashforwards. It is clear that James Gillespie's High School was the model for the Marcia Blaine School in the novel.
She refused to agree to the publication of a biography of her written by Martin Stannard. Penelope Jardine now has the right of approval to publication; and the book was published in July 2009. 'Front row' the Radio 4 arts programme on the 27th July 2009 Stannard was interviewed in the week of the publication of the biography.
According to A. S. Byatt, "She was very upset by the book and had to spend a lot of time going through it, line by line, to try to make it a little bit fairer".She received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1965 for The Mandelbaum Gate, the US Ingersoll Foundation TS Eliot Award in 1992 and the David Cohen Prize in 1997. She became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993, in recognition of her services to literature. She has been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 1969 for The Public Image and in 1981 for Loitering with Intent.
Spark and her son had a strained relationship. They had a falling out when Robin's Judaism prompted him to petition for his late grandmother to be recognized as Jewish. The devout Catholic Spark reacted by accusing him of seeking publicity to further his career as an artist.
During one of her last book signings in Edinburgh she responded to an enquiry from a journalist asking if she would see her son by saying 'I think I know how best to avoid him by now'.Burial: Saint Andrea of the Apostle Churchyard, Oliveto, Toscana, Italy
Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
Hardcover: 627 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (April 12, 2010)
Amazon: Muriel Spark: The Biography
The compelling first biography of a twentieth-century literary enigma.
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark became the epitome of literary chic and one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, recorded her early years but politely blurred her darker moments: troubled relations with her family, a terrifying period of hallucinations, and disastrous affairs with the men she loved. At the age of nineteen, Spark left Scotland to get married in southern Rhodesia, only to divorce and escape back to Britain in 1944. Her son returned in 1945 and was brought up by Spark’s parents while she established herself as a poet and critic in London. After converting to Catholicism in 1954, she began writing novels that propelled her into the literary stratosphere. These came to include Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, and A Far Cry from Kensington.
With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), later adapted into a successful play and film, Spark became an international celebrity and began to live half her life in New York City. John Updike, Tennessee Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene applauded her work. She had an office at The New Yorker and became friends with Shirley Hazzard and W. H. Auden. Spark ultimately settled in Italy, where for more than thirty years—until her death in 2006—she shared a house with the artist Penelope Jardine.
Spark gave Martin Stannard full access to her papers. He interviewed her many times as well as her colleagues, friends, and family members. The result is an indelible portrait of one of the most significant and emotionally complicated writers of the twentieth century. Stannard presents Spark as a woman of strong feeling, sharp wit, and unabashed ambition, determined to devote her life to her art. Muriel Spark promises to become the definitive biography of a literary icon.
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