And rejoice Talbot does, continually, through her dreary days as the secretary for Sir Quentin Oliver, a penniless snob with messianic tendencies who directs a private club of hack memoirists called the Autobiographical Association; through the completion of Warrender Chase and its acceptance by the unscrupulous publisher Revisson Doe; and through endless rows with her unstable friend Dottie over Catholicism, her novel (which is considered by some early readers to be "sick"), and their shared interest in Dottie's husband, Leslie, who has recently flown the beds of both women to conduct a homosexual affair with a young poet "so literally called Gray Mauser that he wrote under the pseudonym of Leander." It's left unclear whether Fleur's novel, or Newman's Apologia, or Benzedrine, or even Satan himself is finally responsible for the reckoning that ensues: a breakdown of the border between life and artifice. Sir Quentin begins to take on the character of Warrender Chase, a fraudulent charismatic, and halts the publication of Fleur's novel by threatening her publisher with a libel suit. Then the only surviving typescript of Warrender Chase disappears from Fleur's bedsit, clipped by the deluded Dottie, and our narrator's faith in lifeˇher faith in literatureˇis tested by the forces arrayed against her art. Or, to view this conflict through another lens, darkly: "I didn't know then, as I know now, that the traditional paranoia of authors is as nothing compared to the inalienable schizophrenia of publishers." Substituting "men" for "authors" and "God" for "publishers" will provide a neat gloss of the metaphysics at work in Spark's brilliant and never ponderous examinations of the tensions between the Word and the world, scripture and plot, divinity and the profane demands of the human heart.
Woe to the writer with only hundreds of words at his disposal to describe the wonders, the wit, the seriousness of purpose applied with feather˝light touch to be savored in Spark's finest work (there are twenty˝one novels in all and counting, though her most recent, last year's Aiding and Abetting, will not be afforded a place in the upper echelon). Speak to devotees of Dame Muriel's booksˇthey are out there in numbers, keeping mum like Carmelitesˇand they will share with you the dilemma of trying to identify a favorite among the many: It just doesn't work that way with Spark. A title might come to mind in a flash, perhaps Memento Mori (1959), but then doubt creeps in as they recall the ballroom scene from The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)ˇ"Most of the men looked as if they had not properly woken from deep sleep, but glided as if drugged, and with half˝closed lids, towards their chosen partner. This approach found favour with the girls"ˇor the numerous sÚances of The Bachelors (1960), and all clarity is lost or, rather, overwhelmed by favorite images, lines, or characters. This devotee harbors an unhealthy fascination with the May of Teck Club from The Girls of Slender Means (1963), not unlike the poet, would˝be anarchist, and future Catholic missionary Nicholas Farringdon, whose encounter with this order of angels, or coven of career girls, sends him reeling into a future where reality and hallucination are one and the same. Every element of the book inspires aches and pangs, from the redolent setting (London between VE Day and VJ Day) to the sad, slow unfurling of the plot to the unexploded ordnance tucked under a hydrangea bush that reduces the club, and Nicholas's dream of its young women, to smoking rubble. Afterward a country rector, the father of the club's lone fatality, expresses his disapproval to Nicholas that Selina Redwood, the club's beauty, should have climbed back into the burning building to rescue a designer gownˇa trifleˇthat was not her own. "It was a Schiaparelli dress," Nicholas answers, using the only language, the only explanation, at his disposal. "The rector did not intrude on this enigma," Spark writes, and the same goes for the enigma's author. Selina's gesture is preserved in all its ambiguity and haunting power, unexplainedˇand undeniably beautifulˇas an expression of her heroism and fallibility, great faith and selfishness. Compare this moment with one of the contrived "ambiguities" from McEwan's Atonement, like the marriage between Lola Quincey and the man who molested her at the country house, the candy˝bar heir (and wartime profiteer) Paul Marshall, and you'll have some idea of the gulf that separates Spark's artistry, which honors the many paradoxes of experience, from McEwan's rather more hermetic craft, which places utmost value instead on the author's ability to manipulate a narrative (and, not incidentally, to make the reader squirm).
The conventional wisdom, which comes to us first and foremost from Martin Amis, is that the moribund British novel was rescued in the last decades of the twentieth century when a mismatched band of Young Turks, high on the fumes of American culture, stormed the parlor of the tastemakers and had their way with the bar, the hotplate, the coltish young assistants, before captivating the audience ("You go first, Marty!") with their howls of unheard˝of brilliance. It's an efficient story line, even thrilling in its own way, and one that only seems more inevitable as Messrs. Amis, Rushdie, McEwan, et al. continue to set the agenda for the mainstream British novel. And yet it's wrong, dead wrong, where Muriel Spark is concerned: She stormed the parlor first, entering by the front door instead of through a window (so showy, those pranksters), content to be mistaken for an invited guest and saving everything she witnessed in the scrum of literary life, every last gesture, every fumbled pass, every scrap of boozy argument, for elegantly trimmed fictions as ruthless as they are loving, as economical as they are rich with incident. "I was aware of a daemon inside me," Fleur Talbot recalls in Loitering with Intent, "that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more." Rejoicing, in the secular sense, is rarely conjoined with the wickedness of social satire, and Spark's innovation as a novelistˇher alchemyˇis to begin with a world that brings upon us warfare, violence, deception, and any of a range of petty, man˝size evils and make it shine with the light of human aspiration: to accentuate the funny, the sad, and the beautiful in her characters' lives, without forgetting for a moment that they are (as we are) transients and often dangerous in company, as are we.
Remember the passage from McEwan's Atonement about the writer's agonizing lot? The pain of being "also God" and all that? Well, it just so happens that Spark, through the medium of Fleur Talbot, has something to teach Younger Turks everywhere about the vice of self˝importance:
No matter what is described it seems to me a sort of hypocrisy for a writer to pretend to be undergoing tragic experiences when obviously one is sitting in relative comfort with a pen and paper or before a typewriter.
Spark's levity, here and elsewhere, may carry the whiff of social comedy, yet her hallmark concerns as a novelist place her beyond the minor tradition that Amis and his cohorts (rightly) sought to euthanize. She is anything but moribund; her work is unfailingly alive. And Spark continues on her way, rejoicing.
Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001) and An Underachiever's Diary (Dial Press, 1998).