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Few authors remain at once as familiar and excitingly original over the course of a career as Muriel Spark. From book to book, an odd familiarity combines with a scrappy sense of a new beginning. For the neophyte, there’s no bad place to jump in; for the veteran, there’s always something new to explore. In one of the interviews reprinted in Hidden Possibilities, an excellent new collection of critical responses to the Scottish-born author’s work, Spark praises Edna O’Brien for the freshness of her writing; it’s a compliment that could be paid to Spark at any point in her career. All of Spark’s novels enter the world with a youthful swagger and nascent vitality, so we may find ourselves staggered when we read, in The Informed Air: Essays, her barbed remarks about “daily life in Baghdad” and realize that she was still writing in her eighties, at the outset of the war in Iraq.

Spark lived a long time—she died in 2006 in her ninth decade—and despite a late start (she was nearly forty when her first novel, The Comforters, appeared in 1957), she published twenty-two novels in her lifetime. These come on the shoulders of a large amount of other material, including poetry, criticism, and a substantial amount of reportage. When writing for newspapers and magazines, she was driven in particular to write diversely about Italian subjects—from the cool allure of Venice to the Tuscan countryside, from Piero della Francesca to Pope Paul VI’s reception of Golda Meir in Rome in 1973.

If you read with a pen in one hand, your wrist is liable to get a crick from marking up the gems in the newly published The Informed Air, whose appearance coincides with the republication of eight of her novels (though not her best known, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) by New Directions, including one that her longtime American champion has not before published: Territorial Rights (1979). The essay collection comprises an ersatz autobiography of sorts to compete with Spark’s own incomplete reckoning, Curriculum Vitae. It ranges over Spark’s appreciations of predecessors (Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson might be expected, but not T. S. Eliot, Georges Simenon, or the poet laureate John Masefield, on whom she wrote a book-length study); her youthful reading habits and memories of Edinburgh, where she grew up, the daughter of a lapsed Jew and a Protestant mother; and her unorthodox approach to Catholicism, to which she converted in the mid-1950s (a number of the essays deal with Cardinal Newman, a virtual literary saint to her) and which left an indelible mark on her fiction. If the bulk of these pieces are incidental, they permit a view of Spark that doesn’t emerge elsewhere, even in her various interviews. You might think of them as occupying the same role in relation to her fiction that Philip Larkin’s writings on jazz play with regard to The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows: an oblique but somehow pertinent sense of greater intimacy with their author.

In Spark’s case, there are flairs of comic brilliance and acerbic profile. In “A Drink with Dame Edith,” a visit with Edith Sitwell raises her spirits after a discouraging trip to see her agent, who flicks the manuscript of her second novel across the desk to her with the cock of a finger. Sitwell was

impressively grand, quite eccentric, but she had no doubt whatsoever of what the artist in literature was about. High priests and priestesses: that’s what we all were. She wore her usual loose, dramatic robes, her high, Plantagenet headdress. Her lovely hands were covered with the most beautiful rings I had ever seen actually worn: they were deep, deep, coloured stones—aquamarines, blue agates, large and pool-like. A junior editor from Macmillan, an alcoholic who thought nobody knew, was fawning and “hand-washing” and fussing around her, a performance which Edith, with half-closed eyes, magnificently and pointedly ignored. She asked me what I would drink, suggesting her own preference, gin and pineapple juice.

In other essays, a Sparkian air of mysterious coincidence, which the author milked in so many of her novels, illuminates her telling. “The Poet’s House” finds her, in 1944, visiting London during an air raid, without a place to stay; she finds herself spending the night in the home of the absent Louis MacNeice, which somehow emboldens her to phone up a literary agent and pitch her nonexistent new book. In “My Madeleine,” desperately seeking a few sheets of paper from an open business (she’d run out) in order to meet the deadline of a short-story competition (which she would win, and would lead to her discovery), she commits to buying a piece of artwork by Stanley Spencer (a steal at thirteen pounds). She recounts the kindness of early supporters like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, like Spark, experienced mild hallucinations (his, thanks to barbiturates, hers, thanks to Dexedrine), and found inspiration to finish writing The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a novel in which a mental breakdown plays a key role, when he read The Comforters, with its voices-hearing character Caroline Rose. “The Writing Life” recounts a vacation to Épinal, France, where Spark discovers a painting of Job and his wife by Georges de La Tour in the town museum, which will provide a leitmotif to the novel she happens to be writing at the time about the Old Testament character and the theme of suffering.

Muriel Spark, 1970.
Muriel Spark, 1970.

Such coincidences, a pitfall in the plotting of many novelists but at times a structural wonder of Spark’s brand of experimentalism, could be a recipe for preciousness, but a number of these pieces dally with cuteness before becoming something different. “Ailourophilia” is a little essay about kitty cats, particularly Bluebell, Spark’s Persian, whose namesake memorably appears in her second novel, Robinson. (“If I were not a Christian, I would worship the Cat,” Spark announces.) But rather than delivering the crazy-cat-lady indulgence we’re braced to receive, “Ailourophilia” offers something unexpected, a story of the “hired assassins” who come to euthanize the sick animal. And in “Venice,” she recounts arriving in the city during a strike by all the river traffic, bargaining her way through the nearly sepulchral darkness on a coal barge. “Nobody walked on the banks, and yet a strange effect that I can only describe as water-voices came from those sidewalks and landing-stages. Perhaps they were ghosts, wet and cold.”

“The very nature of Venice is such that the things that usually preoccupy us, from which we are attempting to get away, undergo a shift of perspective after about three days.” This fleeting thought isn’t far from the world of Territorial Rights, the novel that New Directions has just added to its Spark paperback arsenal. Perspective shifts on a dime in this novel about blackmail (a theme Spark returned to again and again) and the amoral doings of a group of English and Americans and a pair of Bulgarians, all of whom seem to be trailing one another. One, Robert Leaver, is pursuing an exile from the East who is attempting to track down the body of her murdered father. Another, Leaver’s louche ex with Nazi connections, pursues Robert before being caught in the web. Territorial Rights is a hall of mirrors, as doubled characters (a sugar-daddy father figure, an assassinated actual father, a second flesh-and-blood father whose son wishes he were dead) proliferate in a city whose own “strange effects” have made it an ideal setting for plenty of turns of plot. “Isn’t it peculiar,” one character muses, “how the beauty, the great beauty, of Venice simply changes when one has some worry on one’s mind.”

Territorial Rights is fairly slight Spark, yet its spunky humor and tight wordplay give it a persistence that the slighter novels of other writers can’t achieve. Spark short-circuits the novel’s gloom with an odd buoyancy of language and a readiness to concede that her game of plots is at heart just that—a game. Characters misunderstand each other’s speech, and the typical dead spots of the conversation that fills the novel become a goad for Spark to make fun of its very conventionality. The star villain comes to Venice under the pretext of being an art historian; reinventing himself as a novelist—a sure sign of bad news in any Spark novel—he graduates to petty crime before becoming a terrorist. Meanwhile, his mother, who has sent an international agency to spy on his philandering father, contents herself at home with a mindless novel that becomes a running joke. No matter where one turns in Territorial Rights, there is little firm ground to say what is novelistic and what is not, what is being mocked and what is being believed.

Discussing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in an essay reprinted in Hidden Possibilities, Frank Kermode might also speak of the later novel when he writes that none of Spark’s “apparently wanton departures from the normal procedures of duller novelists can be attributed to clumsiness; they are part of the story, and also part of the joke.” It is Spark’s strength to have her joke and her theology at the same time, with neither claiming its sovereign territorial rights. Her work leads many of the critics collected in Hidden Possibilities to reach for a unique superlative. Updike: “Has any writer since Hemingway placed more faith in the simple declarative sentence, the plain Anglo-Saxon noun?” John Lanchester: “Has any novelist ever been as consistently good at openings?” They are both correct to ask, and yet there is something more to her work, in her entertaining and deep concern over playing God as a novelist and feeling pretty ambivalent about the role. What better way to leaven that ambivalence than with humor? Kermode puts it nicely when he sums up another of her works: “Typically, this central argument is set in the midst of a Sparkian plot of shoplifting, holdups, love affairs, Californian communes and other forms of human mess and muddle. But the point remains that all these problems are aspects of ‘the only problem worth discussing.’” Spark’s way with both problems—the one worth discussing, the ones of mess and muddle—is an open invitation to her work.

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.