Despite her many awards, her damehood and her distinguished champions—Evelyn Waugh saw her as a writer “whom people rejoice to introduce to their friends”—Muriel Spark remains outside the highest literary firmament. Her poet’s ear makes her books deceptively slight: they deal with life and death, God and morality, madness and fate, in 150-220 pages.
Post-modern before the word existed, Spark pushed boundaries in her first novel, “The Comforters”. The tale of a woman stuck in a novel she herself is writing, it displays humour and a quirky faith: “the True Church was awful, though unfortunately...true”. Spark was a fierce experimentalist, and her idiosyncratic use of flash-forward means that, by the third chapter of “The Driver’s Seat”, the heroine is looking for a particular type of man–to murder her on holiday, subverting both the romantic and mystery genres.
With Virago planning more reprints, and two of the novels recently staged in Edinburgh, the time is right for a Spark revival. And here is the official biography by Martin Stannard, a 670-pager set in motion by Spark herself in 1992. An authority on Waugh and Greene, Stannard is well placed to exploit his exclusive access to archives and interviewees. He throws more light on the early years than Spark’s own dry memoir “Curriculum Vitae”, and he is perceptive on her novels. But many fine lesser works are rather neglected, and the prose slips at times into biography-by-numbers. For real wit, readers must turn to Spark’s own slim volumes.