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Muriel Spark passes away at 88

Spark's spare and humorous novels made her one of the most admired British writers of the post-war years.

india Updated: Apr 21, 2006 17:10 IST

By Alessandra Rizzo

Dame Muriel Spark, whose spare and humorous novels made her one of the most admired British writers of the post-war years, died in Tuscany, Italian officials said Saturday. She was 88.

Spark died Thursday in a hospital in Florence, said Massimiliano Dindalini, the mayor of the Tuscan village of Civitella della Chiana, where Spark had lived for almost three decades. A funeral was scheduled there for later Saturday, Dindalini said. Spark wrote more than 20 novels, of which the most famous was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

She had lived in Italy since the late 1960s, first in Rome and later in a converted 13th-century church in Tuscany with her friend of many years, painter and sculptor Penelope Jardine. But she retained the accent of her birth and youth in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she attended James Gillespie's High School for Girls and was taught by the prototype for her most famous character - Miss Jean Brodie.

That 1961 book, later adapted for a very successful theatrical play and movie, made her famous internationally. But she already had written seven novels, three volumes of poetry and, since 1950, had been producing respected biographical and critical work about the Brontë family, Mary Shelley and John Masefield.

The Girls of Slender Means, considered by many to be her best novel, was published in 1963, drawing on her experience as a young woman struggling to make ends meet while writing in London. "I was literally starving," she once said. "It was awful. I had nothing to eat."

 
 Cover of one of Muriel Spark's novels

Novelist Graham Greene gave her an allowance of 20 pounds a month and some wine when she was poverty-stricken, on condition that she did not thank him or pray for him.

Like Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Spark was a Catholic convert and dealt with questions of morality and metaphysics, directly or indirectly, in her fiction.

"I don't propagate the Catholic faith but in a funny sort of way, my books couldn't be written by anyone except a Catholic," she told the Sunday Telegraph in 1997.

Although her father was a Scottish Jew and her mother an English Anglican, she said she was always a Catholic at heart. "It's the only religion I view as rational - it helps you get rid of all the other problems in your life," she told the newspaper. "There really is such a thing as beauty of morals." Spark certainly didn't preach, however.

"I don't like messages in novels. I don't like them being used as a propaganda machine, although what drives a novelist to deal with such situations is to improve the human race's understanding of itself," she told The Sunday Times in 1996.

Most of Spark's novels are short and spare, with the plots often bizarre or macabre, satirical or blackly humorous. In 1970's The Driver's Seat, the main character searches for someone to murder her. And The Abbess of Crewe a 1974 satire written after Watergate, is about the political machinations in an ecclesiastical community.

Born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918, Spark was married at 19 to schoolteacher Sidney Oswald Spark and had a son, Robin. They settled in Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe - but divorced after six years.

Muriel Spark returned to London in 1944 and worked in intelligence for the Foreign Office before entering the literary world as a publisher's copy-editor, poet and literary critic. She was general secretary of The Poetry Society and editor of The Poetry Review from 1947 to 1949.

Her first novel, The Comforters in 1957, was a critical success. After a few more books, she moved to New York to get away from London literary circles.

After The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie became a hit on Broadway in 1966, she moved to Italy to get away from the literati in New York.

She found it useful to be an expatriate.

"Being at an angle I find a help," she told the Sunday Times. "It means one has a different perspective, a new angle of absurdity.

Spark had a very individual way of writing. She wrote longhand, with little if any revision, straight into spiral-bound notebooks she got from a stationer in Edinburgh. She would never use a pen anyone else had touched.

She was made a dame in 1993, the female equivalent of a knight. In 1963, she became a fellow of The Royal Society of Literature, and in 1978 an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

She received the David Cohen Literature Prize for lifetime achievement in 1997.

Among Spark's poetic works are 1952's The Fanfarlo and Other Verse and 1982's Going up to Sotheby's and other poems. Some of her best-known novels are 1959's Memento Mori, 1960's The Ballad of Peckham Rye, 1975's The Mandelbaum Gate, which won Britain's James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1981's Loitering with Intent and 1988's A Far Cry from Kensington. Spark is survived by her son.