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Muriel Spark: Sensing the extraordinary

Spark was one of her country's foremost literary figures, specialising in short, sharp, witty novels.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2006 15:29 IST

Scottish writer Muriel Spark, whose death in Florence was announced Saturday at the age of 88, was one of her country's foremost literary figures, specialising in short, sharp, witty novels with a keen sense of the extraordinary.

The author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a host of other novels, short stories, poetry and works of literary criticism, had made Italy her home since the late 1960s.

She died in a Florence hospital and was to be buried Saturday in the small Tuscan town of Civitella della Chiana, where she had lived since 1979 and which made her an honorary citizen in September 2005.

"She was a simple, person, affectionate and considerate," the town's mayor Massimiliano Dindalini said.

Born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918 into a Jewish family of Lithuanian origin, she later converted to Roman Catholicism ("because it made more sense"), a faith which was to underpin much of her mature fiction as it had with other great British writers of the 20th century, among them Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Burgess.

 Cover of one of Muriel Spark's collections of poems

Her work exposes the frailties and eccentricities of her characters with uncompromising satire and, as more than one critic has observed, the stories frequently deal with the dark, terrifying and inexplicable side of banal human experience.

She was also a biographer, publishing highly-acclaimed critical studies of Mary Shelley and John Masefield and the Bronte sisters. Her book on Shelley, Child of Light, first published in 1951 to mark the centenary of her death, won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America when it was reprinted in 1987.

A precocious child with a talent for verse, at the age of 12 she won the Walter Scott prize for her poem Out of a Book.

At 19, she was shipped off to what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to marry Sydney Spark, a schoolteacher, by whom she had a son, Samuel, but the marriage ended in divorce after Sydney became mentally ill.

She returned to Britain in 1944 and was conscripted into the Political Intelligence branch of the Foreign Office, where she worked on propaganda for the remainder of World War II and then edited the Poetry Review.

Coming late to fiction, she did not start her first novel until she was 35, and admitted: "I felt I had an awful lot to do. I still have that feeling of pressure. I must squeeze it out while I'm still here."

She had, however, made a start with a short story, The Seraph and the Zambesi, which beat off competition from 7,000 entrants to win an Observer newspaper competition.

Her debut novel, The Comforters already showed her highly distinctive style, and was followed by a host of waspishly wicked tales, the best-known of which are probably Memento Mori (1958), The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1961), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) and The Girls of Slender Means (1963), set in the shabby-genteel milieu of London life she would return to time and again.

Many of them have been made into successful films, especially Miss Jean Brodie, about an Edinburgh schoolteacher, which has been drawn from her own school experiences and based on a teacher called Miss Christina Kay. The film which starred Dame Maggie Smith as the eccentric and egotistical teacher, was a tale shot through with moral ambiguity and complexity.

Other films have included The Driver's Seat (1970), an "ethical shocker", as she put it, about a woman with a death-wish, played by Elizabeth Taylor, and The Abbess of Crewe, starring Glenda Jackson as a mother superior in a quirky re-working of the Watergate affair.

The New Yorker summed up the novel The Driver's Seat as Spark's "spiny and treacherous masterpiece ... so stark as to be nightmarish."

But, ultimately, her best work is not in the "serious" novels, but in the slighter books, written for the sheer fun of it, with their elegant and sophisticated prose and plotting and moments of high comedy, with touches of the perverse and bizarre, often with an almost a dream-like quality of fable or parable.

She went into self-imposed exile in Italy at the end of the 1960s, keeping a flat in Rome and sharing a house with a friend in Tuscany. "It's possible to exile yourself for one reason and to stay on for another," she was recorded as asserting, and summed up the attraction of Italy thus: "One is left alone in peace, and I like the churches."

But always a severe self-critic, she confided in a rare newspaper interview in 1989: "I've had success and I've been very lucky. That's not the point. The point is, I still haven't achieved what I set out to do. One has to satisfy oneself."

She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1993 and received many honours during her life, including the T.S.Eliot prize in 1992 and the British Literature Prize in 1997.

The Scottish Arts Council created the Muriel Spark International Fellowship in 2004. It was awarded for the first time in March this year to Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood.