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Muriel Spark: The Biography
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Buddy Reads > Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard (July/August 2018)

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message 1: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
A buddy read to augment our Muriel Spark centenary reading.

Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark ended her life as the epitome of literary chic, one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard tells her story.

It's 672 pages

Guardian review....

Amazon UK page....

The blurb...

Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark became the epitome of literary chic and one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, recorded her early years but politely blurred her darker moments: troubled relations with her family, a terrifying period of hallucinations, and disastrous affairs with the men she loved. At the age of nineteen, Spark left Scotland to get married in southern Rhodesia, only to divorce and escape back to Britain in 1944. Her son returned in 1945 and was brought up by Spark's parents while she established herself as a poet and critic in London. After converting to Catholicism in 1954, she began writing novels that propelled her into the literary stratosphere. These came to include Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, and A Far Cry from Kensington. With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), later adapted into a successful play and film, Spark became an international celebrity and began to live half her life in New York City. John Updike, Tennessee Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene applauded her work. She had an office at The New Yorker and became friends with Shirley Hazzard and W. H. Auden. Spark ultimately settled in Italy, where for more than thirty years-until her death in 2006-she shared a house with the artist Penelope Jardine. Spark gave Martin Stannard full access to her papers. He interviewed her many times as well as her colleagues, friends, and family members. The result is an indelible portrait of one of the most significant and emotionally complicated writers of the twentieth century. Stannard presents Spark as a woman of strong feeling, sharp wit, and unabashed ambition, determined to devote her life to her art. Muriel Spark promises to become the definitive biography of a literary icon.

message 2: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
This buddy read will open in mid July

We hope to see you lots of you joining us then

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
As I am getting a little forgetful, I thought I would open this before the weekend - so, let the discussion begin!

Whether you have read this, are intending to read this, or not, then do please come and chat about Muriel Spark - her life, work and novels. Everyone is welcome.

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments I found this a bit of a struggle to be honest. Probably not all Stannard's fault, as Muriel Spark seems to have gone to great lengths NOT to give much away about herself.

So overall I felt it was stronger (and more engaging) when discussing the books than when talking about MS's life. Even more so after the eventful early years.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
There did seem to be a theme - with her falling out with people - and she did, obviously, also fall out with Stannard. I have to admit that I did not warm to her as a person. Not that it matters, really. I have read the biographies of many authors I love, but have not particularly liked personally when reading their biography - W. Somerset Maugham springs to mind here! I do feel I understand here more, now that I have read this.

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments Interesting, I felt I understood the themes of her writing better, but I found Muriel herself elusive throughout.

message 7: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
I have bought a copy of this book but am unsure when I am going to be able to read it.

I'm currently reading a large book, which is from the library, and I have to prioritise it as it has to go back soon.

I'm also going away in just over a week, and am just taking a kindle.

I hope to read, at least some, if not all, in early August - but then, of course, there's our new exciting August reads...

The Grand Babylon Hotel - Arnold Bennett
The Magician - W.Somerset Maugham

...followed about two weeks later by....

The Riddle of the Sands - Erskine Childs
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

A scenario I am sure most of you are all too familiar with


Susan | 10641 comments Mod
I know the feeling, Nigeyb ;)

Pamela, that is a good point. I would agree that I understood her work more than her. Some biographies of authors focus on the personal, others more on the work. As Muriel, herself, was quite elusive, as you say, I felt her biographer had to utilise her work to demonstrate where she was at the various points of her life.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
By far, I thought the most interesting part of this biography was the story of her early years in Edinburgh. I had heard that the Brodie set was inspired by her own schooldays, so it was interesting to hear the full story.

I was also interested to read of her long term dissatisfaction with her publishers. I do wonder whether, had she been a man, she would have been treated with more seriousness.

message 10: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
I mentioned over on the Muriel Spark thread that in readiness for Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard I listened to Alan Taylor’s Appointment in Arezzo: A friendship with Muriel Spark.

It's a good potted history of her work and life that will also bring you closer to the real Muriel.

There's no doubt she had major issues with Muriel Spark: The Biography, which is why Martin Stannard waiting until she was dead to publish.

If you believe Alan Taylor then Muriel was funny, witty, a great listener, loyal and her good qualities far outweighed her less good, and I am inclined to believe that she would have been a wonderful person to know.

Given the two books sound so different I would say reading Alan Taylor’s Appointment in Arezzo: A friendship with Muriel Spark too would be very worthwhile for a different perspective on Muriel's personality.

Pamela, she's certainly not elusive in Appointment in Arezzo: A friendship with Muriel Spark - she's front, left and centre.

Click here to read my review


Here's Alexander McCall Smith on it...

Memoirs of friendship have a particular appeal. They are often touching and not infrequently they throw a light on a life that a conventional biography might not supply.

Alan Taylor’s Appointment in Arezzo: A friendship with Muriel Spark (Polygon) is a charming, beautifully written account of the author’s friendship with Muriel Spark.

The centenary of her birth is coming up, and there are plans to bring out a uniform edition of her novels. Taylor’s memoir is the perfect prologue to this celebratory year, providing a sympathetic and intimate picture of the author of such timeless classics as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

This book is an intimate, fond and funny memoir of one of the greatest novelists of the last century. This colourful, personal, anecdotal, indiscrete and admiring memoir charts the course of Muriel Spark's life revealing her as she really was. Once, she commented sitting over a glass of chianti at the kitchen table, that she was upset that the academic whom she had appointed her official biographer did not appear to think that she had ever cracked a joke in her life. In Appointment in Arezzo Alan Taylor sets the record straight about this and many other things.

With sources ranging from notebooks kept from his very first encounter with Muriel and the hundreds of letters they exchanged over the years, this is an invaluable portrait of one of Edinburgh's premiere novelists.

The book was published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Muriel's birth in 2018.

message 11: by Pamela (last edited Jul 14, 2018 01:17AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments Thanks for the reminder Nigeyb, it does sound interesting. I would be cautious about the claim that it's 'revealing her as she really was', though.

One aspect Stannard brings out very well is that Muriel often actively concealed and changed who she really was - she gave contradictory interviews, chopped and changed her friendships (including dropping people like a stone for perceived slights) and managed her image as an artist in a way that was ahead of its time.

'As she really was' when with Taylor will still be an interesting perspective, so I think I will read it soon.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
I found her ability to drop people disquieting, Pamela. I was also confused by her relationship with her son. Sometimes she seemed to want him, at others to find his presence exhausting. She was, at heart, a loner, I think and wary of the demands of others; even those closest to her.

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments I agree, Susan, she was very impatient with anything or anyone who distracted her from her work. Writing mattered more to her than any personal concerns.

message 14: by Nigeyb (last edited Jul 14, 2018 03:18AM) (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
Alan Taylor maintains that her first husband, Sidney Oswald Spark, was a real thorn in her side, and perhaps explains her distrust of many people who tried to get close to her.

Talk about marry in haste etc etc

Muriel married Sidney in 1937, followed him to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) only to discover a few months later he was manic depressive and prone to violence.

You can see why she would leave him and, perhaps, also their son Robin. I understood whilst she didn't bring Robin up she was always financial supportive she provided money at regular intervals and, I think, far more so than Sidney, who regularly capitalised on their brief relationship with error strewn interviews about her.

Spark and her son Robin did often have a strained relationship. The final falling out was over Robin's conversion to Orthodox Judaism which prompted him to petition for his late grandmother (Spark's maternal grandmother, Adelaide Hyams) to be recognised as Jewish. It was always unclear whether both of Adelaide's parents were actually Jewish.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
She certainly married in haste and Sidney was not mentally well. However, she certainly struck me as a selfish person and she seemed to want Robin, when she wanted him, and reject him when she wanted to be alone. I could not understand her behaviour towards Robin, but I could understand how it affected his feelings towards her.

message 16: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
I'd guess she realised she'd made a big mistake, wanted some kind of career and not domesticity, and perhaps Robin always reminded her of Sidney.

But, yes, clearly some of her behaviour and decisions were far than perfect.

Still, we've all have done things we regret though.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
Yes, you can forgive, and understand, almost everything. However, when you have a child they come first - over everything. Not putting your child first, I can't understand, whatever the reasons. After all, Sidney did not want her to go ahead with the pregnancy - feeling they were not able to cope, financially or otherwise. She over-rode his concerns, which was her right, obviously. She also became very impatient with her mother; especially in later life.

Although I had issues with her, as a person, I did understand that she took her writing seriously and felt that she had to succeed financially, as obviously she was reliant on her own talents and had to support herself.

message 18: by Nigeyb (last edited Jul 14, 2018 06:38AM) (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
Absolutely Susan. I feel the same about my children and find it hard to understand people who don't have those strong parental bonds.

Then again, there are plenty of people out there who prioritise other aspects of their lives.

As you say, Muriel wanted to be a writer, and the best she could be, and let's face she was successful.

I think a lot of successful writers, musicians, artists, career people are fundamentally selfish. It's unusual to be able to get to the top of your chosen field and also be a present, involved and engaged parent.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
Yes, so often you read about author's and find them quite difficult, selfish people. I was pleased I liked Agatha Christie, when I read her biography!

I think Spark's biographer tried to be fair to her, but it was hard to gloss over facts. She could, undoubtedly, be very self-centred and yet, also, very kind.

message 20: by Val (last edited Jul 14, 2018 03:30PM) (new)

Val | 1709 comments None of the libraries I belong to have this book. Her novels are great, but one of the reasons I am not searching harder to find a copy of her biography is that I have read those of other authors I enjoy and not liked the people behind the books. It may be that authors need a selfish streak to find time to write, get published and make a living from it.
How much we are entitled to know about an author's private life and that of their family is something I have been thinking about recently.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
I think she approved the biography, Val - or the idea of it, anyway. It was authorised, but she did fall out with the person writing it. If you do agree to have a biography written, how much control should you have over what makes it into print? It's an interesting point.

I think one of the most enjoyable memoirs I have read was Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir which was written by Christie herself, about a particular part of her own life. Obviously, as an author, she felt in control of this and could portray herself as she wished.

So, which do we think works best - biography or autobiography?

message 22: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1290 comments She may have liked the idea of the biography as opposed to the actuality of it. I generally prefer memoirs. However, I always have to remember Lillian Hellman's three "memoirs" - basically made up of whole cloth. Enjoyable to read at the time and only learned later that much of it is a pack of lies. Or Beryl Markham's West with the Night - most of which was written by her husband. If there's a ghost-writer I want to know about it.

I haven't really looked for this book. I may but the Alan Taylor sounds like it is more on point.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
The Alan Taylor deals with a particular place and time - much as the Christie one did. This is very much an overview of her whole life. I think there is a place for both but, as you say, Jan, you need to take authorised biographies and memoirs with a pinch of salt.

message 24: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
Jan C wrote: "She may have liked the idea of the biography as opposed to the actuality of it"

According to Alan Taylor that's spot on. She found the process very intrusive and, every time Martin Stannard showed her what he'd written she's spend hours amending it so that it was completely covered in revisions and comments.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
I think he was wise to wait before her death to publish it. It would have been a fairly pointless endeavour otherwise.

message 26: by Pamela (last edited Jul 15, 2018 02:34AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments Has anyone read Curriculum Vitae: A Volume Of Autobiography? From the reviews, it sounds as though she deliberately chose to write 'facts' and avoided any delving into emotions, motivations etc. There seems to be a pattern in her resistance to anyone interpreting, rather than reporting, her life (including herself!).

One striking episode from the Stannard book was her fury when someone wrote an inaccurate account of a dinner party she gave, even though the inaccuracies were trivial and (to anyone else) irrelevant.

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
No, I haven't read it. She did seem to do a lot of flouncing and falling out with people, over the years.

What did anyone think of her relationship with Sergeant and Derek Standford?

message 28: by Nigeyb (last edited Jul 17, 2018 03:19AM) (new)

Nigeyb | 10395 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "I think he was wise to wait before her death to publish it. It would have been a fairly pointless endeavour otherwise."

I think she would not have allowed publication whilst she was still alive.

It must have been very trying for Martin Stannard, especially as Muriel approached him about writing her autobiography

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
I think she was often quite trying with people she worked with. She was always very touchy, and often in dispute with, her publishers.

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments Susan wrote: "I think she was often quite trying with people she worked with. She was always very touchy, and often in dispute with, her publishers."

Yes, she seemed to fall out with everybody, and fired off lots of scathing letters. She also go very frustrated with what she saw as incompetence - she ended up doing a lot of her own admin and then feeling irritated that she had to waste her creative time on it.

Her parties sounded awesome though, so she wasn't grumpy all the time!

Susan | 10641 comments Mod
She also wrote great books. She was quite grumpy a lot of the time though!

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