I’m well aware I haven’t been as diligent as I should have been in posting more new blogs to this site, but lots has been happening and a new blog has been consistently at the bottom of my list of things to do. Today I wanted to remark on 2018 being the centenary of the birth of Muriel Spark (1918-2006) and give a review of a book rather fortuitously brought out just in time to coincide with that centenary: Alan Taylor’s Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark (Polygon, £12.99). Alan Tayloris a Scottish literary journalist and author, perhaps best known as the editor of The Scottish Review of Books.
I find it strange, arbitrary even, that we seem to think that nice round numbers are opportune times to reassess a certain figure, be they literary or otherwise. I’m usually immune to all of this marketing shtick, yet for some reason the other day I found myself buying Alan Taylor’s new book and inside it was stuffed with ephemera from ‘The Muriel Spark Society’ and Birlinn who are republishing all of Spark’s 22 novels in hardback form. The book itself as it sits on the shelf is a very attractive proposition – a thin, well-made hardback and at £12.99, pretty reasonable for such a thing these days. And it’s very well written in a fairly relaxed, conversational manner but I did manage to demolish the whole thing in about two hours, so it’s not one of those slow-burner books.
I confess I know little about Muriel Spark, even as someone very interested in Scottish literature, I’ve not read her works closely apart from the obligatory The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Curriculum Vitae, her poems and the wonderful novella The Ballad of Peckham Rye. I remember once having a conversation with a Spark specialist and I declared my love for The Ballad of Peckham Rye only to be met with a rather withering stare – it was the only Spark book this particular specialist actively disliked! In the main, I find her style rather like another Scottish novelist who had very little time for her, Robin Jenkins – there’s a chill to the writing that I find a bit off-putting.
Taylor’s book does not present itself as scholarship and as such makes an enjoyable read. That said, naturally as a friend’s notes, the book comes across as uncritical and at times hagiographical. It’s largely anecdotal and while funny in places, in others it’s rather underpowered and trivial, talking of ant infestations in the ramshackle house Spark lived in San Giovanni, Italy. Although Taylor admirably does not generally get in the way of his subject, there are nonetheless a couple of faint wafts of smugness and boastfulness that are perhaps unintentional. One such instance is on page 114 when we find Taylor with Spark in New York:
Later that afternoon I told Muriel I needed to find somewhere which could quickly alter the sleeves on a few shirts I had bought at Brooks Brothers (…)
As I say, this is perhaps just an unintentional disclosure of a bit more detail than necessary, but why do we need to know the author was shopping at the posh ‘Brooks Brothers’? It might well be something a stylish woman such as Spark would have approved of, maybe she recommended the store? But by saying this, it conjures up an image of jet-setting luxury, of the dynamic, globe-trotting literary journo too busy to even try on the shirts he’s bulk buying. I should point out though, for all of the prestige of Brooks Brothers, it is mostly style and no substance as most of its clothes are not made by ‘Union’ labour as you’d expect, but made in very low-wage economies. A Turnbull and Asser shirt on the other hand… Anyway, this is a silly detail to get hung up on.
But I felt this also when he repeatedly alludes in what seems to me as cod modesty to his poor Italian, yet is apparently explaining complex events. Beneath the tales of the mishaps is actually a thin seam of self-congratulation. These are very minor niggles, but the other thing I noticed Taylor indulging in now and then is a bit of at best exaggeration, at worst stereotyping and myth-making. On page 58 he talks of the West Port in Edinburgh ‘where there were – and still are – as many secondhand and antiquarian bookshops as pubs. In a few of the pubs, semi-naked women will cavort for dour drinkers, hence the area’s nickname: the pubic triangle.’
Now, I’m not some sort of blind gentrifier but this doesn’t represent the West Port I know at all – perhaps it serves the tourism board well to keep up this image, as a part of the dark side of duality Edinburgh where braver tourists can venture to see the seedier side of things. The worst description of it I’ve ever heard was as a ‘little Soho’. But I don’t recognise Taylor’s description here at all and there are much seamier parts of Auld Reekie than this. Yes, there are three strip clubs, but I would never define these places as pubs. There are four secondhand bookshops and as far as I can count only one real pub – the Blue Blazer. As for the women who work in the strip clubs – I think ‘cavort’ is the wrong choice of word here, as it suggests spontaneous pleasure.
Another thing I dislike is the studied underselling of the young which Taylor indulges in once on page 148:
On Muriel’s recommendation I took with me a copy of George Simenon’s novel Black Rain. ‘It is wonderful. I wish there were some new good writers like Simenon coming up. But there are not.’
This reminds me of some old literary dinosaur during World War Two asking ‘Where are the war poets?’ only to be met with the answer ‘Right under your nose!’ That said, there are many things this book does well and it went up enormously in my estimation for mentioning how Spark, like Doris Lessing, came under heavy fire for allegedly putting her own career and ambitions above those of her responsibility for a child. Why is this accusation only levelled at successful women writers, and not the men, whose parenting responsibilities are equally as important?
Sadly, this book might be mainly of interest for the closing chapters in which the dreadful spat between Spark and her son Robin is discussed. I confess to knowing little about this sour period in Spark’s life but have been edified by Taylor’s diplomatic handling of the issue. It seems that the real basis of the rift was that Robin, in Spark’s eyes, believed lies told to him by his father and that Robin would not accept that Spark was only half-Jewish by birth. It does seem prurient to delve into this, but as I say Taylor handles it well. That said, Taylor is also clearly biased and Robin, who died recently, is never really given a fair hearing. There is only one instance where Taylor’s writing about Robin becomes rather ugly and judgmental, on page 131:
Throughout his life it seems to her (Spark) that he did not want to settle down long enough in a job and make a proper go of it. Leaving school when he was sixteen, he worked for a while in a jeweller’s shop then flirted with the antiques trade before joining the civil service. Latterly he pursued a career as an artist while earning a regular income as a junior employee in the National Galleries of Scotland. In all of these enthusiasms Muriel humoured and encouraged him while quietly biting her tongue. After all, he was her son.
The resounding question this paragraph prompts is this: under what sort of twisted value system would this career trajectory, this life, be deemed so disappointing? It seems to me that he had a very ordinary, conventional middle-class life and then decided that he wanted to paint. So what? If this is an example of failure in some people’s eyes, then I am genuinely worried!
But all of my little strictures have conspired to keep me away from discussing the subject of the book, Muriel Spark herself. Taylor’s book reminds me that I have too little of an understanding of her work, and I’d like to remedy that. That’s what centenaries are for, are they not? To get us to take note lest we forget again or is it like that Alan Bennett epigram, that the best way of forgetting something is to commemorate it?