The prime of Ms. Spark

Sometimes burdened by an abundance of detail, a portrait of life and career, stormy and successful

Muriel Spark makes notes while lying on the floor in 1960. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’’ was published the next year. Muriel Spark makes notes while lying on the floor in 1960. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’’ was published the next year. (Evening Standard/ Getty Images)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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There was much in the 22 novels Muriel Spark wrote in her 88 years that drew upon her life, even if the drawing was as slyly phantasmagoric as Chagall’s moon flights or Picasso’s nose with three nostrils. Thus, the fury with which she fought anyone else’s recollection.

An infringement of copyright was how she saw it, though insisting it was mainly a passion for accuracy. She threatened an injunction when a writer portrayed her as cooking dinner for Tennessee Williams. She would never abandon guests to cook for them, was her queenly point; her parties were catered.

Even though Spark died in 2006, you sense a ghost of trepidation in Martin Stannard’s immensely detailed 627-page biography. No more than a ghost, though, and for a biographer who spent 16 or more diligent years all but inhabiting this hopscotcher between the comic, the cruel, the merciful, and the supernatural (God’s scriptwriter, Stannard calls her in a splendid endnote) the notion of haunting is not entirely out of line.

Spark chose him back in 1992 after reading his excellent two-volume biography of Evelyn Waugh, her admirer and early model. Along with Graham Greene, they came to form a British trio of icicle-sharp, icicle-cold Roman Catholic converts. Spark gave Stannard full access to her archives and made herself available, sometimes almost daily, to answer his questions.

He is wholeheartedly an advocate, which is more virtue than fault, except for his disproportionate dredge for favorable reviews of 22 novels that range from magnificent to brilliantly labored to quite bad. He includes the pans but, like a school photographer, positions the more gawky subjects towards the back.

With his massive narration of Spark’s life, on the other hand, Stannard’s impassioned empathy in no way shades flaws that a reader is free to judge more harshly.

It was a stormy life for most of the first four decades. Born in Edinburgh to a half-Jewish family, she seethed, despite parental indulgence, for escape and transformation. Writing was the getaway vehicle, but the road was jarringly rough.

Leaving home early, she embarked on a hideous marriage to a schoolteacher, moved with him to what was then Southern Rhodesia, endured several years of abuse and breakdowns, and finally divorced him. Back in Edinburgh, then London, she took a series of drudge jobs while purposefully building literary connections that won her a position as head of the fogey-ridden Poetry Society. Trying to jar it to life, she was quickly forced out.

She wrote stories, essays, and biographies that won little attention. She had two long and ultimately dismal love affairs (and after that only a few casual relationships), suffered a breakdown, and converted to Catholicism. It was an idiosyncratic conversion, chilly, selective, and intellectual rather than wholehearted. Much like her notion of God, in fact, and much like the way she came to deal with others. She worked, though, in a lifelong blaze of intensity out of which — like a blacksmith’s fire that forges both swords and lacey ironwork — came a whole variousness of grimness and comedy.

Stannard treats the early years with great and often illuminating thoroughness, connecting many of her experiences with her novels. A teacher was a model for Miss Jean Brodie; he traces Spark’s cold-eyed independence to her attachment to a tough, unconventional grandmother. He makes an oddly suggestive connection between the grandmother’s stroke-induced aphasia and the paradoxes and disconnections of Spark’s own inimitable literary style.

Breakthrough came at 39 with her first novel, “The Comforters.’’ And it came in a torrent, with seven novels in six years, among them three of her finest: “Memento Mori,’’ “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’’ “The Girls of Slender Means.’’ She became a sudden and lasting critical celebrity, and rich, what with cosseted treatment by The New Yorker, which devoted an entire issue to “Brodie,’’ and with the novel’s adaptation into theater and film versions.

Work remained a grueling constant. Its successes lie in a profound disquiet entwined with disquieting hilarity; its failures, in labored attempts at the same thing.

Her life, post-breakthrough, was a feverish series of exultant arrivals and quarreling departures. She had seven successive publishers in the United States alone. She made close friends and drifted or fought away from most of them. She left London for New York; found it thrilling for a while and then stale; and went on to decades of shifting arrangements in Italy. She had courtiers, escorts, an entourage. The one constant was the painter Penelope Jardine, her companion and devoted amanuensis for the last 30 years of her life.

Stannard’s work has been painstaking, prodigious, often inspired, and probably definitive. Occasionally the question is whether with his mass of detail he has not defined Spark into partial invisibility. There are the intricate parsing of her family relationships, her early entanglements with forgettable figures in the London literary semi-monde, the endless ins and outs of her disputes with publishers and agents. Stannard’s repeated perceptive stabs at explaining her can amount to looking longer and seeing less. Stand too close and a portrait blurs into brushstrokes.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

MURIEL SPARK: The Biography
By Martin Stannard
Norton, 627 pp., illustrated, $35