I’ve always had the impression that Muriel Spark’s 1992 memoir, Curriculum Vitae, was an anomaly. This is because I generally think of Spark as a very private person, probably on the basis of her periodic refusals to be drawn on the question of her relationship with her long-term ‘companion’ Penelope Jardine. Of course, I see now that there is a difference between reclusiveness and the dislike of prurient speculation. All the same, I didn’t imagine Spark would have written such a book entirely of her own volition. Sure enough, she confesses in the introduction:
So many strange and erroneous accounts of parts of my life have been written since I became well known, that I felt it time to put the record straight.
Regardless of her motivation for writing the book, it comes as a delight to find that this memoir of Spark’s first 39 years is as much of a joy to read as her novels, and I am tempted to say even more so. I cannot think of another volume of biography, let alone autobiography, I have loved so unreservedly. Spark’s memories of childhood are extraordinarily vivid, and yet this is not a work of the imagination. In the spirit of her record-straightening agenda she promises that she has not written anything incapable of verification by a third party. The Edinburgh of the 1920s and 30s comes fully to life, as do her friends and relations – I imagine her impeccable ear for dialogue was informed largely by attending the conversations of her aunts, as Alan Bennett famously did those of his.
In a book full of highlights, the lengthy section on Spark’s teacher Christina Kay, the prototype for Jean Brodie, stands out. We are lucky indeed if in our childhood we encounter just one character as impressive as Kay.
… it is in another letter that Elizabeth Vance brings back to me the flavour and sense of Miss Kay in her classroom sixty years ago.
‘During recent scenes on television of the reunification of Germany, from Berlin, and over the sounds of bands playing and fireworks banging, I heard the commentator mention Unter den Linden — and I was back in Miss Kay’s class and she was saying “In Berlin there is a street called Unter den Linden — that means ‘under the lime trees’, girls, and there are many furriers’ shops in that street.”’
‘Many furriers’ shops …’ That was typical of those dazzling non-sequiturs of Miss Kay’s which filled my young heart with joy. One could see in one’s mind’s eye a parade of rich overindulged German ladies, already swathed in furs, stepping out grandly under the lime trees of Berlin.
The inspirations for many of the characters and situations of Spark’s novels are revealed in the pages of Curriculum Vitae, which whets my appetite for reading her later fiction, particularly Loitering with Intent, which draws on her tenure as editor of the Poetry Review journal. This is by some way the most entertaining section of the book, and certainly the cattiest. The Poetry Review then was a bit like the Church of England now, suffering from a lot of preposterous infighting and various schisms, presumably to the great amusement of those outside. Spark had enormous trouble reconciling the factions.
One enraged reader who joined in the campaign of harassment against me was Dr Marie Stopes, the famous birth control expert — on that account, much to be admired. She was absolutely opposed to my idea of poetry. Up to his death three years earlier she had been living with Lord Alfred Douglas, the fatal lover of Oscar Wilde, an arrangement which I imagine would satisfy any woman’s craving for birth control. I met her at one of our meetings and knew she disliked me intensely on sight. I was young and pretty and she had totally succumbed to the law of gravity without attempting to do a thing about it.
Spark later bemoans the fact that it was Stopes who was the birth control pioneer and not her mother.
When I write that this book may be an even greater joy than Spark’s novels, what I mean is that it’s a more immediate pleasure on account of its being an easier book to read (and therefore ideal for the lazy reader like me). There always seems to be something cryptic about each novel, a reluctance to yield up its meaning. That’s why the only novel of Spark’s I feel I really get is the one I’ve read more than once, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In this book, Spark hides nothing. On the contrary, she lays everything bare in her commitment to fact – that is, if one takes her at face value, which on the basis of the novels may be a dangerous thing to do. What an enormous shame that the mooted companion volume was never written. At least we can be thankful for this one.