August 10th, 2009


Muriel Speed

While listening to Hannah Gordon reading Martin Stannard's biography of Muriel Spark last week on BBC Radio 4, I used Google Streetview to "walk around" the prim, priggish terraces of Morningside, the area of Edinburgh that gave birth to Spark, but couldn't contain her long (like me, Spark moved to London, and then New York, and then continental Europe).

I've only read one Spark novel (Loitering With Intent) and seen the film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but that was enough to convince me that she has the exact combination of playfulness, intelligence and detachment I most appreciate in writers. Last month Ali Smith made an interesting comparison between Spark and Brecht in a Guardian article about the Edinburgh writer's first novel: "What critics have called Spark's "aesthetic of detachment" is really a Brechtian mode of connection. Spark wants her readers to think rather than feel."

That formally playful, sliver-of-ice-in-the-heart, schizoid quality (these days we might call its combination of brilliance and lack of empathy "Aspergers-like") lent itself to slim Modernist fiction-about-fiction you either love or entirely fail to get hooked by, depending on how much you love consciousness-of-consciousness, irony, detachment and meta-fiction yourself. But what emerges in part 3 of the biography, still available on iPlayer, is how much Spark's first novel, The Comforters (1957), owed to drugs.

In 1954 Muriel Spark was training to become a Catholic convert. She'd recently seen T.S. Eliot's play The Confidential Clerk at the Edinburgh Festival. She was also taking Dexedrine, a dieting drug which is basically amphetamines, or speed. At first Dexedrine sharpened Spark's concentration, kept her slim, and saved food money (she was poor). But soon a weird speed psychosis began to develop. Spark became convinced that T.S. Eliot was sending her threatening messages. In a ritual which was like a parody of the writer's job, she covered sheet after sheet of paper with anagrams and cryptographic experiments. "I began to imagine secret codes in everything I read, even in the press."

We think of the 1950s as a staid decade in literature. Of course there were the Beats in America, taking drugs and howling and ganging together in a sort of gay mafia. We think of the 60s as the time when this behaviour began to spread. But the 1950s version is more peculiar and interesting, precisely because of the way it mixes the prim with the unhinged. If America had a gay mafia of drug-takers, Britain had a Catholic mafia of drug-takers. Another of them, Evelyn Waugh, began taking barbiturates in 1954. He would turn out to be one of Spark's biggest supporters.

In 1957 Waugh published The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. The title makes us think of Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne, perhaps, and the thematic (straight-weird, drugless-druggy) is similar; a 1950s version rather than a 1960s one. Waugh basically recounts his own experience in the book: he'd started hearing voices after taking regular doses of phenobarbitone mixed with alcohol. In the novel, this becomes "bromide, chloral and Creme de Menthe." Parallels with Shakespeare's The Tempest emerge, and Pinfold begins to wonder if his life is being controlled by "a master magician", some kind of Prospero.

Muriel Spark's first novel -- praised by Waugh as better than his own account of much the same psychosis -- was called The Comforters. Instead of The Tempest it takes the biblical Book of Job as its structuring text (the comforters were friends of the long-suffering Job who didn't help much). Spark's characters are controlled by a being called The Typing Ghost: "I made my main character 'hear' a typewriter with voices composing the novel itself."

These two 1957 novels were structured by exactly the same cat's cradle of themes: the schizoid psychosis of hearing voices and believing that your actions are controlled by others, the metafictional quest to show characters being controlled by the mechanisms of the novel itself (but being self-aware enough to know it), and the Catholic belief that we really are controlled by God, the ultimate, holy ghost writer. On a purely endocrinological level, though, it was the speed talking.

Virago last week re-issued Muriel Spark's The Comforters.