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Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 10:20 am
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.

22CommentReply


(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 11:20 am (UTC)

MAHEE GIRRULLS ARE LA CREM DE LA CREM!


ReplyThread Parent

(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 02:14 pm (UTC)

It is, isn't it? I wonder how it looks to people who weren't schooled in an Edinburgh independent school? Weekend trips to Cramond, charmingly eccentric history teachers, sports as sexual therapy, these were all features of my school, The Edinburgh Academy, too.

It all rings terribly true to me. I had a history master -- Granny Robertson, we called him -- who, instead of teaching history, lectured us on how we should find ourselves a rich heiress. I'm not sure whether he'd done that himself, or whether it was a case of "do as I say, not as I do".

In fact, being schooled in Edinburgh in the 1960s, right after this film came out, I wonder if there wasn't an element of life imitating art involved? To have a Hollywood film appear about your profession must have been quite a big thing for Edinburgh schools and teachers. They must all have seen it, and perhaps a few were shaping themselves according to its version of their world.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 11th, 2009 01:30 pm (UTC)

"A bit heavy for a marceau"

bwwwaahahahaha. That thing was comic gold. Thank you sir.


ReplyThread Parent
robinsonner
robinsonner
the maven
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)

eek I thought you were posting a link to Driver's Seat, which combines Muriel Spark AND Liz Taylor...oh and Andy Warhol.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 12:43 pm (UTC)

But the 1950s version is more peculiar and interesting, precisely because of the way it mixes the prim with the unhinged.

Hence all David Lynch films ever.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
Poem You Recommended Long Ago

Hi Momus,

This is a left-field sort of question, but I seem to remember you recommending a poem/poet a long time ago (this is YEARS ago). Something to do with the history of wool (or the world as reinterpreted through the perspective of wool). It was a very cool poem organized I think by numbered lines. Do you remember who wrote it or what it was called?

I'm just frustrated because I remember it being good.

Thanks and thanks for recommending Muriel Spark!

-Robyn


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 02:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Poem You Recommended Long Ago

Thanks to my creepily spooky TOTAL RECALL MEMORY I can tell you that must be:

Ian McMillan: Wool in History


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Poem You Recommended Long Ago

WOW, thank you! And you really do have a future as an incredibly sophisticated search engine.

Hooray, off to enjoy Mr. McMillan...!

-Robyn


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)
Muriel

Oooooh, I love it when you cover stuff like this. Purr, purr.

Just wanted you to know you have an audience among the becardiganed Radio 4 listeners.

Know what would REALLY turn me on? A look at Irene Handl.(Or the Mitford sisters. No, I'll have to go and have a lie down now.)


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Muriel

Well, I've done Edith SItwell. Meet you half way at Joyce Grenfell?


ReplyThread Parent
count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC)

I was just reading some of Updike's glowing praise for Spark last week. Ever since his death I have been pulling forgotten volumes off my shelf and re-immersing myself in him. If I were to recommend any to momus, they would be: Bech: A Book (whose settings include the former Soviet satellite states, NYC and a beautiful chapter set in a woman's college in southern Virginia.) Roger's Version, along with his collection of essays and criticism, Picked Up Pieces (worth it for his overview of Nabokov and Borges alone).


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 06:28 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 06:03 pm (UTC)
Eurasia

I lost the opportunity to comment ontopic in the previous post, hope I'll get an answer from ya here :
can you be "successfully" married into a muslim family without renouncing your Christendom ?
If not, which I reckon to be the case, what happens after you seperated ?


Alex P.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
On/Off topic?

What's your household saying about the Noriko Sakai incident in Japan? Pop star snorts Meth and flees police is a big headline there, I guess.

Also, while you're fielding random questions: I've been looking for that piece of video where you're giving a lecture about blogging/art/media? to a small crowd. Not the audio one (there's only pics of that), It's actual video. Alright, that's admittedly pretty vague, but all I can remember.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 07:43 pm (UTC)
Re: On/Off topic?

We're following the Sakai story, and the moral seems to be "when you're married to the mob, go the whole hog".

I'm not actually sure what video of lectures I've given exists -- will have to rack my brains and come back if anything clicks.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
Re: On/Off topic?

I think you're on it. Her "surfer dude" husband was/is a bit sketchy, as they say.

Sorry I can't remember anymore about the video clip, but I do remember watching it. I believe you may have been showing slides? I need to do some more sleuthing myself.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 08:16 pm (UTC)
Re: On/Off topic?

I've discovered it's from the Creative Social Berlin 2007 thing. But only a small clip seems to exist. Curious to know if the full thing is available somewhere, though.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC)
Re: On/Off topic?

I don't think it is.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 10:05 pm (UTC)
Re: On/Off topic?

what happened when you separated ?
Did you not come back from islam ?


ReplyThread Parent
endoftheseason
endoftheseason
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC)
Speaking of Waugh

What do you think of Basil Seal?

I can't help really liking Put Out More Flags.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Speaking of Waugh

I've only read Decline and Fall. But I liked it!

I think, now that newspapers are dying, it might be a good time to read Scoop. And The Loved One. At the same time.


ReplyThread Parent
illyich
illyich
illyich
Wed, Aug. 12th, 2009 07:22 am (UTC)

I bought "Loitering With Intent" on your recommendation, and my girlfriend and I took turns reading it to each other this evening. So far It has been really great, although the pace makes it a bit tiring to read aloud. The period voice is really impeccable, and we were both shocked that it was published in '81.


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