From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Having agreed at her request to write British author Muriel Spark's (1918-2006) biography, Stannard (Evelyn Waugh
) has acquitted himself with distinction after a decade of researching the elusive author's transformation from a socially insecure would-be poet to a sleek, elegant, literary eminence. Spark became, Stannard concludes, a great comic artist of the macabre. Born in working-class Edinburgh, Spark was half-Jewish, which, contends Stannard, was a source of her life-long alienation and divided personality. A hasty marriage at 18, a difficult divorce, the permanent deposition of her son to live with her own mother, not to mention a conversion to Catholicism were all prelude to Spark's climb to literary fame, culminating in 1961 with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
. Spark, hypersensitive, liable to turn on editors and agents with fury, was also a canny businesswoman whose contractual demands taxed the patience of everyone who dealt with her. Stannard has dug deeply, and with keen and sympathetic insight. His prose is graceful and assured, his literary judgments discerning, and his biography is as definitive as we can expect to find. 16 pages of photos. (Apr.)
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Despite the Wall Street Journal
's high regard, most critics tempered their praise by acknowledging this biography's various flaws, including Stannard's flat, cliché-ridden prose and his puzzling silence on significant experiences in Spark's life, such as her long-term relationship with artist Penelope Jardine and the effect of her religious conversion on her novels. Stannard skillfully recreates Spark's turbulent early years and places her deftly within the mid-century literary, social, and cultural milieu to which she belonged, but his narrative loses its bearings in the whirlwind of her continual travels later in life. All complaints aside, Stannard's exhaustive research and the unprecedented access he was granted to Spark's life have yielded the most comprehensive account of the prickly and superstitious author we are likely to get.