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Muriel Spark: The Biography Hardcover – April 12, 2010

3.5 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (April 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393051749
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393051742
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,431,512 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By margot on May 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This doorstop is a good counterbalance to Mrs. Spark's own evasive autobiography ('Curriculum Vitae') which promised so much and delivered little. The story drags at times, particularly in the second half, when Spark seems to spend most of her time feathering her various nests in Rome and New York. Having spent her early career paying her dues--poverty, poor nutrition, mental affliction, bad companions--Spark doesn't have much to do for the last thirty-five years of her life except buy clothes and jet around.

Martin Stannard is patient and relentless in unraveling two subjects that always made Spark uncomfortable. One is her relationship to her son, Robin, whom she basically abandoned as a child and never much liked afterwards. Another is the tale of Derek Stanford, her writing partner in the early days. Prior to this biography, it was never clear what their relationship was. In 'Curriculum Vitae' Spark makes him out to be a pathetic and overreaching little man who stole and sold her personal papers. In 'A Far Cry from Kensington' Spark caricatures him as the bumptious hack Hector Bartlett, the 'pisseur de copie.' It is now clear that Stanford and Spark were lovers during their writing partnership. Once she became successful, and he didn't, Spark found the memory of him irksome and embarrassing.

Spark personally chose Stannard as her biographer, but she was a most unhelpful subject. This book could never have been published during her lifetime. Stannard never succeeds in making her interesting or likeable. Quite the opposite, in fact; the more you know about her, the less you like her. At least I liked her less as a person...having hitherto based my conception of her mostly upon a 1996 BBC television interview where she was just charming as pie. But as a writer and artist? Oh, I think I respect her more.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I wish I was Muriel Spark. Its that simple - I want to be an artist whose work is spunky, rich and never boring. She worked out her life in her art and guarded her art with her life. A difficult person, quick to anger, constantly picking fights, not much of a mother and yet her fierceness of focus, passion for her art and idiosyncratic nature delights me.

Mr. Stannard clearly loves his subject and spent time with her as well. He captures her drive, her disagreeable qualities such as her moodiness and peripatetic nature. But he also gets that her high seriousness comingles with her absurdist humor and that her fictional explorations weren't novels but fictions that inhabit the novel form.

He is also very good on her religious, spiritual explorations as they relate to her fiction but I don't think he get across the role her Catholicism played in her life. While I get a sense of her Catholic intellectualism I don't get a sense of the passion for her faith. I think its there but the book doesn't get at it very well, maybe because she hid it from public view.

The last few hundred pages feel somewhat repetitious, we gather that Muriel grew more comfortable in her skin as she aged and face old age and dying with great courage. I think he could have built more literary criticism into the last part of the book and synthesize some of her themes and show how her work come together as a whole. All in all, an excellent biography one that made me want to read more of her fiction!
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Format: Hardcover
Muriel Spark, The Biography, Martin Stannard; W.W. Norton & Co. (2009)

"[His] editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell, said yesterday that Mr. Steegmuller...`was meticulous about detail & wrote well, which isn't to be said about most biographers.' "

(From the New York Times obituary of Francis Steegmuller, by Diana Schemo, Oct. 22, 1994.)

Mr. Stannard is quite meticulous about detail in his biography of Muriel Spark. The reader will find himself in danger of drowning in it, & will likely conclude, as did I, that the author - although conscientious & inspired - did not write well.

MS, running almost 600 pages, is an attempt to combine an in-depth biography of a very complex person; extensive literary analysis & criticism of an author whose creativity was almost unlimited; & an in-depth examination of Spark's attraction to & conversion to Catholicism.

Sacrificed in the exertion of this ambitious effort was narrative pace.

An author can pursue all three such aims & possibly produce a readable biography - if verbosity is recognized as the creator of tedium & thus is the Achilles' heel of all authors, playwrights, historians, journalists, & biographers, regardless of subject.

In this instance, Stannard's prose flows like the flooded rivers of the northeastern United States, which, in just the past two weeks, have been twice inundated with the rains produced by gusty tropical storms.

I made it to "The Iron Mouse," circa 1965, & called it quits.

Post Notes (07/15/12): Janet Groth's candid reminiscences of Muriel Spark (her employer at The New Yorker magazine & in other capacities) were a pleasure to read, after wading through Stannard's Swamp.
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