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Muriel Spark: The Biography Hardcover – April 12, 2010
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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.
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!
"[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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is an excellent and balanced view of the famous author. It is very readable, and one feels that one truly gets to know Spark by reading it. Read morePublished on May 29, 2013 by kip