Monday, April 17, 2006

Muriel Spark Dies

I am in Atlanta, GA on a school tour with my wife's sister. It seems ironic that Muriel Spark dies while we are looking at women's colleges in the area. What fascinates me most, though, I have to admit, is Spark's lesbianism later in life. The BBC didn't mention it in their coverage, but The New York Times did in the article below.

April 16, 2006

Muriel Spark, Novelist Who Wrote 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,' Dies at 88
Muriel Spark, known for her finely polished, darkly comic prose and for the unforgettable Miss Jean Brodie, one of the funniest and most sinister characters in modern fiction, died Friday at a hospital in Florence, Italy. She was 88.
Ms. Spark's death was announced yesterday, The Associated Press reported, by Massimiliano Dindalini, the mayor of the Tuscan village of Civitella della Chiana, where she had lived for almost 30 years.
Her work, unlocked from her innermost memories of her experiences before and after her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954, built a canon of short, sometimes macabre, sometimes humorous novels that sought to pare away the absurdities of human behavior.
Ms. Spark's first novel was published when she was 39, and after that she supplied a stream of slender novels and enigmatic short stories peopled with such curiosities as narrators from beyond the grave, flying saucers, grandmotherly smugglers with bread bins full of diamond-studded loaves and individuals of so little substance that they disappear when the door closes.
In her writing, evil is never far away, violence is a regular visitor and death is a constant companion. Her themes were generally serious but nearly always handled with a feather-light touch.
It is this lightness, and a contrived detachment toward her characters, that became the target of the harshest criticism of her work, which at her death included more than 20 novels, several collections of short stories, poetry, criticism, biography, plays and a handful of children's books.
Some accused her of coolness and even cruelty toward the characters she invented and then sent — sometimes quite merrily — to terrible deaths.
"People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone," she said in an interview in The New Yorker. "I'm often very deadpan, but there's a moral statement too, and what it's saying is that there's a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They're not important in the long run."
She was born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh on Feb. 1, 1918, the daughter of Bernard Camberg, an engineer whose Jewish family had settled earlier in Scotland, and his wife, the former Sarah Elizabeth Maud Uezzell, a Protestant from a country village near London.
When she was 5 she began attending James Gillespie's High School for Girls, where she became one of the crème de la crème of students selected for a specialized and somewhat unorthodox curriculum by Christina Kay, the teacher who would become the model for the protagonist in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1961), which was later adapted for the stage and film.
Muriel Camberg acquired her Spark from her brief, and as she had put it, "disastrous," marriage at the age of 19 to Sydney Oswald Spark, 13 years her senior, who was about to leave Scotland to teach in Africa.
He was known as S. O. S., a fitting nickname, it turned out, when his mental instability and violence led her to end the marriage after seven miserable years. "He became a borderline case, and I didn't like what I found on either side of the border," she wrote in her 1992 autobiography, "Curriculum Vitae."
They lived in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and their union produced her only child, a son, Robin.
She kept the name Spark, partly for her son's sake and partly because she thought it had "some ingredient of life and of fun."
She longed to return to Britain, but she was trapped in Rhodesia for most of World War II because of wartime restrictions on travel. She finally succeeded in returning aboard a troopship in 1944, leaving her son, then 6, in the care of convent nuns in Central Africa until the war was over.
Once home, she went to London in search of work, taking up residence at the Helena Club, which later became the model for the May of Teck Club, the setting for her 1963 novel, "The Girls of Slender Means."
Propaganda and Poetry
In London she landed a job with the Foreign Office in a secret division that disseminated black propaganda, a brand of disinformation she described as "detailed truth with believable lies." The reports, broadcast on what masqueraded as a German radio station, used real names and addresses to lend veracity to invented stories, and the announcers were German prisoners of war. Although the fabricated news items were aimed at undermining the Nazis, there were times when they worked too well and surfaced as news in the British press.
After the war she worked at a jewelry trade publication, Argentor, in London, joined the Poetry Society and later became editor of its Poetry Review, a job that lasted for two tempestuous years before she was dismissed. Her innovations there included paying for worthy submissions and ending the practice of accepting payments from poets, a change that drastically altered the content of the review and outraged its establishment.
She founded a short-lived literary magazine, then went to work for a publishing house, devoting the remainder of her time to writing poetry, doing book reviews and writing and editing scholarly works, including the letters of John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Ms. Spark said she discovered through the writings of Cardinal Newman that the foundations of the Roman Catholic church corresponded with her personal convictions. She described her conversion to Catholicism as a natural step in her life. "There was no blinding revelation in my case," she wrote in her autobiography.
Her first novel, "The Comforters" (1957), was born of religion and delusions. Newly converted and living in London in 1954, during the period of postwar food rationing, Ms. Spark ate little and chased away her hunger with Dexedrine, a combination that led to a period of hallucinations. The words she had once manipulated turned on her, trapping her in a fog of anagrams and crosswords and convincing her that a code ran through the literature she read.
After a few months, she sought medical help and stopped taking the amphetamines, but remained weak and ill. It was at this troubled time in Ms. Spark's life that Graham Greene stepped in, and for a while she was sustained by the money he sent, along with bottles of red wine, which, she wrote, "took the edge off cold charity."
In "The Comforters," a young woman recovering from a breakdown finds that she is a character in a novel that is being written on a phantom typewriter that only she can hear.
Religion is present in Ms. Spark's work in a variety of guises, from the unseen and unforgiving hand in "Memento Mori" (1959) to the hypocrisy of self-righteously pious characters like the couple in the short story "The Black Madonna." Later in her life, the issue of her religious heritage became a persistent irritant.
She traced the seeds of "Memento Mori," her third novel, to her childhood, when she learned about old age and human frailty at close range, caring for her dying grandmother. Although the novel is steeped in death and deception it is at times unabashedly hilarious. In the book, one elderly person after another in a close circle gets a mysterious phone call with a simple message: "Remember, you must die." This slim novel about confronting mortality, packed with sex, blackmail and mystery, was adapted for the stage.
While Ms. Spark's books cover a broad territory of plot and character, some central similarities can be found in many of the novels and short stories.
Michiko Kakutani, in a review of Ms. Spark's novel "Reality and Dreams" in The New York Times in 1997, described the author's approach as a recipe: "Take a self-enclosed community (of writers, schoolgirls, nuns, rich people, etc.) that is full of incestuous liaisons and fraternal intrigue; toss in a bombshell (like murder, suicide or betrayal) that will ricochet dangerously around this little world; and add some allusions to the supernatural to ground these melodramatics in an old-fashioned context of good and evil. Serve up with crisp, authoritative prose and present with 'a light and heartless hand.' "
Delving Into School Secrets
This recipe appears with variations in novels including "The Ballad of Peckham Rye" (1960) , in which a truly devilish young man who calls himself an industrial analyst insinuates himself into the life of a community and goes about creating suspicion among neighbors, delving into personal secrets and destroying lives.
It reappears in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," which provides a memorable example of a small and controlled community — a girls school in Edinburgh in the 1930's — in which the imperious teacher molds lives in a way few educators can.
"Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she will be mine for life," intones the elegant Miss Brodie, who does not care whether her charges know their history or arithmetic as long as they have an appreciation of the finer things: art, Mussolini, proper care of the complexion, Franco.
She captivates her students and enriches their lives while exerting unnatural control, grooming them to serve her will, whether in the bed of one of her lovers, as her personal spy or as a martyr to one of her political causes. Her single-mindedness in devoting her "prime" to her students has consequences for every life she touches, from the men who love her to the student who is the author of her undoing.
Jay Presson Allen's adaptation for the stage became a vehicle in London in 1964 for Vanessa Redgrave, on Broadway in 1968 for Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony for her performance, and in Hollywood in 1969 for Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for best actress in the role.
No other book by Ms. Spark has received the widespread popular acclaim and exposure of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," but in subsequent interviews, the author expressed a firm preference for dwelling on the future rather than the past.
In 1965 she published "The Mandelbaum Gate," a heftier book and one that seems overstuffed by her standards. Set in Jerusalem against the backdrop of the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, "The Mandelbaum Gate" tackles questions of religion, memory and history superimposed on a torturous plot. The book won the James Tait Black Memorial prize.
In "The Driver's Seat," published in 1970, a woman embarks on a wild search through Europe for the man who will kill her. With "Hothouse on the East River" in 1973, she moved the locale to New York, and the next year she responded to the Watergate scandal with "The Abbess of Crewe," her own tale of burglars and stolen secrets set in yet another type of institution — a convent. "The Only Problem," in 1984, returns to the book of Job for inspiration.
Divine retribution of a sort neatly ties up her book "Aiding and Abetting" (2000), a fictional tale of a real man, Lord Lucan, known as Lucky, who killed his children's nanny, whom he apparently mistook for his wife in the dark, severely battered his wife, then disappeared, with the help of his friends. In the novel, two men claim to be the aging Lord Lucan, and both present themselves to a very high-priced Paris therapist who is fleeing her own past — that of a fraudulent stigmatic.
Her last book, "The Finishing School" (2004), revisits the themes of boarding schools and envy.
Ms. Spark was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1967, became a Dame of the British Empire in 1993 and in 1997 won the David Cohen Literature Prize for lifetime achievement.
She took issue, however, with the label "British writer." She told one interviewer, "I am Scottish by formation." She pointed out repeatedly that the bulk of her life had been spent in other countries. After London, she lived briefly in New York in the 1960's, then abandoned the crush of the literary world for Rome, where she had a rich social life and entertained lavishly.
Alliance and Estrangement
In Rome, she met the painter and sculptor Penelope Jardine, who became her secretary and later her companion. The two women traveled together, lived together, and over the years their lives grew deeply intertwined.
Interviewers repeatedly asked about the nature of the relationship of the two women who spent so many years together. Ms. Spark brushed aside the idea that their involvement was romantic; it was characterized as an "old-fashioned friendship."
Ms. Jardine purchased a sprawling medieval church compound in Tuscany, and they ultimately settled there. There Ms. Spark settled into her routine of writing in her favorite composition books, in longhand, using only pens untouched by other human hands, and rarely rewriting or revising what flowed from those pens. Ms. Jardine handled the business of everyday life, down to the typing of Ms. Spark's work.
When asked in an interview what she contributed to the household, Ms. Spark said she made her own bed, took morning tea to Ms. Jardine and took her out to meals. "I think I pull my weight somehow or other," she said.
She saw her craft, she said in a 2004 interview, as driven by inspiration from an "outside force" unlocking memory in a manner derived from her reading of Marcel Proust.
"It inspired me more than anything," she said at the time. "I wouldn't have wanted to write like Proust, but I could see what you could do with memory. I could see what you could do with incidents. It was after reading Proust that I found I rather liked writing prose."
In her later years it became clear that she and her son, Robin, a painter who lives in Edinburgh, were irreconcilably estranged over various issues, including what he referred to as her abandonment of him, as well as her opinions about his ability as an artist and his public statements about their heritage.
Ms. Spark was harsh in her public criticism of his work and open about their estrangement. She told a newspaper: "He can't sell his lousy paintings, and I have had a lot of success. He keeps sending them to me and I don't know what to do with them. I can't put them on my wall. He's never done anything for me, except for being one big bore."
Their public feud extended to their religions and spilled into letters to newspapers and became a part of Ms. Spark's literary history when she donated letters from her son to the National Library of Scotland. Mr. Spark, who embraced Judaism about the same time his mother converted to Roman Catholicism, insisted that her mother had been Jewish, which by matrilineal inheritance would make him Jewish by birth; Ms. Spark, who considered herself only half-Jewish, maintained that though her father was Jewish, her mother was not.
Critics have disagreed on how to classify her work, which is alternately bleak and side-splitting. John Updike spoke of "fun-house plots, full of trapdoors, abrupt apparitions and smartly clicking secret panels." Barbara Grizzuti Harrison called her a "profoundly serious comic writer whose wit advances, never undermines or diminishes, her ideas."
Taking the opposite view, Robert Maurer questioned the emotional underpinnings of her fiction, writing, "One wonders how vast a reserve of sympathy lies beneath the iceberg of her consciousness, and how far beyond trickery her work would go if she let it show through."
Ms. Spark said in several interviews that she would rather not fit neatly into any literary category. "I have a comic strain, but my novels are serious," she said in 1993. "Sometimes one makes one's own category, you know."

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Top Ten Books of Contemporary Lesbian Poetry

1. Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons
        Marilyn Hacker

2. The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974 - 1977
        Adrienne Rich

3. The Black Unicorn: Poems
        Audre Lorde

4. Crimes Against Nature
        Minnie Bruce Pratt

5. All-American Girl
        Robin Becker

6. Unraveling at the Name
        Jenny Factor

7. Fear of Subways
        Maureen Seaton

8. Beginning with O
        Olga Broumas

9. Trying to Be an Honest Woman
        Judith Barrington

10. The Work of a Common Woman: Poems 1964-1977
        Judy Grahn


a. There are so many excellent books by Adrienne Rich. Of course, the collected poems in The Fact of a Door Frame, Poems 1950-2001 is an excellent choice if you are just discovering her work. As the others on the list are single volumes, I selected The Dream of a Common Language which contains the extraordinary "Twenty-One Love Poems" by Rich.

b. Similarly, picking a book by Audre Lorde is like picking among beloved children. The Black Unicorn is, however, one of hers that I truly cherish.

c. Crimes Against Nature is the Lamont Poetry Prize-winning collection by Minnie Bruce Pratt. It is a chronicle of her losing custody of her two sons as a result of living openly as a lesbian. I included it on the list because of it's award-winnning status and the political significance of the narrative in these poems; my favorite collection of her is, however, We Say We Love Each Other.

d. I desperately wanted to include American Primitive by Mary Oliver. It is a book that I adore by an author I treasure. I excluded it from this list because while I believe it is wildly erotic and sexual, it is not openly lesbian and Oliver has not been throughout most of her career.

e. Obviously, these are contemporary lesbian poets, defined in my mind as women writing from the lesbian consciousness that emerged post-Stonewall. The possibilities for a future list of books of poetry by lesbian poets that include a broader historical context remain.