The late Muriel Spark, who passed away on April 13, 2006 and is most famous for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), left a lasting legacy for her readers.
Spark produced a substantial body of work in her five-decade oeuvre, including twenty-one novels, as well as other works of fiction, poetry, biography, and criticism, which can teach us about the advantages of omniscient narration versus first-person narration; the appeal of malice; the distinction between economy and minimalism in literature; and the connection between art and religious faith.
Nevertheless, what I’m truly intrigued by is the lessons Spark can provide us concerning artifice and self-awareness in literature.
This issue has been an obstacle for many American fiction authors, who, when discussing realism and metafiction, have not acted in a way that would suggest a willingness to accommodate different perspectives or the potential impact of dissimilar authors.
(For example, the famous William Gass and John Gardner verbal tussle from the 1970s: Gardner stated “My 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground”, to which Gass replied “There is always that danger.
But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.”) However, had we given more consideration to Spark’s work — particularly her first two novels, The Comforters (1957) and Memento Mori (1959) — we would not have to keep debating the same points (“Realism is the literature of exhaustion”; “No, metafiction is the literature of exhaustion”; or “You’re not self-conscious enough”; “You’re too self-conscious”), taking sides and then trying to justify our position while denouncing the opposing one.
Spark does not take a side in this argument, instead she renders it all as foolish. In both of her novels, it is made apparent that being conscious of the artifice involved in writing is not the only duty of a writer to their book, characters, and readers. Instead, Spark shows that it is the best, most honest, self-critical, and moving way of doing so.
In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sandy, one of the teacher’s favored students, betrays her but this does not sum up the story. This is an apt metaphor for how Spark views self-consciousness and artifice in her work- it is part of the story, but not the only one.
The Comforters, by Spark, is a novel that opens with Laurence, one of the two main characters, in his grandmother’s room rummaging around her dresser.
The book is about the smuggling of jewels in loaves of bread and tins of fish by aging and disabled criminals. It also deals with issues such as diabolism, polygamy, Catholicism, and homosexuality. One character, who is not in contact with others, vanishes from the narrative as they have no personal life and the other, Caroline, listens to the story as it is being typed and narrated.
He observed three hairpins, eight mothballs and a small bit of black velvet, which was adorned with jet beads, detached from its thread. It was approximately two and a half inches by one and a half inches.
He also located a comb with some of his grandmother’s hair on it; it was not in a perfect condition. Laurence got a sense of delight from the facts he had encountered, three hairpins, eight mothballs, a comb and all of these belonged to his grandmother, here in her house in Sussex, in the present time. That was how Laurence was.
His mother had recently said to him, “It is not a good thing.” “The only thing that is not right with your thought process is the way you observe some meaningless details, it is really strange of you,” she added.
“That is my nature,” Laurence replied.
Laurence finds it gratifying to learn of these facts, as does the reader. I would like to draw attention to how the words “That is what Laurence was like” first appear in the narration and then, with a slight alteration, in Laurence’s dialogue.
In essence, Spark has taken the liberty to include words in her character’s speech, which we can identify by reading the same words in the omniscient narration before the character speaks them.
Admonishing writers to never put words in their characters’ mouths is something that has been happening for a long time, making us wonder who will do it if we don’t.
Ernest Hemingway, the renowned realist, gave the advice of “writing the truest sentence that you know,” which, in all honesty, isn’t the most helpful guidance. (One can easily imagine someone diligently ticking this off their list, hoping to someday be able to cross it out: Write the truest sentence you know? Tick. )
To assist us, Hemingway used “Nobody Ever Dies” to illustrate his point, in which one character says to another, “You talk like a book.” The story makes it clear that this is not a good thing. The worst thing, even. The least accurate thing.
Caroline, who is a stand-in for the author and a literary critic writing a book titled Form in the Modern Novel, confesses that she is having difficulty with the chapter on realism. Caroline’s problem is also Spark’s.
She is both combative and wary when she tells her priest that she can hear the novel being narrated to her: “‘But the typewriter and the voices–it is as if a writer on another plane of existence was writing a story about us.’ After she said this, Caroline understood that she had stumbled upon the truth and refrained from saying anything further on the topic.”
No more needs to be said by Caroline because Spark has made sure that the reader understands that she is the one writing the story. She does this by having the omniscient narrative affect the dialogue of the characters.
For example, the narrator states “That did amuse her” and Caroline follows up with “That does amuse me”. Similarly, it is evident that Laurence knows what his grandmother is leading up to with her words “your very own” and “dear little house” when she responds with “I know what you’re leading up to”.
It appears as though the characters can read each others’ minds, which is not a surprise since Spark has provided them with the thoughts and words. She has done what is usually not recommended for writers: her characters talk and think like a Muriel Spark novel.
It is unique to find a writer who disregards the common idea that characters should speak “naturally”, making it obvious that their dialogue is derived from the author.
For some authors, this may be a mere show of cleverness, but for Spark, it is something more. She does not believe that a writer should have to separate her characters from her own influence, as this is a hindrance to the writing.
Spark makes it known that when characters mimic each other, they are not just repeating words that the author has given them, but instead,
it is a path to a more genuine truth. Mimicry is not a natural dialogue, but something more, as it can bring characters closer together and demonstrate how well they know each other.
Memento Mori is an example of a novel that delves into the idea of mortality. The characters in the novel have been friends, enemies, lovers, and ex-lovers for a long time. They receive mysterious phone calls in which the caller simply says “Remember you must die” and then hangs up.
The novel is a contemplation of mortality, but it is also a reflection on how those we care for, and those we are at odds with, shape our thoughts and words. When Dame Lettie accuses Miss Taylor of speaking like another character, Miss Taylor muses that she must have adopted some of the other’s mannerisms.
This concept has been criticized for limiting our perception of the characters and making them predictable.
However, upon closer examination, it appears that the more limited and artificial the dialogue is, the more the characters understand each other, and the closer we get to them. This is evident when Dame Lettie and Miss Taylor are able to read each other’s thoughts. It is clear that they know each other so well because they speak like the author wants them to, and we are aware of it.
Spark’s use of artifice presents a sense of mystery in her novels that is more than just limited and knowing.
This practice gives us a more meaningful response to the oft-asked inquiry of whether her characters ever surprise her. In contrast to Nabokov’s comparison of characters to galley slaves, Spark avoids the more common writerly excuse of claiming that her characters have minds of their own and that the writer is merely subservient to them. This is often a way of dodging accountability for producing a bad book.
Just like Nabokov, Spark takes control over her characters and has them act or speak as she desires.
Nonetheless, she is conscious of the potential restrictions of her characters (and her works) as evidenced in The Comforters when Caroline states to a friend, “‘The Typing Ghost has not documented any vivid descriptions concerning this hospital ward.
The explanation is that the author is unable to depict a hospital ward. This episode in my life is not included in the book due to this.’ It was in making these exasperating remarks that Caroline Rose carried on interfering with the book.”
This is a remarkable, invigorating moment that speaks volumes about Spark and what we can gain from her.
It demonstrates that if you are writing a novel about the writing of a novel, or one that is self-aware, you should be humble (something that many of these less notable metafictionists often overlooked). It also reveals that when composing such a book, one must always strive to lead readers to something more than the artifice.
The clash between Caroline and the Typing Ghost serves as a representation of the major question posed in any great novel: what will occur? Will the riddle be solved? In the case of The Comforters, will Caroline, and the reader, find out who is writing the novel? Will the characters in Memento Mori discover who is making the mysterious phone calls? Even if the omnipotent author is unable to decipher the puzzle, then who will?
At the conclusion of Memento Mori, detective Mortimer had a peculiar experience. He was always connected with a woman on the other end of the line, despite the fact that others were connected to men.
Similarly, in The Comforters, Laurence wrote a letter of objection to Caroline’s novel and then tore it up. The bits of paper scattered among the deep marsh weeds and one piece even on a thorn-bush. The remarkable thing about these novels is that although manipulated by the author, there is still a genuine sense of surprise and wonder.
We wouldn’t find it as remarkable if the manipulation weren’t so precise and purposeful. It is only if we look at it in this way that we can understand the supposed divisions between realism and metafiction, mimesis and self-consciousness.
Through reading Muriel Spark’s work, we can learn that we have something to gain from the type of fiction we think we don’t read and write, and maybe be filled with a sense of wonder when we find out that this is not the case.
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