February 1, 2012
Even when she was writing about London, Jerusalem, and Lausanne, or living in Africa, Rome, and New York, Scottish novelist MURIEL SPARK (née Camberg, 1918-2006) never lost the ironic bite, the elegant judgmentalism, of her middle-class Edinburgh roots. A Presbyterian with a Jewish father, later a convert to Roman Catholicism, Spark had a complicated relationship with the Almighty that seeps and everywhere stains her fiction. She was a moralist of comedic rather than tragic inclination, and a precise, clever stylist. Her production never flagged during a long career — twenty-two slim novels of cut-glass elegance in just over four decades — but Spark’s best fiction is found in two remarkable periods of creative outburst. The first dwells on people obscurely troubled by, or evading, the demands of conscience: Memento Mori (1959), The Bachelors (1960), The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). The second, more autobiographical flowering came twenty years later and sketches with loving cruelty the grim bed-sit world of post-war literary London: Loitering with Intent (1981) and A Far Cry From Kensington (1988). Her very best novel, The Girls of Slender Means (1963), links the two periods, and the two themes, in a way that no reader, slender or otherwise, will ever forget.
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