Tag Archives: Muriel Spark

What I’ve Been Reading

'At Home' by Bill BrysonAt Home: A Short History of Private Life is another of Bill Bryson’s entertaining books about history. This one came about when he was looking around his Victorian house in Norfolk and considering how the majority of real history isn’t about wars and treaties, but about “masses of people doing ordinary things”. Accordingly, this is a history of domestic life, with a chapter devoted to each room in his house, so that the kitchen chapter is a history of food and cooking, the bathroom a history of hygiene, the nursery about the changing notion of childhood, and so on. Although there are references to ancient history and even prehistory, most of it looks at the past two centuries of life in England and the United States in fascinating and often amusing detail. Bryson is a wide-ranging researcher and I often found myself saying, ‘I never knew that!’ and wanting to learn more. For example, did you know that income tax didn’t exist in the United States until 1914 and that an earlier attempt to introduce a 2% income tax was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court? Or that the ancient proto-city of Çatalhöyük had no streets, laneways or footpaths, and houses had no doors or windows, with people accessing their houses through a hole in the roof? Or that rats work in teams and have been observed forming a multi-rat pyramid under a hanging slab of meat, allowing one rat to climb up and gnaw its way through the meat above the hook until the meat falls to the floor, whereupon the meat is devoured by all the rats?

Although Bryson takes his research seriously, this book is more about breadth of coverage than depth. Once or twice, I came across a topic that I happened to know a lot about and I could tell he hadn’t read the relevant primary sources. For example, in his discussion of scurvy, he gets James Lind’s theory only half-right, then has this to say about James Cook:

“On his circumnavigation of the globe in 1768-71, Captain Cook packed a range of antiscorbutics to experiment on, including thirty gallons of carrot marmalade and a hundred pounds of sauerkraut for every crew member. Not one person died of scurvy on his voyage – a miracle that made him as much a national hero as his discovery of Australia …”

As most Australians would know, Cook wasn’t a Captain on that voyage and more importantly, he didn’t discover Australia. People had been living there for at least fifty thousand years by the time he arrived. He wasn’t even the first European to land there. Also, Bryson omits an amusing anecdote about the sauerkraut, which I’m certain he would have included if he’d read about it in Cook’s journals. But this was only a minor issue and for the most part, I was thoroughly engrossed in this book. Fortunately, it includes an extensive bibliography for those readers who want to know more about, say, the construction of Monticello or the history of London’s sewers or how the repeal of the Corn Laws affected England’s vicars. Recommended for Bill Bryson fans and those who enjoy popular history.

'A Treasury of Cartoons' by First Dog on the MoonI also enjoyed A Treasury of Cartoons by First Dog on the Moon. This selection of his work from 2009 to 2015 reminded me of just how awful Australian politics was during that period (five prime ministerships in six years, including two whole years of Tony Abbott). It was almost beyond satire, but First Dog still manages to make me laugh. My favourites were Ian the Climate Change Denialist Potato (who writes erotic fanfiction about Greg Hunt) and the racist carrot (“Tell me this! If Islam is a religion of peace, how is it that all these white Australian men are being provoked to attack Muslim women in the street – those headscarves are making people crazy!”). I also liked his non-political cartoons, such as his illustrated pavlova recipe “that was stolen from its inventor Margaret Fulton by the All Blacks that time they dropped around for a cup of tea and 270 scones”. (Apparently, beating the egg whites involves whacking the electric mixer with a wooden spoon and shouting things like “Stand up!” and “Go faster!” This must be where I’m going wrong in my meringue-making.)

I have read other books lately, but I didn’t like any of them enough to recommend them here. As a public service announcement, I should also add that if you’ve enjoyed some of Muriel Spark’s most popular novels and are delving further into her work, you should probably avoid The Driver’s Seat.

What I’ve Been Reading: Muriel Spark

I enjoyed A Far Cry From Kensington so much that I wanted to know more about the author, so my next read was Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard. This was a very long and thorough overview of Spark’s life and work, written with her cooperation, although the biographer claims his book is not ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ in any way. Nevertheless, I suspect he went out of his way to be tactful and discreet, given Spark’s tendency to lambaste journalists or reviewers who dared to voice the tiniest criticism of her. She even disowned her only child when he claimed (admittedly, without much evidence) that his maternal grandmother had been Jewish, with Spark telling journalists, “He can’t sell his lousy paintings and I have had a lot of success … He’s never done anything for me, except for being one big bore.”

'Muriel Spark: The Biography' by Martin StannardSpark did not seem to be very good at personal relationships. She married a violent, mentally unstable man when she was nineteen, then divorced him a few years later. She pretty much abandoned her young son, leaving him to be raised by his father and grandparents, while she worked in publishing in London and eventually began to enjoy critical and commercial success with her novels. There were a few boyfriends over the years, all of them insecure, controlling and disloyal. Her biographer thinks “she had a kind of death wish on all close relationships, a fear of exposure that led her to preserve distance and prevent intimacy. Boundlessly forgiving of human nature in general, she was boundlessly unforgiving of it when she saw it as obstructing her vocation.”

Her writing was more important than anyone or anything, and she took her publishers firmly to task whenever they weren’t giving her the respect and money she felt she deserved. However, I was surprised to read about how well she was treated by her publishers, especially her American publishers, even at a relatively early stage of her writing career. She earned enough, as a ‘literary’ author, to buy houses and apartments, race horses, designer clothes, jewellery and sports cars and to travel the world in luxury. She expected to be treated as royalty at all times and became increasingly peevish, obsessional and unpleasant in her final decades.

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'  by Muriel SparkI’m always interested to learn how writers, especially women writers, balance the responsibilities of life with their work. In Spark’s case, she behaved as many male writers of the time did, by being completely focused on her writing, dumping partners and friends whenever they failed to give her unconditional support, and ignoring her family, including her offspring. She was fortunate enough to acquire a ‘wife’, Penelope Jardine, her secretary and then close friend, who gave up her own career as an artist to live with Spark and manage her business and personal affairs for thirty years. It should be noted that Spark was not born into wealth and social privilege. She had innate talent, but she worked extremely hard for her success. She refused to identify as a feminist, but claimed to be an “independent woman” and said, “I’m in favour of women’s liberation from the economic viewpoint, but I wouldn’t want men’s and women’s roles reversed.” If that seems a little contradictory, it’s typical of her perspective on life. For example, she converted to Roman Catholicism but ignored any doctrine that was inconvenient to her personal life, rarely attended Mass and wasn’t much interested in anything the Pope had to say.

This biography also provides an interesting analysis of Spark’s poetry, short stories and each of her books, which made me take The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie down from my shelf and re-read it with a new perspective. Miss Brodie was based on a real-life teacher of Spark’s, but she also comes across as a version of Spark herself. Miss Brodie is supremely confident, convinced that her opinions are fact. She either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that she believes in contradictory ideas, such as despising the conformity of the Girl Guides while idolising Mussolini and his fascisti. She encourages her girls to challenge their headmistress, but is shocked when one of them rebels against Miss Brodie’s own authority. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It’s very funny and clever and full of gorgeous descriptions of pre-war Edinburgh life.

'Loitering with Intent' by Muriel SparkI then read Loitering with Intent, which was also highly entertaining and apparently very autobiographical. Set in post-war London, it’s about a young woman writing her first novel while working for an odd organisation called the Autobiographical Association. Life appears to be imitating art, thinks Fleur, but it turns out her deranged boss has stolen her manuscript and is incorporating its events into his own life and work. I enjoyed Fleur’s musings about the publishing industry (“the traditional paranoia of authors is as nothing compared to the inalienable schizophrenia of publishers”) and about making personal sacrifices to be a writer (“I preferred to be interested as I was than happy as I might be. I wasn’t sure that I so much wanted to be happy, but I knew I had to follow my nature.”) As entertaining and clever as the story was, I also kept stopping to admire Spark’s language. For example, rather than write, “Beryl Tims escorted the old lady out of the room”, as most authors would, Spark comes up with:

“Beryl Tims turned up just then and grimly promoted the old lady’s withdrawal; Beryl glared at me as she left.”

Grimly promoted! Especially juxtaposed with that casual, “turned up just then”. It’s exactly right for that character, that scene and that narrator. As is a later description of Sir Eric Findlay, who “lived long enough to earn the reputation of an eccentric rather than a nut”. Fleur herself is also beautifully portrayed throughout – whenever her confidence and ambition start to slide into arrogance and ruthlessness, we’re shown her genuine affection for Edwina, the incontinent “old lady”, and Fleur’s relationship with her friend Solly, and we’re reminded why she’s the heroine of this story.

I think my favourite Muriel Spark novel, though, is still A Far Cry From Kensington. If anyone has any further Muriel Spark recommendations, I’d be glad to hear them (keeping in mind my current interest in books set in post-war England).

My Favourite Books of 2015

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2015 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I finished reading 81 books this year, which doesn’t include the two terrible books I didn’t finish, the novel I’m currently halfway through, or the small pile of books I brought home from the library for the holidays.

Types of books read in 2015

I read lots of non-fiction books this year, because I was researching 1960s England for a series I’m planning to write. This would also explain the following information:

Writer nationality 2015

Gender of writer for books read in 2015

Women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower and A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I also became hooked on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

I found myself engrossed in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of T.H. White, Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason, and Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I also liked Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia, edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren, a collection of autobiographical stories by twelve Australian Muslims. And for sheer entertainment value, I can’t leave out The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart was an exciting middle-grade novel in which four gifted children foil the plans of an Evil Genius. It reminded me of the early Harry Potter novels, except it was science fiction rather than fantasy and had fewer jokes (although it did contain lots of fun puzzles, codes and riddles). I also enjoyed Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

'The Arrival' by Shaun TanShaun Tan’s The Arrival was a beautiful wordless story about a refugee starting a new life in a strange, confusing country, with a message particularly relevant to the world right now. On a lighter note, I enjoyed Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony, about a young warrior princess who hopes to receive a noble steed for her birthday but instead finds herself stuck with a small, round pony with some unfortunate traits.

Thanks for being part of Memoranda in 2015. I hope you all had a good reading year and that 2016 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014

What I’ve Been Reading

'An Experiment in Love' by Hilary MantelHilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love was an interesting, if depressing, novel about young English women studying at university in the 1960s. Carmel, the narrator, has been brought up in a grim, working-class Northern town to believe that she does not deserve pleasure or happiness, and that her life must consist entirely of duty, hard work and ambition. She shares her London residential hall with two former schoolmates – Katrina, whose Eastern European migrant parents escaped the wartime “cattle cars”, and wealthy, confident Julianne, both of whom turn out to have secret lives. Carmel begins to starve herself, due partly to the terrible institutional meals and her inability to pay for extra food, partly to her misery after her boyfriend dumps her, but mostly as a logical consequence of her self-denying nature. The conclusion was a little too melodramatic and abrupt for me, but otherwise, I found this to be a thoughtful exploration of sexism and class divisions in 1960s England. It reminded me quite a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, set during the same period in Canada and also featuring a young woman reacting to society’s restrictions on women’s appetites by starving herself nearly to death.

'The Watch Tower' by Elizabeth HarrowerI also found myself engrossed in Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, a meticulous study of an abusive marriage, set in post-war Sydney. Young Laura and Clare have been abandoned by their self-centred mother after the death of their father, so Laura marries her boss, Felix Shaw, because he promises to fund Clare’s education. He goes back on this, and on every other promise he makes to Laura, and spends the next ten years torturing her, physically and psychologically, until she abandons all hope. At first it seems that Clare will also succumb to this monster, but she has hidden reserves of strength, which are revealed when a young refugee needing help enters her life. It was painful for me to watch Laura’s decline, with her only real attempt at escape thwarted by her environment – in the 1940s, Australian police regarded domestic violence as a private matter, there were no women’s refuges, and there were few options for a woman with no education, no job references and no money. Then again, a woman today trapped by a man as manipulative and vicious as Felix would also have a very difficult time escaping him. Some of the choices the author made (the constantly shifting points of view; the long sentences interspersed with sentence fragments) didn’t always work for me, but her descriptions of Sydney were vivid and the psychological studies of Felix, Laura and Clare were fascinating, if horrifying.

'A Far Cry From Kensington' by Muriel SparkAfter all that grimness, it was a relief to spend time with Mrs Hawkins, the magnificent young widow at the centre of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. Mrs Hawkins, who works in the publishing industry in 1950s London, busies herself dispensing good advice to neighbours and colleagues, but her comfortable life is disrupted when she insults a pompous hack called Hector Bartlett. Their feud leads to a range of disastrous consequences for those around them, but Mrs Hawkins has no regrets and emerges triumphant. This novel is cleverly plotted and very, very funny. I think my favourite scene was the posh dinner party, in which Mrs Hawkins dispenses writing tips to her fellow guests, and then, due to a misunderstanding of etiquette, remains with the gentlemen and their port and cigars when the other ladies prepare to depart the room:

“I didn’t see what the men had done wrong that the women should leave them like that, haughty and swan-like, sailing out of the room … I, for one, refused to behave rudely just to show solidarity with these oversensitive women, possibly prudes.”

As she is Mrs Hawkins, she not only gets away with this, but becomes even more respected. I also enjoyed her refusal to give in to Emma Loy, a successful novelist entangled with Hector Bartlett. Emma attempts to explain his appeal:

“Do you realise how dedicated he is to my work? He knows all my works by heart. He can quote chapter and verse, any of my novels. It’s amazing.”
“Does he quote it right?”
“No. He generally gets it wrong, I’ll admit. But his dedication to me is there…”

A Far Cry from Kensington is highly recommended, particularly if you liked The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I have Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark next on my reading pile.

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice for Writers

“So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”

The Brigadier fortunate enough to be seated beside Mrs Hawkins at a dinner party “listened with deep interest”. Mrs Hawkins continues:

“I must tell you here that three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs, published by Mackintosh & Tooley. On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.”

'Napping Cat' by Elizabeth Fearne Bonsall (1903)

From A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark