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Muriel Spark (1918 - 2006)

Amongst the more bizarre talents that emerged in the fifties was Muriel Spark, who will continue to be considered a Scottish writer even though she seems, as decreed by Samuel Johnson two centuries previously, to have decided that the noblest prospect a Scotchman ever saw was the high road that led him to England. In 1937 she followed her husband to Rhodesia, only to leave him three years later and return to England, to work in intelligence for the rest of the War. She moved to literature afterwards, as editor of the Poetry Review, and published her first novel ten years later, in 1957. Before that she had become a Catholic, which seems to have been of seminal importance not only for her life, but also for her writing.

Her Catholicism seems to have been sincere, but it did not preclude a healthy cynicism about life and institutions in general. Typical in this regard was her parody of the Watergate affair, the break in to Democratic Headquarters during the 1988 Presidential election, that led ultimately to President Nixon’s resignation, when it became clear that he had known about the act and had contributed to a cover up. A few years afterwards Muriel Spark published The Abbess of Crewe, about a similar act in a Catholic convent, and the intrigues of the Abbess to cover up the matter. The book is replete with splendidly sanctimonious justifications for more and more meaningless rituals of denial, with the Abbess constantly urging ‘Let us be vigilant’ to her flock.

What might be termed that off centre approach to life characterized much of Spark’s early work. Most memorable was Memento Mori, the Latin phrase reminding us that we all must die, given sinister meaning when various elderly people receive mysterious telephone calls reminding them of their mortality. The mystery of how and where these originated is never solved, but as panic spreads and those who might benefit from death try to cash in on this, the weaknesses of the human psyche are laid bare, and the  excessive impact of even the smallest determination of any individual to move beyond the accepted bounds of morality.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

January 2011
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