I had a ridiculously long post on this book, and then I hit the wrong key and lost it all. Whenever that happens I take it as a sign that I'm being too long-winded. I understand that Mr. Stannard has written a marvelous book on Evelyn Waugh, and as his biography of Ms. Spark is exceptionally well written, I intend to pick it up. Having said that, I don't this book is well done. Its key flaw is that Mr. Stannard is besotted with Muriel Spark, and his devotion is so marked that it derails the biography. I'm sure that all the facts are in place. Muriel Spark wrote this in 1955 and moved to Italy in this year and got her OBE in that year. Yes, I'm sure all that is very factual. Mr. Stannard is a meticulous writer, but he's not a very honest writer.
Analysis of her books is, naturally, a substantial part of this book, and yet he is so enamoured with her that I don't trust what he has to say about them. Why? Because he repeatedly gives her a pass on her inexcusable behavior. No matter how many times you type that Muriel Spark was an artist and in the passion of exacting that art she was allowed to be dictatorial, rude, vicious, and selfish, it doesn't absolve her of being dictatorial, rude, vicious, and selfish. The woman was a frigging monster of selfishness. I have little time for people who use art as an excuse to be a jerk. She had a long history of cutting people out of her life for the most trivial reasons. The friend who happened to stop by while she was out getting her hair done and earned a dressing down worthy of committing high crimes and treason is just one instance where you as the reader are wondering what in the hell is wrong with this woman? As her fame grew, it seems clear that people were merely props in her rapacious climb to success. At one point the only person she hadn't banished from her sight was her agent. Interestingly, at this point, when she had cut out nearly everyone in her life, her writing became more and more obscure and fantastical. Naturally, she was writing for one person: herself. When she began to emerge from her self-imposed exile from the bores of the world, her novels become more generalized and, no surprise, much more autobiographical. In the last three decades of her life she seems to have found tolerable minions. People who when she said jump, they jumped. And they didn't jump otherwise.
Stannard's refusal to call her on this behavior (and I understand they were, at the very least acquaintances and she offered him access to her papers) mars what is an interesting book. Also, I felt he conveniently elided over her conversion. I never understood why she converted and came away feeling that she only did so as a means of separating her from her fellow Brits and her family. Her Catholicism was quite fluid, and without more in depth analysis, it's hard to see it as anything but a response to Dexedrine-inspired psychotic break.
But let's give credit where credit is due. This is a woman from a working-class neighborhood in Scotland who never went on to university, and yet through sheer brilliance and grit more than held her own with the Oxbridge men of letters of her time. I just wished I'd liked her more, and I wish Stannard hadn't been so wimpy.