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Muriel Spark: The Biographyby Martin Stannard
"Muriel Spark is the mistress of mystification of postwar British fiction. She is best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her slim 1961 novel about the influence of an Edinburgh teacher on her young female pupils, which made her a literary star following its publication in The New Yorker and adaptation for stage and screen. Born to working-class Edinburgh parents in 1918, Spark became a jet setter, with residences in London, New York, and Rome, before settling in Tuscany, where she died in 2006. She wrote 22 novels, in which the inexplicable and fantastic are presented as commonplace, with an airy, supercilious insinuation that the truth is unknown and unknowable. The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani once described Spark's formula: 'Take a self-enclosed community (of writers, schoolgirls, nuns, rich people, etc.) that is full of incestuous liaisons and fraternal intrigue; toss in a bombshell (like murder, suicide, or betrayal) that will ricochet dangerously around this little world; and add some allusions to the supernatural to ground these melodramatics in an old-fashioned context of good and evil.'" Michael Anderson, The Wilson Quarterly (read the entire The Wilson Quarterly review)
"Contemplator of God, party-going sybarite; unpretentious working girl, resplendent queen bee; generous friend, vengeful harpy; hard-nosed businesswoman, self-blinding paranoiac; lofty visionary, litigious terror — Dame Muriel Sarah Camberg Spark was all of these. Whether in Heaven, Hell, or (what seems likeliest after reading his sympathetic portrait) Purgatory, she has reason to be grateful to Martin Stannard for a continuously dramatic biography encompassing all sides of her contradictory nature. It is more likely, however, that Spark's immortal soul is in high dudgeon and talking to lawyers." Benjamin Taylor, Harper's Magazine (Read the entire Harper's review)
Synopses & Reviews
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark became the epitome of literary chic and one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, recorded her early years but politely blurred her darker moments: troubled relations with her family, a terrifying period of hallucinations, and disastrous affairs with the men she loved.
At the age of nineteen, Spark left Scotland to get married in southern Rhodesia, only to divorce and escape back to Britain in 1944. Her son returned in 1945 and was brought up by Spark's parents while she established herself as a poet and critic in London. After converting to Catholicism in 1954, she began writing novels that propelled her into the literary stratosphere. These came to include Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, and A Far Cry from Kensington. With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), later adapted into a successful play and film, Spark became an international celebrity and began to live half her life in New York City. John Updike, Tennessee Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene applauded her work. She had an office at The New Yorker and became friends with Shirley Hazzard and W. H. Auden. Spark ultimately settled in Italy, where for more than thirty years-until her death in 2006-she shared a house with the artist Penelope Jardine. Spark gave Martin Stannard full access to her papers. He interviewed her many times as well as her colleagues, friends, and family members. The result is an indelible portrait of one of the most significant and emotionally complicated writers of the twentieth century. Stannard presents Spark as a woman of strong feeling, sharp wit, and unabashed ambition, determined to devote her life to her art. Muriel Spark promises to become the definitive biography of a literary icon.
"Having agreed at her request to write British author Muriel Spark's (1918-2006) biography, Stannard (Evelyn Waugh) has acquitted himself with distinction after a decade of researching the elusive author's transformation from a socially insecure would-be poet to a sleek, elegant, literary eminence. Spark became, Stannard concludes, a 'great comic artist of the macabre.' Born in working-class Edinburgh, Spark was half-Jewish, which, contends Stannard, was a source of her life-long alienation and divided personality. A hasty marriage at 18, a difficult divorce, the permanent deposition of her son to live with her own mother, not to mention a conversion to Catholicism were all prelude to Spark's climb to literary fame, culminating in 1961 with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark, hypersensitive, liable to turn on editors and agents with fury, was also a canny businesswoman whose contractual demands taxed the patience of everyone who dealt with her. Stannard has dug deeply, and with keen and sympathetic insight. His prose is graceful and assured, his literary judgments discerning, and his biography is as definitive as we can expect to find. 16 pages of photos." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A gifted biographer with a fine turn of phrase . . . this account will not be surpassed." The Independent
Book News Annotation:
The author Muriel Spark was known for her dislike of personal publicity. Therefore it is amazing that she gave Stannard (English literature, University of Leicester) carte blanche to her papers and her time in the preparation of this story of her life. She told Stannard to pretend she was already dead as he wrote, not considering her reactions. According to him, she kept her word. The result is an authoritative and in-depth look at a brilliant, enigmatic writer and woman. Stannard details Spark's upbringing, disastrous first marriage, love affairs and the ups and downs of her literary career. He also examines her conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, something she barely touched on in her autobiography. Spark's faults are not glossed over or excused, simply presented as part of her makeup. The book is well-written and the story moves with novelistic tension. Even those who have not read Spark will be intrigued by her story. Annotation ©2010 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In 1992, Spark, the secretive author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, invited Stannard to write her biography, offering interviews and full access to her papers. The result is a compelling portrait that has received rave reviews in the U.K.
The compelling first biography of a twentieth-century literary enigma.
“Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark—dark queen of postwar British fiction and, for me at least, one of the great writers of all time—is as astonishing as his subject. In his chronicle of her rich, adverse, and inexplicable life and work he has, like a brilliant lepidopterist, managed to catch her and pin her down while preserving her elusive genius as an artist and a woman in the twentieth century.” —Jenny McPhee, author of A Man of No Moon
“Excellent . . . superbly detailed . . . , patient, affectionate, sometimes funny and . . . very intelligent. It is hard to believe that the work could have been done better.” —Frank Kermode, London Review of Books
“Will undoubtedly be the standard biography of a writer with perhaps the most distinctive voice . . . in postwar British fiction.” —Mark Bostridge, The Observer
“This account will not be surpassed.” —Bryan Cheyette, The Independent
“Gripping, . . . rich, complex . . . well worth the wait. Witty, readable, and well researched, it is about as satisfying as a literary biography can be.” —Frances Wilson, Daily Telegraph
“[Stannard’s] triumph is to have produced an account that . . . revealed [Spark’s] vanity and egotism so unmistakably, as well as her courage, vitality and determination.” —John Carey, The Times
“Stannard is himself now a giant of his genre. . . . [He] brilliantly and sympathetically effaces the self-mythology of Spark’s well-known public image . . . a gifted biographer with a fine turn of phrase.” ⎯Martin McQuillan, Times Higher Education Supplement
“A wonderful blend of scholarly fact and juicy storytelling.” —Katheryn Hughes, Mail on Sunday
“Exceptionally well written and lively.” —Robin Baird-Smith, Tablet
“A best biography of the year.” ⎯Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph
"Martin Stannard's biography of Muriel Spark--dark queen of postwar British fiction and, for me at least, one of the great writers of all time--is as astonishing as his subject. In his chronicle of her rich, adverse, and inexplicable life and work he has, like a brilliant lepidopterist, managed to catch her and pin her down while preserving her elusive genius as an artist and a woman in the twentieth century." --Jenny McPhee, author of "Excellent . . . superbly detailed . . . , patient, affectionate, sometimes funny and . . . very intelligent. It is hard to believe that the work could have been done better." --Frank Kermode, "Will undoubtedly be the standard biography of a writer with perhaps the most distinctive voice . . . in postwar British fiction." --Mark Bostridge, "This account will not be surpassed." --Bryan Cheyette, "Gripping, . . . rich, complex . . . well worth the wait. Witty, readable, and well researched, it is about as satisfying as a literary biography can be." --Frances Wilson, "[Stannard's] triumph is to have produced an account that . . . revealed [Spark's] vanity and egotism so unmistakably, as well as her courage, vitality and determination." --John Carey, "Stannard is himself now a giant of his genre. . . . [He] brilliantly and sympathetically effaces the self-mythology of Spark's well-known public image . . . a gifted biographer with a fine turn of phrase." ?Martin McQuillan, "A wonderful blend of scholarly fact and juicy storytelling." --Katheryn Hughes, "Exceptionally well written and lively." --Robin Baird-Smith, "A best biography of the year." ?Nicholas Shakespeare,
About the Author
Born a working-class Scot, Muriel Spark became the epitome of literary chic. Her's is a Cinderella story: teenage marriage in Africa, divorce, return to wartime London as an impoverished poet-critic until a breakdown and conversion to Catholicism in 1954 transfigured her life. Five brilliant novels followed (including The Comforters and Memento Mori?), but it was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), initially published as a single issue of The New Yorker and then triumphantly adapted as a stage play and movie, that brought international celebrity and enabled her to leave a Britain that had not always accepted her. In 1992 the secretive Spark invited Martin Stannard to write her biography, offering interviews and full access to her papers. The result is a compelling portrait that has received rave reviews in the UK.
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