Muriel Spark published twenty-two novels in her lifetime, in spite of beginning relatively late at the age of thirty-nine, and at least half of them are classics by the only criterion that really matters—they invite and reward repeated reading. She was the most original and innovative British novelist writing in the second half of the twentieth century, extending the possibilities of fiction for other writers as well as herself. She had no obvious precursors, except perhaps Ivy Compton-Burnett, and it is interesting to learn from Martin Stannard that Spark was in her formative years an enthusiastic reader of Compton-Burnett—whose work however has a much narrower range of themes and effects than her own.
A truly original writer is a very rare bird, whose appearance is apt to disconcert other birds and bird-watchers at first. I was beginning my own career as a novelist and critic when Muriel Spark began publishing her fiction: in the former capacity I was under the influence of the neorealism of the British “Angry Young Men” era, and as a critic I revered the great moderns like Henry James, Conrad, and Joyce. I was also interested in something called the Catholic Novel, and had written a thesis on the subject. Muriel Spark didn’t fit any of these categories: she was a postmodernist before the term was known to literary criticism, and although she was a convert to the Catholic faith, her take on it was very different from Graham Greene’s or Evelyn Waugh’s. Reviewing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1961 I declared myself “beguiled…but not really stirred or involved or enlightened.” It was some time before I realized that the disappointment was entirely my own fault and that the novel was a masterpiece.
There were of course quite enough readers contentedly beguiled by the wit, sharp observation, and refreshing novelty of Spark’s narrative style to make her into a literary star quite soon, especially in America. The New Yorker dedicated almost a whole issue of the magazine to a slightly shortened version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, only the second time it had conferred such an honor. Nevertheless (a key word in Spark’s own vocabulary), there was nearly always a significant mutter of dissent and dissatisfaction audible in the general buzz of approbation that greeted each new work, and it grew in volume as she became more and more uncompromisingly experimental in form and content. Reviewing The Only Problem in 1984, Frank Kermode described her as “our best novelist” but added:
Although she is much admired and giggled at, I doubt if this estimate is widely shared. This may be because virtuosos, especially cold ones, aren’t thought serious enough. Another reason is that…Mrs Spark’s kind of religion seems bafflingly idiosyncratic. In fact she is a theological rather than a religious writer.
Martin Stannard quotes this characteristically shrewd observation and his …