Saturday, April 15, 2006

Muriel Spark (1918-2006)

Although Muriel Spark is known for her very British comedies of manners, she had lived in Italy since the 1960s, when fame and fortune greeted The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She continued publishing books until two years ago, when she was 86, and I wouldn't be surprised if she had another novel already in the pipeline before she passed away on Thursday. Her conversion to Catholicism, she had often claimed, enabled her to write novels, and her cynical and often dark worldview, while undeniably European, occasionally reminds me of the works of Flannery O'Connor. Seconding that impression is a quote from Spark that is reminiscent of many similar declarations made by O'Connor: "I don't propagate the Catholic faith but in a funny sort of way, my books couldn't be written by anyone except a Catholic."

While The Finishing School, the most recent of her 23 books, was too slight to display her greatest potential as a writer, it still featured the spare prose and the macabre satire for which she was best known. It's her previous book, Aiding and Abetting, that still lingers fondly in my mind and that begs comparison with the best satires of Evelyn Waugh (also, not coincidentally, a British Catholic convert). Drawn from two real-life criminals--a fraudulent faith healer and an aristocrat who mistakenly murdered his nanny (the target was his wife)--the novel skewers the pretensions of an upper class willing to protect the killer because it was the "proper" thing to do. In Spark's hands, the couple's story becomes a grim, madcap farce.