Muriel Spark’s fiction has a mysterious quality that readers tend to find elusive: something uncanny lurks in the writing, something often sinister, which is difficult to put a finger on. On the first page of The Driver’s Seat, her fevered account of a mentally ill spinster’s preordained murder, the heroine, Lise, erupts in sudden manic fury when a salesgirl at a boutique tells her that the dress she’s trying on is made of fabric that doesn’t stain. “‘Do you think I spill things on my clothes?’ the customer shrieks. ‘Do I look as if I don’t eat properly?’” Fuming with indignation, Lise “goes to the door at almost a run, while two other salesgirls and two other customers gasp and gape.” The people Lise encounters across the novella’s hundred pages can’t understand her peculiar logic. Spark, as in so many of her books, wants us to decipher how this strange mind works.
Spark wrote about paranoiacs and obsessives, fanatics and narcissists. Her stories had a curious way of indulging them all: the paranoiacs are elaborately conspired against, the fanatics thrust into plots that involve their preoccupation or idee fixe. This is perhaps how Spark herself really saw the world – as inclined to reflect, sometimes implausibly, our own ruling passions. “I claim a poetic perception, a poet’s way of look at the world, a synoptic vision,” she wrote in 1990. Spark felt that the novel, as a form, “should be a poem,” should share with poetry “the intrinsic construction, the conception, the vision” – and indeed she wanted to her fiction “to be judged under this deep and haunting light.” She rendered life in rhymes and symbols; she found in everything that same music, that poetic richness. If it seems strange on the page, it seemed natural to her. It was how Muriel Spark’s mind worked.
The Informed Air, the first and only collection of Spark’s miscellaneous non-fiction, affords the patient reader of her novels an opportunity to glimpse this mind from the other side – a chance to hear the writer’s voice directly, disengaged from the conventions of literature. And what one hears sounds not unlike Spark’s heroes and heroines. Her observations and pronouncements, in essays on subjects of almost radically uniform frivolity, have a familiar air of Sparkian madness: “Least of all in one’s native city is it spiritually becoming to sit in the lounges of big hotels.” “I approve of the ceremonious accumulation of weather forecasts and barometer readers that pronounce for a fine day.” “I am for noses, because they are frugal as to adjectives and constant in form.” In a reflection on hats (of all things) she even sounds like Lise, browsing in The Driver’s Seat for lurid dresses: “There are some things that people should buy because they are so attractive, so irresistible in the shop,” she writes. “These should be bought but never worn or used.”
It isn’t that one finds fault with her opinions – her thinking is serious, even in matters quite trivial, and Spark’s inimitable brilliance glimmers in every funny or unusual idea. One may agree, after all, that it is spiritually unbecoming to sit in the lounge of a big hotel in one’s native city, or that noses are frugal as to adjectives: it’s simply that Spark’s impressions would never occur to anyone else. In a fond gloss on Remembrance of Things Past Spark remarks that, in ordinary circumstances, in any other context, nobody would much care “about an old degenerate like Charlus, or Swann with his airs, or the Duchesse de Guermantes in her self-satisfied felicity.” Rather it is Proust who “makes these people matter through sheer force of his style.” That same force is felt here. Spark’s style – peerless, unimpeachable – makes every point matter.
Though she began her career as a novelist famously late – Spark was nearly 40 when her first work of book-length fiction, The Comforters, was published – writing for her came enviably easy. In fact, Spark dashed off literature with such speed and nonchalance that she began to doubt whether she was doing it properly: “Novel-writing was the easiest thing I had ever done,” she reflects in an essay on the beginning of her mid-life vocation. “And since I write my novels so quickly and easily I sometimes feel I am cheating. The actual writing is more like play than work.” She disliked revising, rewriting, and even re-reading her own work once she finished with it, however; she claimed she kept her books not on the shelf but in the cupboard, where they could be cast out of her mind.
Given this self-willed sense of finality, it is surprising how frequently Spark lingers in The Informed Air on certain topics dealt with at length elsewhere in her oeuvre, revisiting pet interests and cherishing favoured themes. The Book of Job, which she describes as “one of the loveliest, most intricate and most ambiguous books of the Bible” (Spark belonged to the Roman Catholic Church and greatly admired the Bible for its historical and literary qualities), is contemplated in three successive essays, written both before and after the publication of her novel The Only Problem, about a scholar of the Book of Job. Cardinal Newman’s Apologia is the focus of another trio of essays, and of course was also the heart of her (heavily autobiographical) novel Loitering with Intent. An entire 25-page section detailing a formative visit to the house of Louis MacNeice closely resembles, to the point of redundancy, Spark’s short story “The House of the Famous Poet.”
And so it emerges that Spark could be as obsessive as the characters who populate her books – interesting to fans of the author insofar as it illuminates more comprehensively the workings of her singular mind. The essays and criticism collected in this volume each represent a vivid snapshot of her passing enthusiasms and concerns; likewise are the attitudes she expresses about literary form the interesting perspective of a devoted reader. Spark’s assertion, for instance, that “happiness or unhappiness in endings is irrelevant,” that an ending should rather “cast its voice, colour, tone and shade over the whole work,” helps clarify the conclusion of her late masterpiece Symposium, with its shift into the future tense on the last two pages as it pivots to follow a character on the furthest periphery of the plot. Her defence of satire sheds light on The Abbess of Crewe and Not to Disturb. Her reminiscences of her time among the elderly reveals a new dimension of Memento Mori, and an anecdote about witnessing an affair between private-school tutors explains much about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Spark’s fiction is so fundamentally weird that it seems sui generis. What reading The Informed Air does is not so much dispel this notion as enrich it: this catalogue of thoughts and impressions, this assortment of judgements and recollections, offers a look at the inspiration for what Spark dreamed up on the page, the basis of her mysterious inventions. “I would not want to have written anything by anyone else, because they are ‘them’ and I am ‘me’,” Spark wrote in 1981, when asked what books of others she would have liked to have written herself. “And I do not want to be anybody else but myself with all the ideas I want to convey, the stories I want to tell, maybe lesser works, but my own.” One can be assured that this was never going to be a problem. She didn’t want to be anybody else. Seeing how her mind worked, what ideas occurred to her, and how she expressed them, who else could she possibly be?