The Best of Muriel Spark

In 2018, on the 100th anniversary of Muriel Spark’s birth, I decided to spend the year reading her 22 novels in order. With rather less efficiency than Spark herself, who wrote a novel a year between her debut, The Comforters, in 1957, and The Mandelbaum Gate in 1965, I finally finished her final novel, The Finishing School, in January this year. Here are my five favourites:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

I make no apology for including Spark’s most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It survives in the public imagination because Brodie has transcended the novel itself – which seems appropriate for a character who places such importance on being special. Her pupils, after all, are the crème de la crème, and even Mary McGregor, “a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame” is famous for these qualities in Brodie’s eyes. Brodie, of course, has a darker side, as an admirer of Mussolini, and later Hitler (“more reliable than Mussolini”), and as a manipulator of young girls: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Her early influence becomes something altogether more unsettling when we discover that she intends for Rose to sleep with Teddy Lloyd, the man she loves, in her place. Brodie is never in any doubt that God is on her side but God, of courses, is in the narrative, which flits backwards and forwards revealing effect before cause as only God can. She remains the greatest of Spark’s characters but not the only one to over-reach.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

The Girls of Slender Means was the novel which followed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and it’s tempting to see the girls of The May of Teck Club, a hostel where young women of ’slender means’ living away from home may stay, as the Brodie set grown up. The novel is set during the months in 1945 between VE Day and VJ Day, though it begins with the news that, years later, Nicholas Farringdon, who converts to Catholicism as a result of events in the novel, has been killed in Haiti. The novel conveys an atmosphere of excited possibility, created both by the end of the war and the youth of the protagonists. Despite this, we are aware something terrible will happen towards the end, the “act of savagery” which will cause Farringdon, a left-wing intellectual, to change the way he sees the world. Spark does not disappoint.

The Driver’s Seat (1970)

Of The Driver’s Seat, Sam Jordison, looking back at the lost Booker Prize, said, “It isn’t one to love.” His lack of love for Spark’s first novel of the seventies can perhaps be traced to his rather more perceptive comment regarding the central character, Lise, “We are encouraged to laugh at her – but constantly reminded that to do so is awful.” In other words, it’s a novel where the reader is not allowed to feel comfortable. The Driver’s Seat is a crime novel where the victim is in search of the murderer: “I was sure he was the right one. I’ve got to meet someone,” Lise tells us, commandeering the language of romance to more violent ends. It’s funny (Lise is offended when offered a dress which won’t show stains) but also desperate, as Lise attempts to take control of her fate, to be in the ‘driver’s seat’. Not to everyone’s taste, but a masterclass in black comedy and narrative economy.

Not to Disturb (1971)

The crime genre is also subverted in the novel which follows The Driver’s Seat, Not to Disturb, which borrows from, as the title suggests, the normally cosier country house murder, with a locked room element thrown in for good measure. Although Baron Klopstock and his wife are not yet dead, their deaths are, according to the butler, Lister, only a matter of time: “To all intents and purposes they are already dead although as a matter of banal fact, the night’s business has still to accomplish itself.” The butler does not do it, but he knows it will be done. The Baron and Baroness hardly feature – they are, after all, not to be disturbed, and instead the staff wait for the moment they can sell the Baron and Baroness’ story to the press. Oh, and there’s a madman in the attic.

Loitering with Intent (1981)

Throughout the seventies Spark wrote deliberately modern, international novels echoing the life she lived – New York for The Hothouse by the East River, a satire on Watergate in The Abbess of Crewe, Italy for The Takeover and Territorial Rights. Loitering with Intent, her first novel of the eighties, sees her return to the London of The Girls of Slender Means, in the “middle of the twentieth century”; it also sees her use the first person for the first time since Robinson in 1958. The narrator is a novelist, Fleur Talbot, at the beginning of her career, not unlike Caroline Rose in The Comforters. Whereas Caroline hears her thoughts being narrated to the sound of typing, Fleur finds real life copying the characters and events of her novel. Hired by the Autobiographical Association to type up the memoirs of its members, she finds herself inserting her own additions to liven up the rather dull originals. Despite its ominous title, Loitering with Intent is one of Spark’s happier novels – even when Fleur’s manuscript is stolen, we need not worry as we already know the novel will be published

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10 Responses to “The Best of Muriel Spark”

  1. Radz Pandit Says:

    What a terrific list, Grant! I plan to make my way through all her novels too, but my progress has been rather slow. Loved The Driver’s Seat and The Girls of Slender Means, but have yet to read the other three. Not to Disturb is the one really calling out to me.

  2. Simon T Says:

    Loved reading this! I still have 3 of her novels left to read, but my top five would be… Loitering With Intent, The Only Problem, Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Symposium. Not To Disturb is one of the ones I didn’t connect with very well, but must try again.

    • 1streading Says:

      The Only Problem, Memento Mori and Symposium were all considered when I was compiling my five favourites – I would have particularly liked to include Symposium as a great later novel.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Ah, I’m so glad you’ve put this list together, Grant. I’ve read (and loved) four of them, which bodes very well for the one I’ve yet to try: Not to Disturb. My top five to date would be: Memento Mori, Slender Means, Brodie, Peckham Rye and Loitering – with Driver’s Seat and Kensington nipping at their heels.

    May I be a bit cheeky and ask what your next five would be? The honourable mentions, so to speak…

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m sure you suggested this quite a while ago! Memento Mori and Ballad of Peckham Rye would certainly be in my next group – I do love the character of Dougal Douglas (or is it Douglas Dougal?)

  4. heavenali Says:

    Well done on reading them all, I haven’t managed that yet. The Girls of Slender Means is a big favourite of mine too. I think my other favourites are A Far Cry from Kensington, Symposium, The Mandlebaum Gate and Memento Mori. Such a unique writer.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great list and well done Grant! I have read three of your five and rather think I would like to get back to her soon!!

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