By William Boyd
I first became aware of the strange and beguiling world of Muriel Spark on the release, in 1968, of the film version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Like most successful films, the adaptation took me back to the original, hungry for a richer aesthetic experience. I was not disappointed and since then I’ve been an avid reader of Muriel Spark. It is probably no exaggeration to say that until her recent death she was regarded as Britain’s pre-eminent living novelist.
Another writer who revelled in her work was Evelyn Waugh. He praised her first novel, The Comforters, in 1957 and when her fifth novel, The Bachelors, appeared in 1960 wrote to her, saying this: ‘Most novelists find there is one kind of book they can write (particularly humorous novelists) and go on doing it with variations until death. You seem to have an inexhaustible source. The Bachelors is the cleverest and most elegant of all your clever and elegant books.’
‘Clever and elegant’ is very acute as a catch-all description of Muriel Spark’s appeal. As Waugh suggests, her novels are remarkably various, unified more by a tone of voice than any particular theme. Some appear surreal and allegorical, some deal more overtly with religious matters (Spark converted to Catholicism in 1954), some seem almost philosophical fables in nature. My particular favourites, however, are those rooted in the real world — notably in environments that Spark was very familiar with. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in the Edinburgh of her youth and there is a sequence of novels, written over many years, that take place in London (in the ‘40s and ‘50s) that form something of a unified group — The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington and The Girls of Slender Means.
The Girls of Slender Means is a perfect introduction to Muriel Spark’s work. It is short, like many of her novels, and is written in the omniscient third person — one is very much aware of the manipulating authorial presence.
The novel is set in London in 1945 at the end of the war in a shabby/genteel boarding house for young ladies called the May of Teck Club. We meet the various girls of slender means and follow their lives and love affairs over a period of a few weeks until a shocking and savage event transforms the wry comedy of their existence into something suddenly tragic and baleful.
But the tone of the novel is what sets it apart. Written in a series of short scenes, the novel disdains chronology and flashes forward and back without a qualm. The style is simple and lucid — John Updike refers to her ‘prosy bluntness’ — and surprisingly effective. Here’s one example:
‘We come now to Nicholas Farringdon in his thirty-third year. He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal: that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was.’
There is nothing overtly fancy about the way Muriel Spark writes and her comedy is subtle and centres around the fact that people are much odder and stranger than they appear. But what makes her comedy serious is the sense of darker forces lurking beneath the amusing contradictions and bafflements of everyday life. From the outset of the novel we know something savage and inexplicable is going to happen to the girls of slender means and that minatory dread ticks away like a time bomb waiting to detonate. We are in the hands of a great artist: the experience is both unsettling and exhilarating.
Written for the Daily Telegraph Book Club 2006