On Saturday Katharine Weber and I exchanged a series of increasingly distraught email messages about Muriel Spark’s death. Today, at my insistence, Weber remembers Spark, whose novels taught her to write even before the two became pen pals.
Eighty-eight is a good age, but Muriel Spark’s death last week was a blow. I wasn’t ready. I had secretly hoped she might be immortal.
Although we never met, we did exchange a number of letters over the last nine years. It began when I wrote to her to tell her that she was one of my mentors, that her novels had taught me how to write, starting with her extraordinary first novel, The Comforters. I read her books from the time I was in high school, most of them more than once. They changed my life, though it took decades before I knew it.
When I wrote her, I had published a first novel three years earlier (the year I turned forty), and had a second one scheduled a few months later. I hadn’t ever studied with a writer in any extended way, and pretty much taught myself to write by reading certain novelists obsessively. Iris Murdoch was one. Philip Roth was another. Nabokov. Muriel Spark was the most important one. I didn’t even really know if I could teach myself to write until I had somehow done it. I taught myself to tie shoes this way when I was six, by copying the knots in a pair of my father’s tied wingtips using my own sneaker laces until the moment arrived when I found myself duplicating the symmetrical bow, though I distinctly recall achieving this with a final step of poking the hard shoelace ends through the middle of the knot, so I was doing it exactly backwards. Sometimes I think that’s how I write my novels, too. But maybe there is only the hard way.
Muriel Spark’s novels offered me a sense of the possibilities for writing with what Flannery O’Connor called a reasonable use of the unreasonable. Oh,that crackpot narrative voice! Spark broke all the rules. She surprised you on every page, she passed swift and harsh judgment, she spun the needle on the big moral compass fast and furiously, she was very funny, and she wrote those elegant sentences, those sentences that glittered like broken glass on the pavement, with paradoxical heart and a cool control.
I had discovered her address by accident, reading an acrid letter of correction from her in the pages of the TLS concerning her estranged son Robin’s assertions about her Jewishness, which she refuted. The letter was signed with her complete address in Tuscany. I was inspired to write her.
In her New York Times obituary, I learned (along with the strange news that she would only write with a pen that no one else had touched; I wonder where she thought pens came from) that in reading Proust she made discoveries that led to her becoming a novelist. “I could see what you could do with memory. I could see what you could do with incidents.” Back in that summer of 1998, I told her something along those same lines about my own response to her novels. I sent along with that first letter of homage the bound galley proof for my second novel, The Music Lesson, the way one might offer Maharishi a piece of fruit. I had no agenda beyond offering her the best thing I thought I had written. (After all, without at least a little hubris, you can’t really write a novel in the first place.) I did not expect to hear from her.
A few weeks later I received back from her a long handwritten letter with a paragraph of praise for my novel. At the bottom of the letter, below her signature, she had added, “please feel free to use my words in any way that would be helpful for The Music Lesson.”
She was not especially known for her generosity, and nobody has ever called Muriel Spark a blurb slut, so this was an astonishing and truly unexpected gift.
After that I wrote her maybe a couple of times a year, and she always answered me. I wanted to amuse her and I never wanted to intrude. Her letters were typed, in recent years, by her companion Penelope Jardine. (In one letter she referred to Penelope as “my helper.”) One of our last exchanges concerned my having read the final pages of Aiding and Abetting sitting in a restaurant on the Rue Du Dragon in Paris, the setting for much of the story. I told her I had begun to feel that at any moment the fake Dr. Hildegarde Wolf, aka Beate Pappenheim, the notorious stigmata fraud (she used her own menstrual blood) would pass by on the narrow street.
She replied, “Thank you for your charming letter. I am sure you have truly ‘participated’ in my novel. I am delighted that it gave you so much pleasure.”
There was more in that letter, and in our other correspondence before and after that, but I don’t like it when tributes to the recently dead consist of mourners lamenting that the late great Whoever was so great because he or she recognized certain marvelous qualities in those of who who live on.
Those qualities are then usually enumerated at length in the guise of quoting the words of the dearly departed. So I will stop here.
R.I.P., Muriel Sarah Camberg Spark. Thank you for allowing us all to participate in your very fine novels.