Articles are appearing in advance of the centenary of novelist Muriel Spark which will be observed next Thursday (1 February). Scottish novelist Allan Massie has written an article in the i Newspaper in which he recalls her career and his introduction to it:
I was 18 when I first read The Comforters. It delighted me then and still delights me now, 60 years on. More importantly it delighted Evelyn Waugh. Sent a proof copy by the publisher, he replied: “The first half, up to the motor accident, is brilliant. The second half rather diffuse. The mechanics of the hallucination are well managed. These particularly interested me as I am muself engaged on a similar subject.” That was The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Waugh’s account of when he himself heard accusing voices, and as he put it, went off his head.
Waugh later wrote a friend: “Have you seen The Comforters by Mrs Muriel Spark–an admirable study of hallucinations? I am told she was very dotty and got over it.” To Ann Fleming he wrote: I have been sent proofs of a very clever first novel by a lady named Muriel Sparks [sic]. The theme is a Catholic novelist suffering from hallucinations, hearing voices–very disconcerting. It will appear quite soon. I am sure people will think it is by me. Please contradict such assertions (Letters, pp. 474, 494). See earlier posts. As it turned out, both books were published in 1957, The Comforters in February and Pinfold in July.
Martin Stannard has also written a memoir recounting his writing of Spark’s biography. It was not an entirely happy experience. In his account, which appears in the current issue of The Tablet, he also refers to her delusions on which The Comforters was based:
We dealt with some delicate subjects, particularly her hallucinations in 1954. I had to tell her that Neville and June Braybrooke remembered Muriel insisting that T.S. Eliot was their window cleaner, spying on them, and threatening Muriel with coded messages in his play, The Confidential Clerk. This was tricky because the three months of her delusions exactly corresponded with the period of her instruction in Catholicism. All seemed to go well until we returned to the question of who, exactly, were her close friends…
Stannard, who also wrote the standard two-volume biography of Evelyn Waugh, experienced difficulties with writing the book on Spark. She was as eccentric as Waugh in many ways, but unlike him, she was alive. She began by cooperating with Stannard but quickly shifted to setting up roadblocks. What he started in 1992 was not published until 2009 after she had died.
The centenary will be marked by a Symposium next week at the University of Glasgow. One of the papers raises interesting questions for Waugh fans. This is entitled “Spark: Hearing Voices and Delusion” and is scheduled for Friday, 2 February at 10am. It will amost surely relate to the story told in The Comforters to which Evelyn Waugh had repeatedly referred. The paper will be presented by Prof Patricia Waugh of Durham University. I once asked her if her family were related to that of Evelyn Waugh and, I am sorry to report, she emailed that she knew of no connection.