The Informed Air: Essays
By Muriel Spark
(New Directions, 352 pages, $24.95)
How do you do it?” asked Evelyn Waugh in a letter to Muriel Spark. He had just finished reading The Bachelors, her fifth novel, and was “dazzled” by it. “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.”
How did Spark do it? Twenty-two novels and not a dud in the bunch. And then there are the critical biographies, plays for stage and radio, a children’s book, a volume of memoir, and collections of short stories and poetry. Spark, known for her wit, dark humor, and versatility, was the queen bee of the postmodernists, and arguably one of the most innovative British novelists writing in the second half of the twentieth century.
It’s about time that Spark’s nonfiction was collected. She died eight years ago; it has been a decade since her last novel, The Finishing School, was published. The Informed Air has been edited by Spark’s literary executor, best friend, and late-life companion Penelope Jardine, who has written a preface wonderfully tender toward Spark. Like nearly all her books, The Informed Air is a slim beast. Here pictures get their own pages; often there are blank pages between pieces; and several of the works collected are no longer than 200 words. Still, everything here is excellent, indeed sparkling. There isn’t a boring sentence in the whole book.
The Informed Air is divided into four parts: “Life,” “Literature,” “Miscellany,” and “Faith.” Jardine clearly had a bit of fun deciding which pieces go where. Spark’s retrospective essay on Gone With the Wind is placed in “Miscellany” rather than “Literature,” though in this case the decision seems justified given Spark’s assessment of the novel: “To evaluate a mammoth labor like Gone with the Wind, whether it is a good book or a bad book, seems irrelevant. Of course it is bad art. But you cannot say fairer than that it is, like our Albert Memorial, impressive.” Even more amusingly, Spark’s essay on cats, “Ailourophilia,” has been filed under “Faith” rather than “Miscellany,” which is also, in its way, fitting. “If I were not a Christian,” the essay begins, “I would worship the cat.” But the piece isn’t all metaphysics: “Whereas the bourgeois dog needs a kennel or a fireside in order to be a somebody, even the sleek alley cat retains the incomprehensible importance of its catness.”
Spark could always make the humdrum wildly interesting. My favorite piece in this collection is “Eyes and Noses.” An editor at the Observer asked her to write an essay about eyes, but Spark, in her typical mischievous way, forwent the eyes-window-soul cliché and decided to write about noses instead. “The more I thought about eyes,” she tells us, “the less I had to say about them, and the more I ponder noses.” She goes on to argue that “the transcendent function of the nose is to proclaim humankind.” She cites Genesis on man, which tells us that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Hence, as Spark puts it, “The first thing that happened to Adam happened to his nose.” Perhaps the most amusing bit is Spark’s observation that all of Botticelli’s nymphs and goddesses have pink-tipped noses:
He understood that they exist, by nature, in an element so purified and perfect that when they came into a natural framework they would find the atmosphere odd. Giving them form, in their immortal poses, he gave them a human reaction to change of climate, a cold.
What more can I say? Spark has me totally convinced.
Jardine notes in her preface that biographers have failed to capture Spark’s “brave and generous spirit…the optimism and joy of her personality.” I’m not sure that I agree: Martin Stannard’s biography is favorable and touches on all these characteristics. But the pieces collected here under “Life” do show us Spark at her most jovial. In “The Celestial Garden Party” Spark writes about her mother’s compulsion to buy wide-brimmed decorated hats perfect for the gatherings that she never ended up attending. At the time her mother was buying these hats, Spark was learning about Plato at school. “I formed the opinion that my mother’s hats were designed for an ideal Garden Party which took place somewhere in the sky.” Fast-forward to Spark’s later life and she has couture dresses in her closet that “beautifully hang there for some useless celestial occasion.” It is a fun read, light and exuberantly feminine, but it has almost nothing to do with Spark’s life. A few experiences serve as the springboard, but the essay is really a playing out of Spark’s complicated but whimsical metaphysics. The same sort of thing happens in “What Images Return,” an essay written about the days surrounding her father’s death. The essay is not about her father, her family, her estrangement from them in middle age. Instead we see Spark looking out the window of an Edinburgh hotel, reflecting on the birth of her aesthetic consciousness. She focuses her attention on the prehistoric Castle Rock that stands tall between the old and new sections of the city. “I imbibed, through no particular mentor, but by breathing the informed air of the place, its haughty and remote anarchism.” When the call comes that her father has died, Spark looks out the window to see “that the rock and its castle loomed as usual in the early light. I noticed this, as if one might have expected otherwise.”
In the pieces that touch on her life there is a certain joy at work, an electric energy; but there is also an air of artificiality, an obvious distance between Spark and her raw material. In her fiction this element seems to give her books their clever edge, but in what should be autobiography, it makes her seem cold. Then again, Spark herself made it clear that she disliked writing about the past. In another piece collected here, “The Writing Life,” she admits that “I find it difficult to re-read the novels and abundant stories I have written in the many years since then.”
The smallest section in this collection is actually “Miscellany,” but “Faith”seems the slimmest, puffed up as it is with essays on cats, cannibalism, and Guy Fawkes (all wonderful, but not quite faith-related). Spark wrote almost nothing about her conversion to Catholicism, or her religious experience thereafter. Jardine reminds us in her preface that the essay “My Conversion,” often quoted by scholars when discussing Spark’s religion, was not written by her, but about her by a priest to whom she gave an interview. We know that Cardinal Newman was the catalyst for Spark’s conversion and that she was not terribly orthodox, instinctively feeling the particulars of the faith to be flexible. I always think of Vatican II as tumultuous, but the chaos it brought was masked with a respectability that probably suited Spark’s personality. It is a pity that she failed to write about the most complex facet of her complex personality, but I suspect her religious experience was too mystical for even her talent. The closest we can get to understanding her faith is to look at the religious topics that interested her most.
She was obsessed with the Book of Job. At one time she planned to write a critical study of it. She spent almost a year on the project, but eventually put it aside in order to “get on with my life.” Though the study never materialized, Job was a recurring presence, one who seeped into her fiction, too: her first novel, The Comforters, gets its title from the friends of Job who try to convince him that his suffering is a product of sin; in her seventeenth, The Only Problem (which is suffering, of course), the protagonist is obsessed with studying the book. Questions about suffering—why we suffer and, especially, why so many of us are fascinated by suffering—is a theme running through all Spark’s work. Like Job, Spark was not convinced that suffering is the product of sin or that sin necessitates suffering. Those interested in this topic will find writing collected in The Informed Air, including the introduction to The Only Problem, well worth reading.
For those who have only read her fiction, the essays on Mary Shelley or the Brontës serve as wonderful introductions to Spark’s critical work. Like her novels, Spark’s criticism is smart and complex. Her greatest achievement was her biography of Mary Shelley. Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (later revised as Mary Shelley: A Biography) argues that the author of Frankenstein possessed intellectual and literary sympathies independent of those of her famous husband and her parents. Of chief interest among the pieces collected hereis Spark’s proposal for the biography, which reminds us what an excellent businesswoman she was.
Drawing attention to Spark’s critical achievements will dampen the popular misconception that her literary career began at age thirty-nine with The Comforters; she was of course busy doing brilliant things long before then. Besides, Spark never considered herself a novelist. This bizarre insistence is a theme sprinkled throughout speeches, introductions to books, and pieces published in the New Yorker and the Daily Telegraph.“I thought in many ways that novels were a lazy way of writing poetry, and above all I didn’t want to become a ‘lady novelist’ with all the slop and sentimentalism.” She saw herself as primarily an artist and secondly a poet claiming “a poetic perception, a poet’s way of looking at the world, a synoptic vision.”
It is always temping to finish a review of a book published posthumously with speculation about its author’s reputation. Personally, I’m nervous in the case of Muriel Spark. I’m sure she won’t be embraced by the academy. Her work is seriously lacking in trendy liberal moralism and the tedious seriousness favored on undergraduate syllabuses. Really I am sure of only two things: that those who do read Spark will be just as dazzled by her as Waugh was, and that The Informed Air is a nice addition to my shelves.