- “A Salutary Scar”: Muriel Spark’s Desegregated Art in the Twenty-first Century
Intended in part to commemorate the death (on April 13, 2006) of Muriel Spark, one of the most important and innovative writers in English to come to maturity in the second half of the twentieth century, this special issue also aims to take stock of Spark’s enduring legacy—her status as an author whose writing practices have reshaped ways of understanding the scope and nature of fiction itself. The essays assembled here explore, from multiple perspectives, the situation of Spark’s work within the landscapes of postwar writing. What is more, the contributors collectively suggest the continuing relevance of Spark’s oeuvre for the narrative traditions, representational projects, and broader cultural formations of the twenty-first century.
Spark was the author of twenty-two novels (seven of them published during the extraordinarily prolific period 1957–1963), more than a dozen short-story collections, several collections of poetry, a number of children’s books, and multiple works of criticism, including volumes on William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and the Brontës.1 She established early on the strikingly sui generis style that became the hallmark of her fiction—a style combining a self-reflexive focus [End Page 473] on novelistic technique, including modes of metafictional play, with a probing investigation of the moral, psychological, and institutional dimensions of human conduct. Hence Spark in effect opted out of the two responses to modernism that David Lodge has called antimodernism and postmodernism. Antimodernist writers such as Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh sought to continue the tradition that modernism reacted against, operating under the assumption that practices of realism “modified to take account of changes in human knowledge and material circumstances” were still “viable and valuable” (Lodge 6). By contrast, postmodernist writers such as Samuel Beckett and John Barth continued “the modernist critique of traditional realism, but [tried] to go beyond or around or underneath modernism, which for all its formal experiment and complexity held out to the reader the promise of meaning, if not of a meaning” (12). Spark, however, chose a third path. Her fiction embraces (or rather extends and radicalizes) the modernist emphasis on technique while also projecting complex social worlds—worlds in which, in texts ranging from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) to The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) to The Hothouse by the East River (1973), characters are impinged on by powerful historical and political forces, their psychologies and interactions shaped by entrenched educational and religious institutions, ideologies of gender, and more or less dominant assumptions about the possibilities and limitations of human agency. Thus, as Marina MacKay argues in her contribution to this issue, Spark is “an amphibious figure”; in other words, her novels encompass tendencies displayed both by antimodernists advocating a midcentury return to realism and by postmodernist practitioners who did not share Spark’s “capacious sociability, [her] meticulous curiosity about the specificities of midcentury manners.” Spark’s amphibious narrative practices set a precedent for later writers who have similarly worked to wed sometimes mind-bending formal innovation with the nuanced representation of sociohistorical circumstances, including not just English-language authors such as A. S. Byatt and the Ian McEwan of Atonement, for example, but writers from other traditions who have likewise pursued this third way between antimodernism and postmodernism, such as W. G. Sebald and Patrick Modiano.2
A number of commentators on Spark, as well as the author herself, have provided context for understanding this dialectical interplay between Spark’s reflexive focus on narrative form and her engagement with the historical contingencies of lived experience, her dual commitment to innovation and representation. Spark found a different balancing point for these two sets of concerns in different works, providing grounds for the strong claim that her writing practices were in some sense dependent on the nonresolution of [End Page 474] this dialectical tension.3 Reflexively foregrounding issues of form, Spark’s first novel, The Comforters (1957), focuses metaleptically on a protagonist who gradually comes to realize that she is a character in a novel.4 In Alan Bold’s characterization, this novel constitutes “an experimental exploration of the formal...