- “Fully to Savour Her Position”: Muriel Spark and Scottish Identity
In a moment of bad judgment, Robin Jenkins opined that it would be “very difficult to get any real Scottish person accepting [Muriel Spark] as a Scottish writer” (13). Jenkins is Spark’s nearest contender for the title of Scotland’s most senior novelist during the last fifty years, but he was not motivated by rivalry. Rather, Jenkins spoke as one entrapped by a predominant impulse in twentieth-century Scottish literature. Self-conscious of Scottish literature’s supposedly inadequate criticism of its own national and international contexts through the nineteenth-century colonial period (both Scotland’s alleged colonization by England and Scotland’s enthusiastic collaboration in the wider British imperial project), early twentieth-century Scottish literature expended much inward energy reflecting historically on massive shortcomings both in itself and in Scottish society. The outcome of this new scrutiny included the promulgation of a vigorous nativism in expression—of which a Scots language revival was the most obvious exemplar—and a muscular corpus of Scottish fiction of historical and social critique, both of which were, at the time, creatively modern. It certainly could not be argued then (as it could be for the nineteenth century) that the nation indulged any longer in a frivolous, escapist, anachronistic, literary product designed to evade the contemporary realities of national behavior at home and abroad. However this might be, a negative counter effect of this understandable aspiration to engage with and, indeed, recreate [End Page 487] Scottish national circumstance through literary expression has led to long lingering attitudes concerned in overwrought ways with realism and the priority of alighting on Scottish subject-matter.1 While the construction of English literature (at least in university, college, and school courses) has tended to be historically rather unreflective and loose in its consideration of national parameters, the construction of Scottish Literature (one of the most prominent cultural projects of twentieth-century Scotland) has tended toward an essentialist cultural nationalism that has continued to haunt it until very recently. As the twentieth century ended, Robin Jenkins sincerely voiced the opinion that Scotland’s most successful writer of the previous one hundred years (no one else of her national origin in this time comes close to combining the critical and popular regard internationally that Spark garners) is a cosmopolitan misfit who does not, at least in the majority of her books, have an insistent enough agenda of being Scottish.2
Essentialism in identity is something that consistently, though often obliquely, concerns the fiction of Muriel Spark. Spark’s own origins are problematically heterogeneous, as she herself indicates in her most revealing semi-autobiographical short story, “The Gentile Jewesses.” Here we find the recurrent Sparkian motif of oxymoronic identity where the title alludes to the fact that the narrator is the third woman in a direct family line to be progeny of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish blood. What we have, then, is both recognition of the orthodox matrilineal means of Jewish succession and a brazen acknowledgement of the collapsing of this mechanism. This simultaneous invoking and ironicizing of tradition is a hallmark of Spark’s fiction, indicating her view that stories, or history, ought to be replayed or even sometimes reworked rather than simply accepted as givens. Narratives for Spark are potentially both wonderful imaginative acts of transformation and, at other times, lazily and even nefariously designed. In this ambiguous nature of storytelling, Spark recognizes both the human aspiration toward transcendence over everyday materialist reality and the faulty, fallen human propensity toward selfishly motivated articulations. In “The Gentile Jewesses” the narrator refuses to be denied her Jewish heritage simply because of Talmudic law and defiantly embraces and gently mocks this law as a person who is possessed of enough imaginative empathy for her Jewish forbearers for them and their origins to matter to her. In this unwillingness by the narrator to be shut out by the tradition on this issue, we witness an important maneuver in Spark’s Judeo-Christian anagogic practice, where the word is rendered precisely nonstatic and instead comes alive or, in a sense, is mischievously made awkward flesh.
The febrile imaginative capacity of...