- Muriel Spark, Existentialism and the Art of Death by Cairns Craig
Cairns Craig's full-length study addresses in depth the role of existentialism in Spark's work. He establishes the competing views of existentialism as defined by Sartre (aesthetic) and Kierkegaard (Christian), making the claim for the latter as that which most informs and explains Spark's literary topics and impulses. His aim is to read Spark as 'a theologically and philosophically informed writer', a combination which may reside more neatly in Kierkegaard than in Spark. Craig observes, 'For Spark, Kierkegaard's "philosophy", if indeed one could extract such a singular statement from his writings, is not as important as the fact, often ignored by aesthetic existentialists, that "Kierkegaard's religious, and especially Christian, thought [is] the central factor of his life and writing"' (p. 8). This study may help readers of Spark seeking to make sense of her religious interests and commitments; these loom large in any overview of her life and writing, and yet, critics differ sharply on the degree to which her work absorbs, reflects, or flexes against their influence. Muriel Spark, Existentialism and the Art of Death takes a fresh approach to these questions.
It is clear that Spark knew Kierkegaard's work and Craig effectively mines that connection for his argument. It is also clear that she was versed in Sartre and aware of the dichotomy represented by the Sartrean and Kierkegaardian schools of thought in the mid-century. In her 1956 review of T. H. Croxall's books on Kierkegaard (Meditation from Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard Commentary), which Craig references, Spark expresses her own skepticism about whether Kierkegaard 'in his entirety i.e., the sum total of this "message" is as relevant in the present day as are certain isolated but luminous fragments' (The Observer, Sunday, 29 July1956; p. 8 in Craig). She does not indicate which fragments those are, but Craig, who perceives her statement as advocacy rather than skepticism, teases out the resonances of Kierkegaard's work from hers, arguing that 'Kierkegaard haunts Spark's early fiction, her plots replicating aspects of Kierkegaard's' life and writings'. I found less persuasive the parallels Craig sets out to establish between, for instance, Kierkegaard's choice of solitariness, or the ascetic writing life (based on Kierkegaard's rehearsals of a decision to reject a love interest) and choices of characters in Spark's novels regarding marriage – such as Caroline's in The Comforters and Humphrey's in The Ballad of Peckham Rye (and including Spark's own choice). Craig's contention that Spark emphatically resists 'the aesthetic existentialism which had become so prominent in her contemporary [End Page 206] cultural environment' is mobilised for readings of her treatment of death, in particular, as well as her narratorial and stylistic choices: for example, her signature theory of and use of ridicule or comedy is set against the idea of Sartrean 'littérature engagée'; her authorial playfulness, some would say arrogance, is presented as submission to the paradox of faith that belief is dependent on an inexplicably absurd world.
In seven chapters, Craig demonstrates his extensive conversancy with Spark's oeuvre, deftly moving among novels, short stories and essays to show Kierkegaard's hand in Spark's aesthetic choices. In the first chapter, 'Living Next Door to Death', he argues that 'Spark's characters live next door to death because the dead have not departed', translating what is often understood as supernaturalism in Spark's novels, such as the phone call in Memento Mori, into 'a "real" interaction between the eternal and the temporal' (p. 24). Craig reads what might be seen as a modernist impulse in Spark's work – indeterminacy or performative conclusions – in a Kierkegaardian way, arguing that, for example, Barbara Vaughan's vacillation regarding religion and faith in The Mandelbaum Gate is a necessary condition of faith. This reading intersects with Craig's discussion in the next chapter of 'Spark's resistance to realism' – whereas, according to Craig, Sartre favoured it. Craig asserts that 'far from...