As mentioned in SWH!’s recent review of Olga Wojtas’ novel Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, this year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the writer Muriel Spark, and as well as all the events which are happening under the banner of #MurielSpark100, Polygon Books are republishing all 22 of her novels which, if you only know The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, (or nothing at all), offers you the chance to more fully acquaint yourself with the work of arguably the greatest Scottish writer of the 20th century.
However, not much is known about the writer herself. To help rectify this Polygon have also published journalist, and founding editor of The Scottish Review of Books, Alan Taylor’s Appointment In Arezzo: A Friendship With Muriel Spark, an account of his relationship with Spark in her later life. A notoriously private woman, the book is a fascinating insight into how she viewed the world, and how the world in turn viewed her.
Taylor makes it clear that what many thought reclusive behaviour was actually a consequence of not really giving a damn what others thought of her. A truly international citizen, while retaining a love for Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, Spark had found peace in terms of place and people in Italy by the time Taylor got to know her. She had also had enough of the rumors, half-truths and downright lies which had been written and spoken about her and her relationships, and as such rarely engaged with the press, or the public. This alone makes Appointment In Arezzo an important publication.
That’s not to say that Spark was bitter. Taylor paints a picture of a happy home-life in Arezzo, Tuscany which she shared with her friend and confidant, Penelope Jardine. For anyone who is familiar with her writing, the Muriel Spark who is depicted on these pages makes perfect sense as she is full of life, humour, wit and a fierce intelligence, all of which are evident in her work.
But this is no hagiography. Taylor does not avoid controversy or the more difficult times in Sparks’ life, such as her failed marriage and the complicated relationship she had with her son. But while he is honest enough to address these issues you are never in any doubt that he is always on her side. A fan as well as a confidante, Taylor gets the balance between friend and journalist right, giving the reader something new and revealing while never betraying her trust or memory.
As well as being a personal recollection of Muriel Spark, Appointment In Arezzo also has plenty to say about the writer’s influences and attitude towards her work. There is plenty here for students of literature who want to know more about what drove Spark to write, and why. It also works as an excellent companion to the The International Style Of Muriel Spark exhibition currently on at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh (running till 13th May). Together they give a more complete picture of Muriel Spark than had previously been the case.
There will be those who would maintain that all you need to know about Muriel Spark can be found in her writing, and it is an argument which I think Spark herself may have favoured. But, as we celebrate the centenary of her birth, it is an important and timely reminder that her’s was a writer’s life, (she was still having poetry and fiction published in 2004, 47 years after her debut novel The Comforters) and, as Taylor attests, even when she wasn’t writing it was never far from her mind. We may not see her likes again, so a celebration of the life and work of Muriel Spark is not only in order, it is long overdue.
For the latest up-to-date news on all the events this year go to Muriel Spark 100.