Martin Stannard, the author of an immense biography of Evelyn Waugh, now publishes this excellent and far from brief life of Muriel Spark. The book was well under way while the novelist was still alive, and he expresses his gratitude for her 'consent, encouragement and active assistance . . . She patiently answered my questions, offered interviews and engaged in a huge correspondence.' A legal agreement allowed her biographer 'extensive free quotation from her published work and an unspecified amount from her unpublished writings, including letters'. She insisted only on her 'right to withdraw the imprimatur of "authorised biography"'. It isn't usual for reviewers to comment on the privileged prose of acknowledgments, but this example seems worthy of remark because it is difficult to think of the principals remaining placid under the provocation of a relationship like the one Stannard defines. It must have helped that Spark was an exceptionally efficient woman who knew how to run an office and how to deal with publishers, agents and other suppliants. Stannard is good at showing them taking cover. Spark considered it her business to write novels, while the business of publishers, in which she wanted no part, was to sell them. She often made this plain. A biographer might have expected some rough treatment along those lines, but the orderly splendour of the novelist's archives must have been adequately consoling. In the end Stannard may have sacrificed little save the explicit imprimatur (which seems to have been withheld) and the result is a superbly detailed book, patient, affectionate, sometimes funny and, as the subject peremptorily required, very intelligent.
LRB 10 September 2009 | PDF Download