When I was at high school, I did a lot of reading. I worked through the senior section of the school library and read some of the classics of the Scottish canon, including Sunset Song, The House of the Green Shutters, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I did it off my own back because I wanted to read, no other reason, becoming probably one of the few Scottish teenagers who wasn’t obliged to read Sunset Song while studying Higher English. (I didn’t anyway – I got The Great Gatsby when I did my Higher. Sunset Song is a beautiful book and every time I pass through the Mearns I think of it.) One book I read for the first time then was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, a thin volume but one filled with insight, wit and well-drawn characters. I remember when I read it, actually, after doing my Advanced Higher History prelim. My head was utterly mashed after the three-hour exam and as my brain raced, I got through The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in about an hour sitting in the sixth-year common room. I liked it a lot.
Every so often, I pick up a Muriel Spark novel. She wrote quite a few and I am nowhere near done. In fact I remember my excitement when a volume of Spark’s essays came out. I read it over a couple of days on the way to work. I almost cried out a few times with joy at some of the great phrases and sentiments expressed. That’s a common Spark reaction for me and I’ve had it a lot when reading her work, most recently the other day when reading The Finishing School. I bought a copy a month or two ago at the Edinburgh Book Festival, a nice reissue as part of Canongate’s Canon series, and it didn’t disappoint. The first page, which features a creative writing lecture, is great and it is worth the entrance money alone, as they say. A few pages later, one of the school’s students, Chris, is writing a historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, David Rizzio and Lord Darnley. He is asked why he writes and replies:
‘I want to see what I write.’
A sentiment I can certainly relate to.
I was told once that Muriel Spark’s books are a masterclass in creative writing, that they cover all the techniques, all the form that books should encompass and deploy if they should be successful. I tend to agree with that, with the best example A Far Cry From Kensington. I always get the title of that one confused, thinking it’s called Last Exit From Kensington, which would be funny if Muriel Spark had written the film script for Last Exit to Brooklyn. I do the same, I should point out, with the book I would take to a desert island, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, often having to describe it as ‘that brilliant book about the Cairngorms that I can’t remember what it’s called’.
Muriel Spark herself was an interesting person, with lots of drama and intrigue in her story. She is one of the many Scottish writers whose words have committed to the concrete in Lady Stair’s Close, outside the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, sponsored by the Muriel Spark Society. They read:
‘The transfiguration of the commonplace’
These were taken from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where in the future Sandy writes a book of psychology with that title. I think they neatly cover the worlds Muriel Spark created in her novels, finely drawn and worked with immense loads of detail dispensed with in a few pithy phrases. The other day I went into work and ordered pretty much our entire Muriel Spark stock and I’m looking forward to working through them in the coming weeks and months, celebrating Spark’s centenary as we should celebrate all writers, by opening a book and starting to read.