Muriel Spark, who died in 2006, has always resisted classification. Born in Edinburgh in 1918 to a Jewish father and a Gentile mother of, biographer Martin Stannard observes, “eclectic religious tastes” (2), she made her way, with no college education, through a brief unhappy marriage, a sojourn in Africa, a stint of wartime propaganda work, and a hand-to-mouth existence as a London woman of letters, before emerging in her forties as a best-selling, critically acclaimed novelist. During the latter half of the twentieth century she made homes in New York, London, Rome, and Tuscany–“home” being mainly a place to write and throw parties. Photographs depict a bewildering array of women: the frumpy middle-aged Londoner straight out of Monty Python; the wry intellectual in a jaunty hat, stopping by her publisher’s office in New York; the glamorous celebrity musing in her Rome apartment. Spark cultivated an ever-changing “public image,” to borrow a phrase she incorporated into the title of a novel. One of her favorite words, a hallmark of her intellectual temperament, was “nevertheless.”
In 1961 The New Yorker magazine cemented Spark’s fame by publishing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in a single issue. Along with other brilliant novels like Memento Mori (1959), The Bachelors (1960), and The Girls of Slender Means (1963), and remarkable stories like “The Portobello Road,” “The Go-Away Bird,” and “The Dark Glasses,” The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie established Spark as one of the most compelling and intelligent fiction writers of her time. The cerebral innovation of The Driver’s Seat (1970) prompted critic Malcolm Bradbury to gush revealingly that “the practised devotee of novels is granted an extraordinary professional joy” (193). As if retreating from that elitist image, Spark later turned out atmospheric renderings of postwar London in Loitering with Intent (1981) and A Far Cry from Kensington (1988). From sophisticated comedy to intense moral probing to stylish and bleak postmodernism, Spark could do it all, in masterful prose that fit whatever task came to hand.
A significant feature of Spark’s public image appears in the “Note About the Author” from her early books: “She entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1954.” As a Catholic novelist, Spark prompts inevitable comparisons to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene in Britain, and to Flannery O’Connor in the United States. She wrote consciously and explicitly as a Catholic Christian. Yet here too she eludes easy, conclusive definition. Not much for regular Mass attendance, she embraced the Church on her own terms, peppering interviews with heterodox asides. Her fiction, too, might disappoint religious readers’ expectations. Although a number of her characters, like the omniscient narrator of Memento Mori, speak the language of Catholic piety, Spark manages their fates in puzzling ways. The Girls of Slender Means, for instance, employs the New Testament image of the narrow door, only to leave troubling questions about who is saved and why.
Frank Kermode, one of Spark’s most astute critics, suggests that “although we have a special niche for certain religious novels, Mrs. Spark’s kind of religion seems bafflingly idiosyncratic. In fact she is a theological rather than a religious writer.” This formulation seems admirably suited to Spark’s independent-minded Catholicism and her sometimes exclusive appeal. Kermode notes further that in The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) Spark dwells on “the intellectual aspects” of spiritual matters (10). But what else, exactly, does Kermode’s distinction mean? What is the difference between religious and theological fiction? Two examples might help sharpen the contrast.
The American Catholic writer Ron Hansen is probably best known for Mariette in Ecstasy (1991), a novel about a young postulant who receives the stigmata. In 2009 Hansen published Exiles, an overtly Catholic novel combining the story of five nuns who drowned in a shipwreck with that of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who memorialized the nuns in “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Between Mariette in Ecstasy and Exiles came Atticus (1996), a very different novel, tough to the brink of hard-boiled, about a Colorado oilman with two sons. The older son, Frank, is a state senator, colorless and conventional. Scott, the younger, is a 40-year-old misfit with a wasted flair for art and a weakness for alcohol and drugs. One day Atticus Cody gets a phone call with bad news about Scott. He departs for Mexico, where only a father’s persistent love can penetrate a wall of evasions and false appearances.
Atticus is obviously a recasting of the Prodigal Son parable, as the novel twice makes plain. Hansen creates in Atticus Cody an unsentimental portrayal of the loving, forgiving Father. What makes Atticus truly surprising, however, is the way its detective-story plot (too elaborate to summarize here, too enjoyable to spoil) ingeniously invokes not just the Prodigal Son story but the overarching theme of Christ’s substitutionary death. While avoiding simplistic, one-to-one correspondences, Hansen powerfully conveys the scandal of atonement: Scott Cody, selfish, brutal, and careless, seems utterly unworthy of redemption. With this clueless, hard-living reprobate, Hansen dramatizes the reach of divine grace, and inspires a reverent awe. In Atticus he achieves a truly exemplary religious novel.
Like Atticus, Spark’s 1984 novel The Only Problem draws upon a story from the Bible. Harvey Gotham, a wealthy man who can do as he likes, lives in a rundown cottage in the Vosges region of France, writing a study of the book of Job. Separated from his beautiful wife, Effie, Harvey becomes involved with her sister Ruth, the wife of his old friend and fellow theology student Edward. One morning while Harvey sits in a museum, contemplating a painting of Job by Georges de La Tour, the police pick him up for questioning. They suspect Effie of belonging to a leftist terrorist gang that has been active in the area. Harvey knows nothing about Effie’s alleged crimes, but believes she might be capable of them. He undergoes a series of lengthy interrogations, broken up by talks with his lawyer and harassment by the press.
At some point the reader surmises that Harvey is not only studying Job–he is himself a modern-day Job, with the police, his lawyer, and the reporters standing in for Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. (In a preface to The Only Problem, Spark writes that Job’s uncomfortable talks with his comforters remind her of “a modern police-interrogation” (Spark, 2014: 191).) Harvey becomes an isolated figure at the heart of the crisis, eventually deserted by his sister-in-law Ruth as well as being estranged from Effie, confused by news reports of the violent gang, hounded and caricatured by the media. He appears increasingly anxious and upset.
Yet compared to the biblical Job—who loses his children and vast possessions, and is afflicted with terrible sores—the brooding Harvey “doesn’t,” as John Updike comments in his review of The Only Problem, “seem to suffer” (454). For all that Spark arranges Harvey and his comforters in a Job-like configuration, a strange calm hangs over the proceedings. Whether or not Harvey’s numbness constitutes an aesthetic fault, as Updike contends, the question of whether he suffers or not does pose an interpretive conundrum. How can a man whose affections wander vaguely between two women, who remains in good health, and who has plenty of money, be said to suffer in any meaningful sense?
Part of the detached feeling of The Only Problem stems from its narrative technique. Spark creates her narrators very deliberately, once remarking, “I have to decide what the author of the narrative is like. It’s not me, it’s a character” (Spark, 1992: 27). Compared to Memento Mori or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, with their intrusive, authoritative narrators, The Only Problem seems hardly to have a narrator at all. Events unfold strictly from the characters’ points of view, with a flat, toneless voice filling in the action. If anyone in the novel suffers, the laconic narrator, for one, will not insist on it. As Harvey himself says, near the end, “I’m not even sure that I suffer, I only endure distress” (456). It’s clear, then, that Spark is perfectly aware that Harvey’s troubles don’t rival Job’s. With her curiously muted method and her enigmatic protagonist, she asks not so much why Harvey suffers as how suffering, in the late twentieth century, is experienced and defined.
Certainly Harvey’s tangled love life contributes to his ennui. As the characters drift in and out of absent-minded affairs, no one seems particularly impassioned or heartbroken. It’s hard to grieve over a spouse or lover you’ve barely acknowledged. Harvey’s difficulties, moreover, come filtered by the media and the police. Where Job gets his evil tidings from a series of messengers, each using the refrain “I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1:13-18), Harvey must piece together Effie’s doings and whereabouts from ambiguous photographs, grudging asides from interrogators, and lurid newspaper and radio accounts. Even in 1984, before the information onslaught occasioned by the internet, modern life interposed a deadening barrier between people and their misfortunes.
But Spark seems less interested in the degree to which Harvey suffers than in the peculiar nature of his suffering. Early in the novel, he tells Edward that Job “not only argued the problem of suffering, he suffered the problem of argument” (339). As Kermode notes, Spark is quoting from her own article of nearly thirty years earlier, “The Mystery of Job’s Suffering.” More than just a recycled witticism, the sentence encapsulates Harvey’s predicament. He suffers from thinking about suffering. “To study, to think, is to live and suffer painfully” (435), he tells himself late in the novel, and he proposes the same idea in a bizarre press conference, lecturing a roomful of reporters about Job: “Our limitations of knowledge make us puzzle over the cause of suffering, maybe it is the cause of suffering itself” (401). It doesn’t matter that Harvey remains physically sound, and seemingly ambivalent toward the chaos around him. His real suffering is inner, brought on by his theological questions.
If Harvey’s claim seems overstated or farfetched, it at least has a noteworthy precedent in the history of philosophy. Stanley Cavell credits Wittgenstein with “discovering when and how to stop philosophizing,” thereby giving philosophy “peace” (269-70). Some questions cause so much trouble, and prove so fruitless, that the best solution, according to Cavell and Wittgenstein, is to figure out how to stop asking them. For Harvey, however, no such peace is possible. After telling Edward that Job suffered the problem of argument, he adds: “And that is incurable.” Once the theologian begins asking questions, there’s no stopping, no relief. Harvey’s suffering begins before his marriage falls apart, before the police and the press start dogging him. His suffering begins when he asks why the blameless suffer.
In Muriel Spark’s fiction, people don’t agonize about whether or not God exists. They simply believe, wearing their belief as matter-of-factly as the color of their eyes or hair. “Do you have any religion, William?” Nancy Hawkins asks her lover in A Far Cry from Kensington. To William’s “No, I don’t believe a damn thing,” Nancy replies, “I can’t disbelieve” (164). There are no elaborate apologetics, no sweaty struggles with doubt. When Jean Taylor declares, in Memento Mori, that a good death “doesn’t reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul,” her cruel visitor in the nursing home snaps, “Prove it.” “‘Disprove it,’” she [says] wearily” (167). Harvey Gotham, “tormented” by “the only problem,”—the problem of suffering (331) —wrestles with God, not whether or not to believe in God.
“Surely I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to reason with God.” Job’s cry—Spark’s epigraph to The Only Problem—sums up the theological novelist’s purpose. Complacent unbelief is not available, so she confronts the paradoxes and absurdities of belief. How can the greatest of sinners be saints? Why do the wicked prosper? Why is death the only way to life? God, of course, replies from the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2 ESV) It puts one in an uncomfortable spot, this open-eyed belief. You can’t avoid the hard questions, but the answers won’t come, and then you’re rebuked for asking. So your suffering remains incurable.
Like a painting by Rembrandt or Caravaggio, Hansen’s Atticus might strengthen a believer’s faith. The religious purport is unmistakable, the devotional response almost involuntary. In a novel like The Only Problem, events tend less toward affirmation than implication and inquiry. Off balance, the reader must derive meaningful questions from seemingly disconnected elements, as in those maddening story problems from grade-school math class. Atticus, in short, might make you weep; The Only Problem makes you think.
Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) ends with the famous sentence: “But it was a sunny day for November, and, as he drove swiftly past the Rye, he saw the children playing there and the women coming home from work with their shopping-bags, the Rye for an instant looking like a cloud of green and gold, the people seeming to ride upon it, as you might say there was another world than this” (375-76). Like Harry Angstrom’s ecstatic moments in John Updike’s Rabbit novels, or like the mysterious themes and images in the novels of Alice Thomas Ellis, such a sentence hints at a supernatural realm behind appearances. The sudden glimpse doesn’t specify a religious point of view, or even provide much means of speculating on one. It conveys the merest trace of the divine. “The Portobello Road,” Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and The Girls of Slender Means go further. Leading the reader from one tantalizing, puzzling circumstance to the next, they create the conditions for asking theological questions. In The Only Problem the narrative ultimately questions questioning itself.
Literary art of this kind might sound cold and clinical, and
in fact some of Spark’s novels emulate the nouveau roman, an experimental style
that emerged in 1950s France. Other works, such as the Watergate-inspired The
Abbess of Crewe (1974), reflect a preoccupation with not-so-current events. Yet
while thus teetering on the verge of appearing dated, her books continue to
raise urgent questions about God and good and evil, and remain as absorbing as
ever, if not more provocative in an increasingly secular age. At its best her
work is both intellectually exhilarating and spiritually profound. In Muriel
Spark’s theological fiction, faith pauses on its way toward submissive piety,
toward the dust and ashes of the chastened Job. Stopping just inside the
cathedral door, it casts a critical eye at the stained glass, the vaulting, the
tracery, before entering the nave and falling to its knees.
David Heddendorf lives in Ames, Iowa. His writing has appeared frequently
in The Southern Review and Sewanee Review.
Bradbury, Malcolm. “Muriel Spark’s Fingernails.” In Critical Essays on Muriel Spark, edited by Joseph Hynes, 187-93. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.
Cavell, Stanley. Must We Mean What We Say? New York: Cambridge UP, 1976.
Hansen, Ron. Atticus. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Kermode, Frank. “Old Testament Capers.” Review of The Only Problem, by Muriel Spark. London Review of Books, 20 September-3 October 1984, 10-11.
Spark, Muriel. Memento Mori and The Ballad of Peckham Rye. New York: Modern Library, 1959, 1960.
________. The Only Problem. New York: Putnam, 1984. Reprint, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver’s Seat, The Only Problem. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2004.
________.A Far Cry from Kensington. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. Reprint, New York: New Directions, 2014.
________. “My Conversion.” In Critical Essays on Muriel Spark, edited by Joseph Hynes, 24-28. New York: G.K. Hall, 1992.
________. "The Only Problem." Preface to The Only Problem. In The Golden Fleece: Essays, edited by Penelope Jardine, 191-92. Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2014.
Stannard, Martin. Muriel Spark: The Biography. New York: Norton, 2010.
Updike, John. “A Romp with Job.” Review of The Only Problem, by Muriel Spark. In Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, 452-56. New York: Knopf, 1991.