To Disturb or Not to Disturb? by Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson

To Disturb or Not to Disturb?

 

Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t be doing this diary because I’m on a writers’ retreat in Italy in order to concentrate, without interruption, on a book about Muriel Spark. Which means, of course, that I’m longing for interruption. I’ve no idea what to do with the vast expanse of tractionless time I have been awarded, in which my bed is made by staff while I take a morning swim, and my very eating and drinking, as Coleridge said of pampered Wordsworth, is done for me.

Now I know what it is like to have a wife, like Mary Wordsworth, who ensures that the genius in the study never answers the door or goes into the kitchen to get his own plate. And I have discovered that I like answering the door and getting my own plate, because it is while I am doing these irritating little things that much of my writing takes place – not the sweating out of paragraphs, of course, but the episodes of clarity that bring it all together. In other words, the so-called interruptions shape the rhythms of my mind. Having a raft of people attend to my needs makes me feel like the housekeeper Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, who, when she is given a Teasmade as a Christmas present, wails in distress that she loves ‘the whole tea-making thing … the playful splash of the tea as it hits the bottom of the cup, the thrill of adding the milk and watching it settle for a moment before it filters slowly down through the cup’.

Aside from battling with the luxuries of my new life, there is the business of the Other People on the retreat. Writers tend to do what we do because we are bad at joining in. I’ve had jobs involving colleagues that have not been a success, and so generally avoid situations like this, which require team spirit.

*

That said, the experience of being in an isolated community is ideally suited to thinking about Muriel Spark, because Spark liked nothing better than an isolated community. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957), was written at the monastic retreat where she was recovering from a breakdown, and in her second novel, Robinson (1958), the survivors of a plane crash are thrown together on an island. Spark also liked her communities to consist, as mine does, only of women, because there is a particular comedy to the way in which women pretend to be nicer than we are. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie takes place in the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, while The Girls of Slender Means is set in the May of Teck Club in Kensington, established for ‘the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London’. Loitering with Intent is organised around Sir Quentin Oliver’s Autobiographical Association, and the events in The Abbess of Crewe are staged in a Catholic convent which has been bugged, Watergate-style. Spark’s final novel, The Finishing School, in which a novelist with writer’s block develops a pathological jealousy of his star student, essentially describes the dynamics of the writers’ retreat. Those who are speeding ahead with their writing like to gloat during table talk, while the rest quietly despair; some writers spend the days watching Netflix with the blinds drawn, while others, as Spark would have done, observe with amusement how the various people arrange themselves.

I’m trying to channel Spark so I can see the world as she did. This is rule number one for a biographer. The challenge is that Spark had what she called ‘X-ray eyes’. She saw through everything. She was, in addition, an avid listener with a strong auditory memory. In 1953, she recalled having heard, twenty years earlier, John Masefield read his poetry: ‘He read as he might have read someone else’s work, and that is a very difficult thing for a poet to do.’ From this memory, Spark drew her understanding of how Masefield preserved ‘himself as an artist’, as she preserved herself too.

She liked idioms (‘la crème de la crème’) and tuning into speech patterns. Spark’s characters are carved out of their own platitudes, so conversation in her novels doesn’t go far: ‘I had always found’, says Fleur Talbot in Loitering with Intent, ‘that people who said “It’s a moral question” in that precise, pursed way that Sir Quentin said it were out to justify themselves, and were generally up to no good.’ As a child in Edinburgh, Spark was mortified by the foreign speech of her English mother, who would announce at the school gates that ‘I have some shopping to do’ rather than ‘I’ve got to get the messages’, and instructed her daughter to ‘turn off the tap’ instead of ‘turn off the well’.

Always drawn to the eccentricities of age, Spark was fascinated when her grandmother, having suffered a stroke, lost her powers of ‘relevant speech’, so that Spark’s brother became ‘dressing table’ and her school became ‘laryngitis’. Reading and listening, Spark believed, were forms of code-breaking.

Recording a visit to Masefield in a 1950 diary entry, Spark noted her impressions of the poet’s wife:

She was a small, kindly person, very weird-looking, with an ear-apparatus and glasses that looked as if they covered one glass eye – at least one eye had a special lens that magnified the eye to look like a marble. She was dressed in an antique black hat trimmed with velvet, a red jersey and shortish old-fashioned grey skirt. Her voice was rather appalling, being due no doubt to some deafness. I liked her.

Spark’s genius in her writing was to describe only what people looked and sounded like; to discover how they ‘felt’, she insisted, you should ‘read between the lines’.

*

I am getting a great deal of private amusement from the sartorial habits and speech patterns of my cohorts, who are all American. But nothing sounds as funny, I realise, as my own appalling voice and the banalities I hear myself reciting again and again. And while my ‘British’ accent is generally impersonated (making me sound like Margaret Thatcher), my vocabulary often requires decoding. What, for example, do I mean by ‘swimming costume’? Is this something one might wear to a masquerade ball? If an English biographer appears as a comic character in a novel sometime soon, there’s no need to read between the lines.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter