Pamela Norris

Writers’ War

The Finishing School


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MURIEL SPARK STARTED her writing life as a poet and literary biographer, and was only reluctantly persuaded to try her hand at fiction. As she describes in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, she had first ‘to work out a novel-writing process peculiar to [herself]’, a method that would take into account her belief that a good novel was ‘essentially an extension of poetry’. In her first novel, The Comforters, she tackled the problem of fiction head on, exploring the relationship between a writer and her characters through the dilemma of Caroline Rose, a young woman haunted by the tapping of typewriter keys. The Comforters, published in 1957, was an immediate success, introducing Spark as a dazzlingly original and entertaining writer. It also established the parameters within which she was to develop her unique vision of the world in a stream of novels and short stories: the interplay between good and evil, often worked out w i t h the confines of a small community; the possibility of mental or emotional breakdown for one or more of the characters; a suggestion of menace, which keeps the reader in agreeable suspense; and an authorial voice which is typically prescient, sceptical and ironic. Spark’s novels are generally rather short, composed of telling detail, pared-down dialogue, and startling events which hold the reader’s attention from the very first page. The economy and elegance of this approach have won her a well-deserved reputation as a stylist, but, as she explained in a recent interview, her primary aim is ‘to give pleasure and experience . . . to open windows and doors’ for the reader.

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