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.
In Spark's latest novel, The Finishing School, pleasure and experience are cunningly balanced in a thriller about literary rivalry. Like The Comforters, it investigates the problem of writing fiction. Spark is always alert to the Zeitgeist, and the action is set in an amusingly modish context. Rowland Mahler and his