Muriel Spark was a writer of astonishing productivity, writing 22 titles which were varied in subject matter. So which one should you read first?

Written by John Self

Publication date and time: Published

Muriel Spark, the author of our August Book of the Month, Loitering with Intent (1981), is one of the distinctive geniuses of English-language fiction in the 20th century. 

She was a writer of astonishing productivity, writing 22 novels which were varied in subject matter but united by her vision. They were short – usually 100 to 150 pages in length – and dealt in the darkest themes with the lightest touch. ‘She looks upon pain and death with a dry, glittering eye,’ wrote David Lodge. 

Spark was born in Scotland and lived in Zimbabwe, London, New York and Rome, but her work was untraceable, with no precedents and no imitators. (Who would even dare?) Her books were usually funny, always surprising, and made no attempt to be realistic: yet she bottled the human spirit – typically its worst impulses – like a genie. ‘You may not call Spark’s novels lifelike,’ wrote the novelist Allan Massie, ‘but it is probable, even certain, that you will someday, sometimes, find life to be Sparklike.’ For her own part, Spark felt that she had ‘liberated the novel in many ways, showing how anything whatsoever can be narrated, any experience set down, including sheer damn cheek.’ 

Here is our guide to the best of Muriel Spark.  

Muriel Spark, 1960

If you only have time for one

Sometimes an author’s best-known novel is also their best. Spark’s sixth novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (published in 1961, eight years before the Booker Prize was established), was marked for success from the start: The New Yorker magazine set aside an entire issue to publish an abridged version, so the book had half a million readers even before publication. Miss Brodie is an eccentric teacher in an Edinburgh girls’ school in the 1930s, left alone by the school authorities to nurture her hand-picked pupils, teaching them Giotto and Tennyson while displaying other enthusiasms, like the admiring photos of fascist leaders on her classroom walls.  

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is short but packed full of shocks and betrayals, not least in how it skips forward to reveal what will become of the girls’ lives (like Rose, ‘who was later to become famous for sex’) and deaths (Joyce Emily, we learn, will die in a train accident). This is a classic Spark move: in her books you are always aware that you are reading a novel, a false construct. She had no wish to immerse the reader entirely in the story: the author was too important a figure to be ignored.

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If you’re looking for a laugh

Most of Muriel Spark’s novels are funny, but two early novels encapsulate the ripest elements of her comedy. The Ballad of Peckham Rye was the first of two novels she published in 1960 (I told you she was prolific), and opens with an impeccably succinct confrontation: 

‘Get away from here, you dirty swine,’ she said. 

‘There’s a dirty swine in every man,’ he said. 

‘Showing your face round here again,’ she said. 

‘Now Mavis, now Mavis,’ he said. 

The argument – leading to a punch in the mouth – is part of the fallout from the arrival in Peckham of Dougal Douglas, a sinister Scots charmer (‘You can’t help but like him. He’s different,’ says one local) who brings havoc to the inhabitants’ lives. As the book opens, Dougal has been run out of town with a black eye, and in the rest of the novel we find out why. There’s something devilish about him – are those sawn-off horns under his hairline, or just cysts? – and in scenes of brittle, quippish dialogue, he fills the residents with ideas, from taking Mondays off work to other things. ‘He’s a sex maniac, I was told.’ There’s a quality of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing in the workplace where Dougal settles himself, where the mundanity of the job contrasts with the strange behaviour of the employees. But then, as Dougal says – having just offered to comb his boss’s hair – ‘All human beings who breathe are a bit unnatural.’ It might be a manifesto for Spark’s work. 

Families – that great engine of the novel – rarely feature in Spark’s fiction. This may be because her own family life was uncertain: she quickly divorced her husband Sidney Oswald Spark (keeping his name because ‘it possessed some ingredient of life and fun’) and was estranged from her son, Robin. Instead, her novels are filled with surrogate families: the school in Miss Jean Brodie, the workplace in Peckham Rye, and in The Girls of Slender Means (1963), the May of Teck Club, a residential institution in London for young ladies at the end of the Second World War. The girls there are down-at-heel but relentlessly cheerful, and their lives are contrasted with three older ladies who have never left the Club, and who resent the changes it has experienced. In this way, Spark reflects the political upheavals in Britain after the war, when the country elected its first Labour government. Some of the funniest moments come from Spark’s salty skewering of the publishing industry through the character of Jane, whose employer, a publisher, has her ‘do some of the detective work on new authors […] to find out their financial circumstances and psychologically weak points so that he could deal with them to a publisher’s best advantage.’ This is – as we shall see – not the only time in Spark’s career she would bite the hand that fed her. 

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

If you fancy something a little darker

There’s plenty of black humour in the books already mentioned, but The Driver’s Seat (1970) is probably Spark’s darkest novel of all, concerning a lonely woman, Lise, whom we first meet arguing with a sales assistant when she’s told that the dress she is trying on repels stains. Lise, we discover, does not want to repel the unwelcome: she wants to absorb it. The plot – to describe without spoilers – follows Lise as she travels abroad in search of destruction. It’s an eccentric and disturbing story, with Brodie-like flashes into the future, and all the more powerful because of its brevity – barely 100 pages – as Spark reduces Lise’s story to its essence. There is no scene-setting: the reader is jolted straight into Lise’s weird world. It feels as though Spark has taken Kurt Vonnegut’s advice, to ‘start as close to the end as possible’, and in The Driver’s Seat, we – and Lise – are always very near the end. 

Spark considered The Driver’s Seat to be her best-written novel, and it has become a firm cult favourite, its reputation having risen to the point that in 2010 it was shortlisted for The Lost Man Booker of 1970, a retrospective Booker Prize for novels that had narrowly missed eligibility at the time.  

A lighter sort of darkness filled Spark’s third novel Memento Mori (1959), where once more death was all the rage. Here, the luckless residents of a Kensington-based medical ward for the elderly are shocked to receive anonymous telephone calls, where the speaker says only, ‘Remember you must die’. Experienced readers of Spark may guess that there is no logical explanation for this – and that the warning is as likely to come from the author, reminding her characters who’s in charge, as it is from a stranger. But the joy – farce meets tragedy and a poignant report on old age – is all in the telling. 

The Driver's Seat and Memento Mori

If you’d like to dig up forgotten gems

Appreciation of Spark’s work tends to focus on the string of major works of the 1960s that made her name, but there is brilliance both before and after. Her debut novel, The Comforters (1957), showed from the beginning that hers was a unique talent: it is about a woman, Caroline, who keeps hearing typing noises and becomes aware that she is a character in a novel. It was flavoured by Spark’s conversion to Catholicism – hence its reflections on power, creation and control – and was praised by two fellow convert-novelists, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. (Waugh remained a fan for the rest of his life, and in 1961 sent her a copy of his last novel, Unconditional Surrender, dedicated ‘For Muriel Spark in her prime from Evelyn Waugh in his decline’). 

But if Spark’s books were off-the-wall from the first day, then in the 1970s she entered an even more experimental phase, influenced by Alain Robbe-Grillet – Spark admired his ‘obsession with exactitude’ – and the coolness and impersonality of the French nouveau roman. Spark’s work was never didactic – ‘I don’t moralise in my novels,’ she once said. ‘Maybe I should but I don’t’ – but these novels were even more dispassionate and left the reader to their own devices. Alongside The Driver’s Seat, the best novel from this period is The Hothouse by the East River (1973), about a well-off couple in New York who become convinced that a man they betrayed during the Second World War has come back from the dead to exact revenge. The result might be Spark’s strangest book of all, blending the existential despair of William Golding’s Pincher Martin with the comedy of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman – and one other secret that unites those books. ‘Mrs Spark does not want to know us any more,’ wrote one critic reviewing it. ‘She has left us all behind.’ But Spark, of course, wanted readers to follow her, provided they were willing to get up on their hind legs and make the effort. 

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

If you’d like to discover her sharpest satire

Spark’s Booker Prize career was bookended by two satires on celebrity and the writing life. The Public Image (1968) was considered for the very first Booker Prize in 1969, though it was booted out by the judges when the formidable Rebecca West deemed it ‘clever but too playful’. Clever and (sufficiently) playful it is, telling the story of film star Annabel Christopher who becomes tangled up in a blackmail plot. Annabel, writes Spark with typical sangfroid, ‘had no means of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid, for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that it thrives on the absence of a looking-glass’. Some characters fare even worse, like the journalists who interview Annabel and become obsessed with the trivia of her life. This is a book about the creation of a public persona and how, as James Salter put it, ‘There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see’. The second half of The Public Image has a pretty pacy plot by Spark’s standards, so that when she said of this book, ‘When I woke up every detail was in my head. I just wrote it all down,’ we can almost believe her. 

Spark’s 1981 novel Loitering with Intent – which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize alongside literary giant Doris Lessing and newcomers Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie – is, in common with her other late novels, gentler and warmer than her early fiction. But her eye is as devilish as ever, this time with a focus on the world of books in what is her most autobiographical story. Her heroine Fleur Talbot is writing her first novel and takes a job as secretary to the Autobiographical Association to support herself as she writes. What Fleur suspects about her boss leads to a twisted tale of detection and missing manuscripts, but half the fun is in the insights we get into Spark’s own life: Fleur’s experiences at the Autobiographical Association are based on the Poetry Society and the time in the late 1940s when Spark was, as she put it in her 1992 memoir Curriculum Vitae, ‘employed, or rather embroiled, in that then riotous establishment’.  

Loitering with Intent also gives us some of Spark’s own views on writing, disguised by Fleur’s voice. ‘I’ve come to learn for myself how little one needs, when writing, to convey the lot, and how a lot of words, on the other hand, can convey so little.’ No one who has experienced the depths of Spark’s brevity could disagree. 

The Public Image by Muriel Spark