Appointment In Arezzo: A Friendship With Muriel Spark

Alan Taylor

Polygon, £12.99

Review by Brian Morton

MURIEL Spark wrote short books about big subjects. History – or maybe just an acute grasp of mass psychology – bears in heavily on almost every one of them, whether it’s the totalitarian mind-set in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or the sanctification of mendacity in The Abbess of Crewe. Something of that same grasp and sense of history has transferred to this affectionate but clear-sighted memoir.

Appointment in Arezzo is a short book about a small woman, who nevertheless – a word we’ll come back to – extended, page by page, what fiction was capable of in the 20th century. She got small thanks for it in her native country. What she got instead was a peculiarly Scotch brand of obloquy, Spark was accused of being a textbook self-hating Jew; of becoming a spiritual tourist; of using one lucky break to fund a sunny exile and of forgetting her “duty” to write about Scottish scenes and themes; and when all that failed, she was simply hissed at for being A Bad Mother.

Taylor takes on all these issues with a directness and objectivity that is sometimes missing from Martin Stannard’s official biography. Nevertheless – there it is again – he manages to create a mosaic portrait of Spark, who is often offstage in his account, that is alert and alive and almost novelistically nuanced. His introductory chapter would serve a causal reader or student ideally as an introduction to Spark and her work. What follows is more complex and not at all what it says on the tin. For just as Spark used small and sometimes exiguous incidents to explore the largest movements of modern history, so Taylor has used the course of his friendship with the writer, all the way from the first journalistic meeting in Arezzo to Spark’s death in 2006, to shape an elegant critique of Scotland and its culture at their most contradictory and self-harming.

It was precisely that culture that framed Spark as a poet and novelist. Blaise Pascal didn’t invest more in “cependant” and “néanmoins” than did Spark in “nevertheless”. It is a word that needs to be heard as spoken by a certain kind of tannin-mouthed Edinburgh lady who has weighed up all the publicly available wisdom of the world and is about to demolish it with a single “nivethelace”. When writing about her exile from Scotland in What Images Return, she said that she found “much of my literary composition is based on the nevertheless idea. I act upon it. It was on the nevertheless principle that I turned Catholic”. Hence Pascal.

Spark’s apparently multiple identities – she is represented in the Penguin Books of Scottish and English, and Jewish short stories; she was both Catholic and adoptively Italian and naturally cosmopolitan – don’t disguise the inescapable fact that in formation and in intellectual character she was quintessentially Scottish, and never forgot it for a moment. Taylor’s shared cultural experience and some of his specific experiences, like picketing Morningside Public Library while employed there, provided the glue for their friendship. After that first appointment, which was to gather material for a newspaper article, he was asked by Spark’s companion if he and his family would house-sit for a summer while Spark and Penny motored off. It’s significant that the subject of Appointment in Arezzo was booked elsewhere during that first chapter of acquaintance. There was an overlap, of course, in order to show the Taylors the ropes and during those few days together Spark rescues Taylor’s son from a dry well in the garden. Or rather, and much more tellingly, she shows the boy how to rescue himself. It’s a cherished family moment, and a much-repeated tale. Like all such, it has acquired fresh accretions. The boy’s sister seems to remember that there was a thick black snake down there as well. Of course. We need that snake just like we need this story. If Muriel Spark did anything for the wider Scots family, it was to show us a way out of the dark, dry, toxic well of Calvinism.

All the fuller biographical detail is available in Stannard, but this more selective presentation delivers a more convincing and lifelike portrait than the official record. Friendship, or propinquity, is often seen as disqualification in biography, yet it was Walter Scott’s son in law who wrote the most lifelike likeness of the novelist, and it was Roy Harrod’s slim study rather than Robert Skidelsky multi-storey blockbuster that told the real truth about John Maynard Keynes, even if it overlooked many of the foibles.

It says “POETA” on Muriel Spark’s grave, an entirely justified fulfilment of the moment decades before when she was crowned Queen of Poetry in Edinburgh. Taylor presents her now as almost the anti-type to Hugh MacDiarmid – she gave no sense of ever having read him – whose effortful Scottishness is still unfortunately with us, in politics and in writing, as a cultural identifier. Spark is much closer to another Edinburgh poet-novelist who chose English and exile as his means. Like Stevenson, she is buried far from home but her centenary year finds her living again, vividly and bitingly, and beautifully in her native soil and in this marvellous little book.