I am a Muriel Spark enthusiast, so the prospect of reading and reviewing Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography excited me. My favorite of her novels, Memento Mori, is always on my nightstand for easy access. Spark’s novels, slender, darkly humorous, and ultimately serious in quality and tone, did not prepare me for the author’s lightly sketched autobiography.
Spark approaches her childhood gently, viewing it through a veil of mist and time. The incidents and vignettes of her family life are told with a mellow and distant affection. She draws the backdrop of her childhood, 1930s Edinburgh, deftly and with great nostalgia. Descriptions of the soprano who lived above them, singing nightly, the Buttercup Dairy Company, where the girl on duty would cut, pat and stamp the butter into pretty portions, and the visitors to their home and their town, including a royal couple, are compelling. The most vivid scenes center on the James Gillespie School. Spark describes her teachers, fellow students, and the course of her studies. One particular teacher, Christina Kay, captured the imagination and affection of her students. Spark was a favorite of Miss Kay and enjoyed being treated to cultural activities outside school. Spark fondly remembers attending a poetry reading by John Masefield, about the time he was Poet Laureate, and watching Anna Pavlova dance The Death of the Swan. The influence of Miss Kay proved indelible and far reaching. Spark used Miss Kay as the model for her most famous character, Miss Jean Brodie.
After leaving school, Spark attended college, taking classes in literature, taught at a private school for girls and small boys to obtain free secretarial instruction, and worked for a ladies clothing store. While socializing, she met the man she would later follow to Africa to marry, Sydney Oswald Spark. The marriage lasted seven years and produced one son. Spark later referred to the union as “disastrous”. War broke out during Spark’s time in Africa and she began to long for home. Transportation became difficult; the needs of troop movement took precedence over private travel. By the time Spark secured passage to England, her son, born in Africa, had turned six years old. She left him in the care of a convent school and traveled to England where she found work in the Foreign Office. This is perhaps the most intriguing chapter of the book. Spark worked as a secretary for a department that provided disinformation to the German people via radio. Using real German names and addresses, and German POWs as announcers, faux news stories traveled over the airwaves, embedded with negative bits of information designed to sway the German people against the Nazi government. Spark continued this work until just after the end of the war.
After the war, Spark worked for a trade magazine before becoming the editor of Poetry Review. By this time, her son traveled from Africa to Scotland to live with her parents while Spark continued on in London. Spark describes living in boarding houses and rented rooms, giving the impression of not only poverty but also instability. From the end of the war until the publication of her first novel, The Comforters, Spark lived a life on the edge. She supported herself by writing and editing books about Masefield, Mary Shelley, and Emily Brontë, and with full-time and part-time clerical and secretarial jobs, as well as sometimes having no regular job at all. Spark ate infrequently and famously took Dexedrine to inhibit her appetite. Oddly enough, becoming ill and having hallucinations provided the idea that became her first novel.
Spark covers thirty-nine years of her life in 213 pages, including an introduction and twelve pages of photographs. The coverage is shallow and told exclusively from a self-flattering point of view. Spark’s account of events in her life sometimes complements but frequently contradicts other sources of information. Spark skewers her rivals and antagonists with biting wit. At times she is judgmental, even cruel, revealing highly personal and unflattering details about those who she considered betrayers. This is particularly evident when she recounts her tenure at Poetry Review. Those who did not support her were relegated to enemy status.
If you are interested in an insightful, comprehensive retrospective of Spark’s life, you won’t find it here. This autobiography provides a peek into Muriel Spark’s remarkable mind, reveals some of the origins of her work, and details a recollection of her life in her characteristically simple but engrossing and engaging style.