75 at 75: Joseph O’Neill on Muriel Spark

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Joseph O’Neill writes about a reading by Muriel Spark. It was recorded live at 92Y on May 22, 1993. Watch our centennial celebration of Spark here.

Posted on February 14, 2018

In 1993, Muriel Spark read from her memoir, Curriculum Vitae, and her novel The Public Image at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. Her editor at The New Yorker, Charles McGrath, delivered the opening remarks, in which he confessed that “Muriel Spark required no editing.” This impeccability applied to her public persona, too. Spark—a few weeks after this appearance, she would become Dame Muriel Spark—was seventy-two years of age at the time, and it’s apparent merely from the audio of this event that she was as dauntingly impressive in person as she was on the page.

Her speaking voice, from the distance of a quarter century, is a phonological banquet. Your first impression is of a senior member of the English Royal Family, albeit a weirdly intelligent and funny one. Then, as you listen some more, you hear a Scottish accent, in particular the “R”s in “archives,” “of course,” “Portman Square,” “years,” “bores”—all pronounced with a soft rhotic trill. Finally, you understand that this voice dates from the epoch in which acquiring skills in elocution, deportment, and etiquette was necessary for middle-class young women who aspired, to use the old phrase, to better themselves. The youthful Muriel Spark—who was born a hundred years ago on Thursday—was, of course, such a woman.

It feels apt, then, to hear Spark read about her blackly absurd experiences, in postwar London, as the general secretary of the Poetry Society. As a young divorcée poet and class upstart who was intent on publishing modern verse, she found herself the subject of bizarre accusations and scandalmongering, romantic and professional and social. Simply to name the dramatis personae—Sir Eugen Millington-Drake; Brigadier General Sir George Cockerill; William Kean Seymour—is to populate a piece of Spark fan fiction. Then there’s this passage, which caused her 92Y audience to roar with laughter:

One enraged reader who joined in the campaign against me was Dr. Marie Stopes, the famous birth control expert—on that account, much to be admired. She was resolutely opposed to my idea of poetry. Up to his death three years earlier she had been living with Lord Alfred Douglas, the fatal lover of Oscar Wilde, an arrangement which I imagine would satisfy any woman’s craving for birth control.

The material for The Public Image, from which Spark read next, had been given to her in a dream—the only time, she tells the Y audience, that this happened to her. The novel concerns a famous actress whose husband, out of envy and malevolence, destroys her carefully constructed image with a baroque scheme involving his own suicide; defamatory suicide notes; and a party, thrown by him, of such disgracefully debauched dimensions that it will irreparably damage his wife’s brand as movie star.

It’s curious, on the face of it, that Spark chose to dig out a twenty-five-year-old novel to complement Curriculum Vitae. But the two books have in common women staking a claim in a pre-feminist workplace, and the sexual and reputational precariousness of their situation, which Spark no doubt understood was unending. A woman is never out of the woods.

Joseph O’Neill’s new book of short stories, Good Trouble, appears in June.