The great Muriel Spark, who died on April 13, 2006, and whose most famous novel was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), bequeathed a great deal to her surviving readers. Spark—who, over the course of five decades, published twenty-one novels and twenty other works of fiction, poetry, biography, and criticism—has much to teach us about the virtues of omniscient narration and the limitations of first-person narration; about the pleasures of meanness; about the difference in fiction between economy and minimalism; about the relationship between art and religious belief. But what most interests me here is that which Spark can teach us about artifice and self-consciousness in fiction.
This subject has long bedeviled American fiction writers, who, on the subject of realism and metafiction, have acted less like writers open to nuance and difficulty and to the possible influence of writers superficially unlike themselves, and more like participants in Battle of the Network Stars’s tug-of-war contest. (Remember the William Gass–John Gardner 1970s point/counterpoint road show? A sample exchange from one of their public debates: Gardner: “The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.” Gass: “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.”) But maybe, if we’d paid more attention to Spark’s work—and in particular her two early novels The Comforters (1957) and Memento Mori (1959)—we wouldn’t feel the need to continually rehash these old arguments (“Realism is the literature of exhaustion”; “No, metafiction is the literature of exhaustion”; or “You’re not self-conscious enough”; “You’re too self-conscious”), to take sides and then defend the side we’ve taken, defame the side we haven’t.
It’s not that Spark makes a definitive case for one side or the other, but rather she makes the whole argument seem silly. In these two sly, spectacular novels, Spark shows us what should have been obvious all along: of course art is artificial, and of course writers must be self-conscious about it, but being self-conscious is not the end of a writer’s responsibility toward her book (as one often feels in, say, John Barth’s fiction, or Raymond Federman’s, or Ronald Sukenick’s), her characters, her readers, but is simply the most efficient, most honest, most rewarding, most self-critical, most moving, most beautiful way of doing so. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the titular girls’-school teacher, long after one of her six favorite students—Sandy—has betrayed her (Brodie knows that one of them has betrayed her, but doesn’t know which one), says to Sandy, “‘You look as if you were thinking of something else, my dear. Well, as I say, that is the whole story.’ [But] Sandy was thinking of something else. She was thinking that it was not the whole story.” This is an excellent way of talking about self-consciousness and artifice in Spark’s work: it is part of the story, but it is not the whole story.
To begin at the beginning (which is where neither of these two novels begin): Spark’s first novel, The Comforters. It’s a novel about jewels being smuggled in loaves of bread and tins of fish by aging and crippled smugglers, and it’s also a novel about diabolism, bigamy, Catholicism, and homosexuality. It features a character who, when not in contact with other characters, disappears entirely from the book because she has no private life, and it features another character (Caroline, one of the two main characters) who hears the novel itself being typed and narrated. At the novel’s opening we have Laurence (the other main character and Caroline’s on-and-off boyfriend) at his grandmother’s house, snooping around her bedroom dresser:
He counted three hairpins, eight mothballs; he found a small piece of black velvet embroidered with jet beads now loose on their thread. He reckoned the bit of stuff would be about two and a half inches by one and a half. In another drawer he found a comb with some of his grandmother’s hair on it and noted that the object was none too neat. He got some pleasure from having met with these facts, three hairpins, eight mothballs, a comb none too neat, the property of his grandmother, here in her home in Sussex, now in the present tense. That is what Laurence was like.
“It is unhealthy,” his mother had lately told him. “It’s the only unhealthy thing about your mind, the way you notice absurd details, it’s absurd of you.”
“That’s what I’m like,” Laurence said.
Like Laurence, the reader gets “some pleasure from having met with these facts.” But I’d especially like to call attention to the way the phrase “That is what Laurence was like” appears first in narration, and then, slightly modified, in Laurence’s dialogue. In other words, Spark puts words into her character’s mouth, and we know Spark puts words into her character’s mouth because she lets us read the words in the omniscient narration, to see them for ourselves, before she puts them there.
Putting words into your characters’ mouths is, of course, exactly what writers are repeatedly told they shouldn’t do, which long ago should have forced us to ask: well, who else is going to put them there? Ernest Hemingway, the Great Bwana of realism himself, famously advised writers to “write the truest sentence that you know.” As far as pieces of writerly advice go, this isn’t particularly useful. (One can imagine someone earnestly making a to-do-list of this stuff, hoping someday to be able to cross it off the list: Write the truest sentence you know? Check.) And so to help us out, Hemingway gives us a counterexample in his story “Nobody Ever Dies” in which one character tells another, “You talk like a book.” The story leaves us no doubt that this is supposed to be a bad thing. The worst thing. The least true thing.
If it is supposed to be taken for granted that, in a realistic novel, to have your characters talk like a book is to write an untrue sentence, then no wonder Spark has Caroline—who, like nearly all of Spark’s main characters, is a stand-in for Spark herself, and who is also a literary critic writing a book called Form in the Modern Novel—admit, “I’m having difficulty with the chapter on realism.” Caroline’s problem with realism is also Spark’s problem, and it’s clear that she’s both confrontational and defensive about the problem when she has Caroline tell her priest about how she can hear the novel being narrated to her: “‘But the typewriter and the voices—it is as if a writer on another plane of existence was writing a story about us.’ As soon as she had said these words, Caroline knew that she had hit on the truth. After that she said no more to him on the subject.”
Caroline doesn’t have to say anything more, because Spark makes sure the reader knows that she is the person writing the novel, that she is not only writing the dialogue but feeding her characters their lines. And one of the ways she makes sure we know this is by having omniscient narrative directly infect, or influence (depending on your feeling about such a relationship), the characters’ dialogue, as in this passage, when the narrator says about Caroline, “That did amuse her,” and then Caroline immediately says to Laurence, “That does amuse me.” Likewise, we learn that “even as he spoke Laurence knew that phrases like ‘your very own’ and ‘dear little house’ betrayed what he was leading up to, they were not his grandmother’s style,” and then his grandmother immediately says, “I know what you’re leading up to.” It’s as though the characters have access to each others’ thoughts, which of course they do, since Spark gave them the thoughts, put them in their heads, just as she put the words in their mouths to respond to (and mimic) the thoughts. She has done exactly what so many people have said writers should not do: she has her characters talk (and think) like a book, and, specifically, a Muriel Spark book.
I mention this because I know of no other writer who so self-consciously flouts this conventional wisdom, who draws so much attention to the artifice of her characters’ dialogue, who so obviously manipulates the way her characters talk, who so insistently makes clear that she’s the source of their dialogue and has no desire to pretend that her characters talk “naturally.” But why? It would be one thing if Spark were motivated by mere cleverness (as seems to be true of so many of the lesser metafictionists of the 1970s). But Spark has something else on her mind, and the key to it is the way her characters speak. When people demand that characters speak “naturally,” I take “naturally” to mean “purely”—that is, not influenced or infected by their creator. But as Spark shows, this theory needlessly hamstrings the writer, and alienates her characters. Yes, Spark self-consciously puts words in her characters’ mouths. Yes, she lets us know that she has characters mimic each other, which is to say, mimic the thoughts Spark has put in their heads, mimic the words she’s put in their mouths. But as Spark makes clear, mimicry isn’t an impediment to the truest thing, but the most direct path to it. Mimicry isn’t natural dialogue, but rather, in Spark’s hands, something superior to it. If natural dialogue distinguishes characters from one another, then mimicry shows how close they are to each other, how well they know each other. It brings them closer together.
Take, for instance, Memento Mori. In this novel a group of old friends (that is, a group of old people who have known each other and been friends, enemies, lovers, ex-lovers, etc., for a very long time) keep receiving anonymous phone calls in which the caller says, “Remember you must die,” and then hangs up. The novel is a meditation on mortality, of course, but it’s also a meditation on how the people we love and hate influence the way we think and speak. For instance, when Dame Lettie accuses Miss Taylor of speaking like another character, Miss Taylor says, “I must… have caught a lot of her ways of thought and speech.” As Spark makes clear, this is a necessary, wanted virus. The common charge against artificial dialogue is that it limits our sense of the characters, and makes the characters themselves predictable. When writers put words in their characters’ mouths, this theory goes, the characters become flat. Or, as many of her critics have complained, when Spark puts words in her characters’ mouths, she, and her books, seem removed from, and condescending to, their problems. But a careful reading of Spark’s early work suggests otherwise: the more limited and artificial the characters’ dialogue, the better they know each other, the closer they are to each other, and thus the closer we are to them. Dame Lettie and Miss Taylor make this clear when “Dame Lettie thought, She is jealous of anyone else’s having to do with Charmian [another character being told to remember she must die]. Perhaps I am, thought Miss Taylor who could read Dame Lettie’s idea.” These characters know each other—and we know them—so well, not because they talk naturally, but because they talk like their author makes them talk, and because their author makes sure we know it.
This may sound limited and knowing, but it’s not, in part because Spark uses this sense of artifice as a way to enhance, and gesture toward, a sense of mystery in each of her novels. In doing so, she also gives us another, better answer to the tired question “Do your characters ever surprise you?” On the one hand is Nabokov’s infamous line in which he compares his characters to galley slaves who do what he wants them to do. On the other hand is the more common, and more fatuous, writerly claim that one’s characters have minds of their own, and the writer is simply obeying their commands, which usually amounts to an artful example of how a writer might avoid taking responsibility for writing such a terrible book.
As with Nabokov, Spark makes it that her characters do, or at least say, what she wants them to. But in doing so, she also admits to being aware of her characters’ (and her books’) possible limitations, as in The Comforters when Caroline tells a friend, “‘The Typing Ghost has not recorded any lively details about this hospital ward. The reason is that the author doesn’t know how to describe a hospital ward. This interlude in my life is not part of the book in consequence.’ It was by making exasperating remarks like this that Caroline Rose continued to interfere with the book.”
This is a terrific, bracing moment, one that says so much about Spark and what we can learn from her. For one, it teaches us that if you are going to write a novel about the writing of a novel—and, more generally, if you’re going to write a novel that’s self-conscious about itself, a novel that trumpets its sense of artifice—then you’d better be self-deprecating about it (something that many of the aforementioned lesser metafictionists—lesser because they seem so self-pleased with their self-consciousness—never seemed to have realized). For another, it teaches us that, in writing such a self-conscious book, one must constantly make sure that the novel is leading us toward something beyond its own artifice. The conflict between Caroline and the Typing Ghost (or Spark) is really a dramatization of the novel’s, any great novel’s, main question, which is: What is going to happen? What is the significance of the mystery? Will it be solved? In the case of The Comforters, will we—and Caroline—find out who is really writing the novel, or if anyone is? In the case of Memento Mori, will we—and all the ancient characters that are to remember that they must die—find out who is making these mysterious phone calls? And if not, what is going to happen to these characters whom we know so well, and who know each other so well, because of, and not despite, the words being put into their mouths? If the seemingly omnipotent author who has made these characters (as she lets us know as often as she can) isn’t capable of solving the mystery, then who is?
Toward the end of Memento Mori, Mortimer, the detective investigating the mysterious phone calls, gets one himself: “Within a few seconds, he put down the receiver. How strange, he thought, that mine is always a woman. Everyone else gets a man on the line to them, but mine is always this woman, gentle-spoken and respectful.” And at the very end of The Comforters, Laurence is infuriated by Caroline writing a novel, writes her a letter listing his objections, then tears up the letter: “He saw the bits of paper come to rest, some on the scrubby ground, some among the deep marsh weeds, and one piece on a thorn-bush; and he did not forsee his later wonder, with a curious rejoicing, how the letter had got into the book.” It is remarkable that two novels so ruthlessly manipulated by their author, so full of artifice, could produce such a sense of genuine wonder, of genuine surprise. But we would not find this so remarkable if the novels hadn’t been so ruthlessly, and artfully, manipulated. And we would not find the sense of wonder and surprise so genuine if the artifice weren’t so expertly, and purposefully, executed. And fiction writers and readers would not be able to so completely buy into the supposed divisions in contemporary American fiction between realism and metafiction, between mimesis and self-consciousness, if we read the late, great Muriel Spark as she deserves to be read: with our minds and eyes open to the possibility that we have something to learn from the kind of fiction we think we don’t read and write, with our hearts open to the sense of wonder when we find out that we do.