An autobiography in essays from an esteemed Scottish writer.
Spark (1918–2006) was a poet, essayist, literary critic and biographer, as well as a fiction writer who won acclaim for such novels as Memento Mori (1959) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Artist Penelope Jardine, Spark’s longtime companion and literary executor, has collected 63 pieces of nonfiction, including book reviews, travel essays, literary reflections and memoirs, that together offer a prismatic portrait. Known for her sharp wit and sarcasm, Spark reveals a tender side in her reminiscences of a visit with the aged poet John Masefield, whose modesty and kindness left her “with a feeling of unexpected warmth”; and her drink with Dame Edith Sitwell, “impressively grand, quite eccentric,” who “had no doubt whatsoever of what the artist in literature was about. High priests and priestesses: that’s what we all were.” From the time she started her writing career as a poet, Spark thought of herself as an artist and wanted to be recognized as one. Writing, she said, was “a sort of obsession…and the hours I spend writing my novels or stories are perhaps the happiest hours of my life.” Among her literary essays, several focus on Mary Shelley, about whom Spark wrote a biography; fellow Edinburgh native Robert Louis Stevenson; and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights: “terrible, a real Prince of Darkness. He is not only the villain, he is the hero of the book in the grand Homeric sense.” A section on faith—the half-Jewish Spark became a Roman Catholic—features two pieces on the book of Job, “surely one of the loveliest, most intricate and most ambiguous books of the Bible,” which inspired her novel The Only Problem (1984).
Spark’s haughty disdain is evident in many essays, but Jardine’s judicious selections offer glimpses, as well, of a softer, gentler writer.