A Few Words of Indispensable Advice from Muriel Spark
"Beware of men bearing flowers."
The following is a list of advice culled from Muriel Spark’s fiction and collected in A Good Comb (New Directions). As editor Penelope Jardine puts it in the introduction:
The words are not gospel of what Muriel Spark was thinking or wishing to say, only that in the context of a story the character would very likely have said this. That doesn’t mean either that Dame Muriel did not actually think what she says here and perhaps means it very much. But above all, the words found here are meant to entertain. Entertainment was a big part of her creative process. She didn’t like moaning people, neither did she moan herself. She was a comic in serious intent.
On this, the occasion of her 100th birthday: enjoy.
An old and famous actress had once given her the following advice: If you must make any excuse make one only. More than one sounds false. None at all is best. It’s generally foolish to make excuses and give reasons. Never try to explain yourself to others, it leads to confusion. Avoid psychiatrists.
There’s nothing like work to calm your emotions.
If you choose the sort of life which has no conventional pattern you have to try to make an art of it, or it is a mess.
I have always been free with advice; but it is one thing to hand out advice and another to persuade people to accept it.
Enough is always enough.
“For concentration,” I said, “you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?”
So I passed him some very good advice that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from the lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
She decided, therefore, essentially “I am who I am” was indeed the final definition for her.
And now a word about good manners. If it can be said of you that you’ve got ‘exquisite manners,’ it’s deadly. Almost as bad as having a name for being rude. Ostentatious manners, like everything else showy, are terribly bad. If you’re a man don’t bow and scrape. Never wash your hands in the air as did a late Cardinal on my acquaintance, when trying to please someone. If you’re a girl, just show a lot of consideration to the elderly. There’s no need to jump to your feet if one of your friend’s parents comes into the room, far less your own. It looks too well trained. Try not to look very well brought up, it’s awful. At the same time, you should consider others round you. Don’t be boring as so many people are, who have exquisite manners. Never behave as if people didn’t exist.
Any correspondence that’s bloody boring, just pull the chain on it.
People should definitely not quote the Scriptures at each other.
Any system which doesn’t allow for the unexpected and the unwelcome is a rotten one.
It was in those days of the early fifties of this century that I formed the habit of insomnia. Insomnia is not bad itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? – Yes, you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time.
At night I lay awake looking at the darkness, listening to the silence, prefiguring the future, picking out of the past the scraps I had overlooked, those rejected events which now came to the foreground, large and important, so that the weight of destiny no longer bore on the current problems of my life, whatever they were at the time (for who lives without problems every day? Why waste the nights on them?)
Beware the wickedness of the righteous.
It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can slowly relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise.
Discretion is always desirable.
Children are quite psychic . . . Very intuitive. They can tune into your thoughts, it’s a bit disquieting. You should try always to give them happy memories. It’s the only thing you can leave to your children with any certainty—happy memories.
It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, and that is my advice to everyone except Parisians.
How like the death wish is to the life-urge! How urgently does an overwhelming obsession with life lead to suicide! Really, it’s best to be half-awake and half-aware. That is the happiest stage.
If you look for one thing, you frequently find another.
Be gentle. It is beautiful to be gentle with those who suffer. There is no beauty in the world so great as beauty of action. It stands, contained in its own moment, from everlasting to everlasting.
It is well, when in difficulties, to say never a word, neither black nor white. Speech is silver but silence is gold.
Now, it is my advice to anyone getting married, that they should first see the other partner when drunk. Especially a man. Drink can mellow, it can sweeten. Too much can make a person silly. Or it can make them a savage.
Beware of men bearing flowers.
Love takes time.
Things mount up inside one, and then one has to perpetrate an outrage.
I can tell you that if there’s nothing wrong with you except fat it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. If you are handed a plate of food, leave half; if you have to help yourself, take half. After a while, if you are a perfectionist, you can consume half of that again.
I must say that without trying, nobody gets anything, anywhere.
There is a time for loyalty and a time when loyalty comes to an end.
And it is my advice, when you have to refuse any request that admits of no argument, you should never give reasons or set out your objections; to do so leads to counter-reasons and counter-objections.
Inevitably, I came out with my experience that very afternoon with my agent, showing her how he had flicked at my typescript at me with his thumb and third finger. She took at intense interest in the story. “My dear,” she said, “you must acquire a pair of lorgnettes, make an occasion to see that man again, focus the glasses on him and sit looking at him through them as if he was an insect, Just look and look.”
There is a lot of nasty stuff in life, which comes breaking up our ecstasy, our inheritance. People should read more poetry and dream their dreams.
If you imagine that appearance may belie the reality, then you are wrong. Appearances are reality.
You should never take guidance from one man only. From many men, many women, yes, by watching them and hearing, and finally consulting with yourself. It’s the only way. Life should be one’s guidance director.
One should see a psychiatrist only out of boredom.
“Mustn’t come between husband and wife,” he said. “Inadvisable. You get no thanks, and they both turn on you.”
Dangerous people often seem boring.
My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is to not demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious.
For my part, it’s not that I don’t suffer fools gladly, but that I don’t suffer them at all.
“Try again tomorrow.” “One never knows. Life is like a lottery.”
It was a bungle like any other bungle. You should never let a bungle weigh on your conscience.
Knots were not necessarily created to be untied. Questions were things that sufficed in their still beauty, answering themselves.
Frankness is usually a euphemism for rudeness.
“On the question of will-power, if that is a factor, you should think of will-power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained; it is the only way to deal with will-power. (Only under sub-human stress does will-power live in time present but that is a different discourse.) I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book.”
This is an excerpt from A GOOD COMB, by Muriel Spark, edited by Penelope Jardine; copyright © 2018 by the Estate of Muriel Spark, introduction copyright © 2018 by Penelope Jardine. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt Inc..