Translated by William D. Truini.
The best way to lead a writer’s life is time-tested and amply documented throughout history: marry a writer’s wife. Nothing frees up the time and mental space needed to devote to filling pages like living with someone who will take care of everything mundane, including the small detail of bringing home money to put food on the table, as Mercedes Barcha did when Gabriel García Márquez left journalism to focus on his novels.
From Patricia Llosa, who was so good at packing Mario Vargas Llosa’ bags, to Vera Nabokov, paradigm of the proofreader/editor/coach/administrator/agent who even licked the stamps of Vladimir’s letters, there is a wide catalog of diligent literary consorts. John Le Carré’s wife typed his novels and while doing so edited and shaped them. An unbeatable 2-for-1.
In the history of recent literature, the author who came closest to having such an efficient arrangement was Muriel Spark at the end of her life. The hyper-prolific author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who wrote more than 20 novels and as many titles of poetry, essays, memoirs and biographies, lived for the last 30 years of her life, when she had already achieved success and money, with a secretary and companion, Penelope Jardine, in an old church converted into a house in the village of Oliveto, in Tuscany.
When you take care of young children, as anyone who has done so knows, you live in a state of perpetual assault.
Spark had always had men as lovers (and a husband) and they, Penelope and Muriel, always denied that theirs was a romantic relationship or a sort of Boston marriage, a sotto voce lesbian arrangement like those of yesteryear. Theirs was, they said, simply a satisfying domestic arrangement. Whether they slept together or not, Jardine performed with almost Nabokovian mastery—Vera’s, of course—the role of the writer’s wife, diligently managing a portfolio of household and administrative tasks ranging from talking to agents to overseeing translation contracts, confirming or declining attendance at literary festivals, booking airline tickets and driving the old BMW when the two of them went on trips around Europe. Muriel always sat in the front passenger seat and would fetch little minibar bottles of cognac from the glove compartment. There is no record of Jardine receiving a salary for all these jobs. That’s the good thing about wives, they don’t get paid.
Spark is one of the great converts of English literature, a Jew by birth who embraced Catholicism, like her friends and benefactors Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. But perhaps the most significant conversion she underwent in her life was not religious but of gender. Muriel Spark managed, with hard work and tenacity, to become a male writer, a writer writer. For that, two things had to happen: she had to get that very determined and efficient partner, and she had to delocalize the care of her only son, Robin.
When she died in 2006, the writer made it clear in her will that none of her property would go to Robin, who was still alive and a painter in Edinburgh. The press picked up on that fact and gave it a good deal of coverage because a son disinherited in favor of a companion of the same sex—Jardine is still the executor of all her work—always has an intriguing, old-fashioned melodramatic component. But for those who knew the author’s life and that of her family well, it was no surprise. It was only the last chapter of a painful misunderstanding that had begun much earlier, in a time (the late 1930s) and a place (Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) so far away that they seem to belong to a different life, to some other novel.
In 1939, with World War II already underway, Muriel Spark, who had already sent a couple of stories to literary magazines, separated de facto from her husband, left her then four-year-old child in a convent of Catholic nuns in the city of Gwelo and embarked on a long and dangerous journey back to her city of birth, Edinburgh. It would take more than two years for mother and son to be reunited, but they would never live together again. The boy grew up with his grandparents, to whom Spark sent money each month for his support.
I started reading about Muriel Spark so I could write a review of one of her books reprinted in a newspaper. I learned then of the strange relationship with her son Robin and couldn’t help but feel intrigued by that part of her biography, which some would consider minor. There are several ways one can reach the conclusion that the relationship with her only son is of little significance. To push aside that fact as anecdotal may be either a reflection of an entirely patriarchal way of thinking—who cares about something like children—or of a classic feminist vindication. “Spark was much more than a mother,” and so on.
I don’t participate in either stream. I’ve always wanted to know what the people I care about do with their lives, and specifically with their families.
At the time, I had two sons of very similar ages to Robin’s when he was separated from his mother. One a little younger, one a little older. And the idea of leaving them in a convent in the care of strangers on another continent with an international conflict raging seemed delusional and excruciating to me.
On the other hand, at the time I had also been confined for four months by the pandemic with my partner and children in an apartment in Barcelona, trying, among other things, to give shape to a book and combine it with the dozens of articles I publish every month—and Spark, a fantastic manager of her own career, talked about that: nothing encourages writing as much as the need to get paid for what you write.
There were times, about 37 a day, when the possibility of being alone for a while and spending 60 uninterrupted minutes working in a state of maximum concentration seemed unattainable. In fact, it was. When you take care of young children, as anyone who has done so knows, you live in a state of perpetual assault. Whatever is going on in your head is going to be invaded and ransacked at any moment, and the knowledge that this siege is imminent makes thinking, abstracting, a furtive activity.
During the day, this difficulty in managing the hours would bring tears of frustration to my eyes, and at night I would stay awake, thinking about all the supplements that were vanishing from the newspapers I write for, about the collaborations that had been terminated, about the rates that had been reduced, about the book that I had been commissioned to write and that was not moving forward, that I would write tomorrow during the time when the younger child was napping and the older one was doing puzzles. That time, oh yes, it would be so productive.
“At least the kids are okay,” we would constantly text each other in mom chats back in those days. “We’re doing what we can,” we’d repeat to each other. “We’re where we need to be.”
Mindlessness is reached, I would write in my self-sabotage manual for beginners, when you tense up in front of the computer after ten hours of work, sensing that you should be shaping play dough with your children.
We had a fairly limited assortment of catchphrases at our fingertips and were passing them around. The words seemed more and more threadbare, more and more worn, like the typical sweater that goes from cousin to cousin in a family until the elbows grow thinner and the elastic cuffs loosen.
There was some residual truth in those words of ours, I suppose. But there was a prevailing sense of doing it all wrong, all the time. If mindfulness, the individualistic wellness theory that triumphed in the pre-pandemic years, is explained in part as the ability to fully inhabit the moment, focusing on the here and now, my experience since becoming a mother, which is heightened at times of peak stress, is just the opposite.
I suspect I wouldn’t get rich writing a manual on mindlessness, an invented discipline of which I consider myself an expert: how to always feel that you are in the wrong place, with your mind elsewhere. There and then instead of here and now. Mindlessness is reached, I would write in my self-sabotage manual for beginners, when you tense up in front of the computer after ten hours of work, sensing that you should be shaping play dough with your children, or at least making them dinner. It is peak mindlessness also to read a story to your child while at the same time eyeing the time on your cell phone to calculate if half an hour with Peter Rabbit is enough, if someone is keeping track of all this and will rule in favor of the plaintiff in the end.
Muriel Spark had married in 1937 a mathematics professor 13 years her senior whom she barely knew. His name was Sidney Oswald Spark and Muriel would soon refer to him by his initials, as if making a private joke to herself: SOS. Help, I’ve married a stranger.
Like the Spark family, SOS, who was called Solly, was also a non-practicing Jew and was born in Lithuania, as was Barry, the writer’s father. At the age of 32, he was working as a mathematics teacher in Edinburgh. They met at one of the Overseas Club dances, to which Muriel went with her only brother, Philipp. Despite the age difference and Solly’s somewhat taciturn nature, he and Muriel connected. The two liked to talk about books and listened together on the radio to the abdication of Edward VIII, who was leaving the throne for the promise of a more exotic and worldly life with Wallis Simpson. Sidney was also opening up to Muriel, crucially, the possibility of a vague future beyond provincial Edinburgh. The professor had a plan to go to Africa, to the colonies, to teach there. In Rhodesia, he began to promise Muriel, service was much cheaper. They could afford servants and she would not have to be a housekeeper.
It was a tempting offer for a girl who already saw very clearly that the life she had been assigned based on her birthplace and social class was too small for her. As a child at school, her favorite teacher, Miss Kay, had dazzled her with tales of her travels to Egypt, Rome and Switzerland. The charismatic teacher took Muriel and her friend Frances to see the latest Pavlova performance at Edinburgh’s Empire Theatre and to tea in the elegant McVities drawing room.
Spark usurped from her teacher an expression (and quite a few other things) and gave them to her most famous character, Miss Brodie, the charismatic, at once naive and manipulative teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. For Jean Brodie, as for Miss Kay, the good things were “la crème de la crème.” It’s impossible not to read those words with the accent Maggie Smith puts on in the movie that was based on the book. Smith pronounces them with a fabulous R, much more Scottish than French. “My students are the crrrème de la crrrème,” she says. And she condenses there all the pretentiousness of Jean Brodie, that woman so ridiculous and real.
After a year of sexless courtship, Muriel and Solly married, spent a wedding night that the bride would later describe as “a botch,” and went to live in Rhodesia. The first place the precarious husband and wife settled was Fort Victoria (Masvingo), a small, dusty town. The country, one of those colonial inventions of the British named after the politician and tycoon Cecil Rhodes, had only been in existence for about 50 years. Its population consisted of 1.5 million Africans and some 55,000 European settlers who behaved as if that system based on the most elementary racism was going to last forever.
When she looked at her son she saw first of all the face of that mediocre and violent man whom she outgrew in two afternoons.
A few weeks after arriving at Fort Victoria, SOS began to have problems with the educational authorities who had hired him as a teacher. He was clearly suffering from mental imbalances and was causing problems wherever he went.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” She asked, referring to his precarious mental health. “Then you wouldn’t have married me,” he replied. The logic was unappealable.
Shortly after that confession, Muriel became pregnant. He proposed an abortion, she refused, although she had no great desire to become a mother either, let alone cement the marriage she already saw as a mistake by bringing a child into the world.
Robin Spark was born on July 9, 1938 in the Bulawayo hospital after a day and a half of very hard labor. Muriel tells the story in her memoir, Curriculum Vitae, published in 1992: “I was at the end of my rope and did not expect that either I or the baby would survive. It was a miracle that we both emerged strong and healthy. I had broken a nail. My husband brought me a manicure kit and flowers. He began to show signs of a serious nervous disorder that he would continue to suffer from throughout his life. He had violent outbursts and kept fighting with everyone.”
An author as sophisticated and astute as Muriel Spark doesn’t construct such a paragraph by accident. Her only child is born. She breaks a nail. Her husband is beginning to turn into a nightmare. All condensed into 300 words, fewer than were used to explain the plot of movies when newspapers still had billboards, fewer than you’d write
in a work email to postpone a meeting and suggest a new date.
Muriel Spark biographer Martin Stannard argues in Muriel Spark. The Biography that Robin would always be for his mother a by-product of her unhappy marriage, that she was never able to separate the child from the father and that when she looked at her son she saw first of all the face of that mediocre and violent man whom she outgrew in two afternoons.
The chronology of the following years in Spark’s life is hazy and she herself contributed to the confusion in the various accounts she gave of her African years. Immediately after the child was born, Muriel’s milk stopped and she fell into what no one then, let alone a doctor in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, would have diagnosed as postpartum depression. Muriel and Solly never slept together again, or so she wrote. He went so far as to physically assault her and she hid the revolver he kept in the house, like almost all whites in Africa, for fear he would shoot her.
It was not a far-fetched assumption: Muriel had met an old school friend from Edinburgh at the same hotel where she was living at the time with Solly and the baby. A redhead like herself, Nita McEwan was known as Muriel’s doppelganger. One night, the writer heard a strange noise. In the morning, she discovered that Nita’s husband had shot and murdered her in cold blood and then killed himself. She wrote about it in the story Bang-bang You’re Dead, in which the protagonist, Sybil, survives because her husband murders the neighbor, with whom she bears a strong resemblance.
Eventually, Muriel managed to separate from SOS, at least for all practical purposes. He had a job in a military detachment in Gwelo and she combined several jobs as a typographer and secretary in several companies in Bulawayo. She shared an apartment with May Haygate, a friend who also had a small child and a husband in the Army. In December ’39, the writer tried to get a legal divorce. It was not easy. According to colonial law, neither his mental instability nor the cruelty she accused her husband of were sufficient grounds to grant her a divorce, which she would not legally obtain until four years later. Only adultery or desertion were considered valid grounds. “He was not going to leave me, so I left him,” she wrote years later. “Life in the colony was eating at my heart.”
Muriel needed to get out of Africa but, with the war raging, travel with children was strictly forbidden. So she left Robin, then four, at a convent in Gwelo and moved to the town of Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia to wait for her divorce to be finalized.
“I decided for the sake of my sanity to go to England myself first,” she explains in Curriculum Vitae, where she describes the procedure of separating from her son in a very expeditious manner, as a practical arrangement, and framing it in a context of international turmoil: “I had met some good Catholic nuns at the Dominican convent in Gwelo. Many children separated from their parents by the war were staying there as boarders. I was reassured to know that Robin would be safe in the convent.
Even my husband, who was in a mental institution, managed to assert his rights and was satisfied with the nuns at Gwelo. Robin could play with my friends’ children there. A very friendly caregiver took him home almost every day and wrote me letters of support.” It is clear that Spark has little desire to talk about the subject, but also that she feels some need to justify her decision to the reader. The nuns were good. The boy was happy. I left because I had to leave.
[Women] are expected to spill their bodily fluids on their pages and drench their novels, their essays and also their promotional interviews with confessions, the more viscous the better.
In her memoir, Spark skips with an ellipsis the two years mother and son spent on different continents: “My plan,” she continues, “was to prepare Robin to go live with my parents, who were eager to have him as soon as the war was over and the transportation ban was lifted. This worked out very well. I arrived in England in March 1944. My little son joined me in September of the following year and was received with great joy by both my parents.”
As a contemporary reader, gorging on memoirs and auto-fictional writing, I am struck by how reserved and modest Muriel Spark’s memoir is in all things son-related, how Spark keeps any hint of sentimentality so much at bay and ends up writing in almost detached way. This is not uncommon; it occurs in other memoirs by sublime writers, such as Edith Wharton, unable to apply to the narrative about her own life the narrative charm that she has in such abundance in her fiction. One perceives Spark’s keenness to settle the issue and make it clear to the reader that there was no problem there, that the child was born and was never a burden, a weight, a question mark. Poet Elaine Feinstein, who wrote the foreword for the reissue of that book, goes so far as to say that Spark “doesn’t seem very affected” by the abandonment. Feinstein, another judger.
Spark devotes many, many more pages of her memoirs to talk, for example, about her troubles at the Poetry Review, the magazine she came to edit while turning all of England’s old geezer poets against her, or about the vicissitudes of publishing her books, the arrangements she made with her publishers, and the circumstances in which she wrote some of her novels. But she does not, for example, devote a single line to her pregnancy. Why should she, on the other hand? For her, writing about what happened in her uterus would be like for a writer of the 1950s and 60s (the most fruitful years for her) to narrate her colon irrigation problems. Something dirty and rather vulgar.
Even in the early 1990s, when that memoir was published, it was still a bit odd for women writers to deal with that side of their experience. Not now, when the opposite is true and the intimacy bar for women writers is much higher than for men. They are expected to spill their bodily fluids on their pages and drench their novels, their essays and also their promotional interviews with confessions, the more viscous the better. Otherwise, the reader, and certainly the interviewer, feels that something is being withheld. That they are only getting the leftovers. I know because I am often that interviewer.
It’s a recurring theme now in literary conversation among women; young women authors like Olivia Sudjic, author of an essay titled Exposed, have written about it, about how the writer, and especially the debut writer, is expected to deliver her life in bits and pieces for the reader to make a table centerpiece with. “Writing and publishing a novel are antithetical experiences,” Sudjic writes. “The material, whatever the subject matter, is by nature personal. The author defends that material and herself from the real world. Sometimes for years, protecting against leakage, contamination, exposure. Then, when it comes time for publication (and promotion!) of the work, this showing herself out in the open, especially for a debut novelist, is a Saturn Return that can be sudden and painful, even for someone quite extroverted in her non-literary life. In addition to the multiple functional mindsets they must harbor within their own, novelists now need dissociated personalities.”
But Spark certainly wasn’t in that department in 1992, and, if she had a traumatic relationship with her only son, she felt no need to incorporate that section of her life into her literary legacy. She did not write 22 novels so that she could be spoken of as a mother and not as an author, she must have thought, resting her case on a fundamental jurisprudence. No writer was judged as a father. That has only happened much later, when Pablo Neruda and Arthur Miller, for example, have been reproached for ridding themselves of their sick children. When people like Susan Cheever have written memoirs about the figures of their fathers, those fathers who never felt that their problems with elusive literary glory had anything to do with the perfectly normal fact of having children.
After the time they spent apart, Robin and Muriel never again had a smooth relationship. There was a vague idea in the family that the boy would join his mother and go live with her in London when she had enough money, but this never materialized and resentment and a kind of mutual estrangement grew between them.
Muriel’s conversion to Catholicism widened their differences and further separated the two parts of the family. On the one hand, the Jewish Cambergs in Edinburgh. On the other, the Catholic Spark, in London and beyond. Muriel’s decision to keep the surname of that failed husband, SOS, all her life is quite common in the Anglo-Saxon world, but there has been speculation as to what interest she might have had in going through life with a name that sounded much more Anglo and less Semitic than the one she was given at birth.
In 1952, when Muriel was already a successful writer, Robin wanted to celebrate his bar mitzvah. His mother sent him the 50 pounds she had won from an Observer literary prize so that the grandparents could host a luncheon afterwards, but knowing that her ex-husband would be there—he too had returned from Rhodesia, not having gotten rich or improved his social standing as many others did in the colonies—she declined to attend. And that increased the tension between mother and son.
There were more such episodes, which only made it clear how little Muriel and Robin understood each other. Every year, she forced herself to spend a vacation with the family in the village of Morecambe, embarking on musty excursions around the Lake District. She kept arranging those vacations in the hope of achieving that which now in the realm of affluent motherhood would be called bonding, creating links, spending quality time. From those painful trips, Muriel came away with only cold feet—why go to the damn lakes, if she preferred Italy, and New York—and a growing sense that she didn’t connect at all with her own son.
She did not write 22 novels so that she could be spoken of as a mother and not as an author, she must have thought, resting her case on a fundamental jurisprudence.
One of her lovers at the time, the dilettante Howard Sergeant, came to visit her in Edinburgh when Robin was seven. Although she was a divorced adult who paid many of the expenses of that house, Muriel could not just show up with a boyfriend, so Sergeant stayed at the Caledonian Hotel, one of the most elegant in the city. The boyfriend wrote of the dynamic he saw there, “It was very interesting to see Muriel in her family circle. It was obvious that she felt out of place and that her family irritated her. Even Robin made her nervous and she showed little patience. I think this is the result of her inner conflicts. Mrs. Camberg has naturally adopted the role of Robin’s mother, who only sees Muriel as someone who visits him occasionally and gives him gifts. Robin is rude and nasty to Muriel (…). She analyzes the situation but does not resolve the conflict partly because it would mean more responsibility and partly because she prefers to be financially responsible but not to have other ties. At the same time, she resents Robin and Mrs. Camberg. There doesn’t seem to be much maternal feeling in Muriel.”
This dynamic Sergeant describes, of the grandmother playing the mother who sees the birth mother as an intruder in the child’s routines, is familiar to many women who have had to leave their children in the care of their parents and go to work in another country. As time goes by, they see how that space, the one between the grandmother and the child, the gap that would correspond to them, becomes increasingly uncomfortable and narrow. Nobody knows how to handle them. They are a nuisance.
While all this was going on, Muriel lived in London, and later also in New York, where she spent time working in an office in the premises of The New Yorker. Those years provide the most exciting and luminous section of her memoirs. From that little office she would see a red neon sign in Rockefeller Center that read Time / Life, referring to the magazine. “When it says Time, I write, when it says Life, it makes me want to go out on the town,” she told a friend. In fact, it gave her time to do both, live and write. In New York she stayed at the Beaux Arts Hotel’s aparthotel and in a month she finished one of her best novels, The Girls of Slender Means.
Meanwhile, in Edinburgh her recently widowed mother, Cissy, was looking after Robin. Could Spark have written so lightly and with such concentration if she had had to prepare two or three meals a day for a small child? Who knows, but it’s not likely. In her was an unusual combination of talent, determination, hard work and hunger for glory. That writer’s ego that women have had such a hard time cultivating. But even the writer/mother with the best-furnished ego has to stop from time to time to pick up Lego pieces from the floor. Even the most confident writer/mother is going to find that the sentences just don’t flow as they should after a sleepless night nursing a young child’s gastroenteritis.
During the period of coronavirus confinement, I continued to deliver all the articles I was asked to, forced to work harder to get paid less, as media rates had plummeted yet again—I joined the workforce at the start of the new millennium and my entire working life can be drawn as a downward spiral. I also contributed to keeping my children fed, clothed (mostly) and in reasonable emotional health.
What I didn’t do was finish the book I should have written in those months. I felt that current events had rendered it meaningless. And it was partly true. In those days, it seemed to us that nothing we’d known in the pre-Covid world would be valid afterwards, although we soon saw that as the outdoor tables reopened at restaurants and cafés and radio talk shows stopped talking about the pandemic, the same debates we had put aside steadily resumed.
I probably also abandoned that project because I lacked the courage to put it before everything else. I could, no doubt, have woken up at five in the morning and made better use of the quiet hours, as so many women writers have done, accustomed to working in silence and darkness while their children sleep, and as I myself have tried so many times. I could have done fewer puzzles, made fewer cupcakes, I could have insisted on redirecting that manuscript towards something that made sense after the coronavirus, poured all my energy into it and looked for another little somewhere to cultivate an authorial voice and an ego of my own.
Even the writer/mother with the best-furnished ego has to stop from time to time to pick up Lego pieces from the floor.
Nor was my practice of motherhood excellent. I was still a distracted mother, given to outbursts, inconsistent, not at all patient. “At least the kids are fine,” I would write back to the other mothers, when they were the ones who were down and needed a throwaway phrase. At that point in the pandemic, it was not that phrases of this type were simply worn out, they had become a crusty rag that we kept handing back and forth to each other without conviction. And there was a second part that we never wrote after “the children are fine”. The one that went, “And we’re going to settle for that?”
Muriel did exactly what so many men who have shed the burden of their children have done, defraying their expenses from afar, at best.
When Robin turned 19, she took him to Nice for a vacation, with the idea that a more relaxed environment might loosen up the relationship between the two, but that trip proved disastrous as well. The mother thought their relationship would improve now that they could talk like adults if he would shake off the provincialism of Edinburgh and become more worldly, more crème de la crème. She would invite him to spend time in London, where she would proudly parade him around at parties. However, that relationship of friendship that she had imagined between two people who were barely 20 years apart never came to pass.
In their final disagreement, the Jewish question reappeared. Both in her interviews and in her memoirs, the author always conveyed that in her home Judaism was practiced as loosely as possible, that the Cambergs were cultural Jews or “Gentile Jews”—she even wrote an autobiographical account entitled The Gentile Jewesses—with little or no attachment to religion. Robin, on the other hand, who had become very attached to Judaism, had a very different idea of the family history and wanted to cast upon his mother the idea of a shameful conversion, of self-interested self-hatred.
In 1998, Muriel’s son called the press to say that he had his grandparents’ marriage certificate, their ketubah, saying that the wedding had taken place in the East London synagogue. That such a document existed implied that both Muriel’s father and mother were Jewish by origin, and not just the father, as Muriel claimed. The London press covered such a seemingly minor story at length and with some glee because it implied that the famous writer might have been lying and because the elements “Catholic conversion” and “mother/son quarrel” garnered enough morbidity to provide a five-column topic.
With patience wearing thin, the author responded to the press, “My son got into this because he wants publicity. He doesn’t sell his horrible paintings while I on the other hand have been very successful. He has never done anything for me, except be a pain in the neck”. And after this episode she forever renounced seeing him again or having any dealings with him. Whenever she had to return to Edinburgh for work, usually to attend tributes paid to her as the most renowned living Scottish author, she stayed with Penelope Jardine in a hotel.
It would be too simplistic to conclude that Muriel Spark traded a son for a literary career. The scope of what she achieved as a writer is enormous in itself, but it is even more staggering when one considers that she was a working-class woman, peripheral by birth—her relationship with Scotland is almost as complex as the one she had with Robin—with no university training, no patrons beyond those she won through her own talent. It is easy to suppose that in addition to a full life and a successful career she would have liked to have, on top of or in the midst of all that, a good relationship with her only son. But that didn’t happen. Even in the widest lives, and hers was, not everything fits.
Excerpted from The Abandoners (Las abandonadoras) by Begoña Gómez Urzaiz. Copyright © 2022. Available from PlanetadeLibros.