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Dame Muriel Spark, 88; Author of `Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'

April 16, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Dame Muriel Spark, whose spare and humorous novels made her one of the most admired British writers of the postwar years, has died in Italy. She was 88.

Spark died Thursday in a hospital in Florence, said Massimiliano Dindalini, the mayor of the Tuscan village of Civitella della Chiana, where Spark had lived for almost three decades. The cause of death was not announced, but she had battled health problems for the last year.

The Scottish-born Spark wrote more than 20 novels, several volumes of poetry and short stories and well-received biographies of Mary Shelley and Emily Bronte during her long career.

But she shot to fame with her 1961 fictional work "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," a tense novel about a young teacher stirring thoughts of emancipation at an Edinburgh girls' school in staid society between the two world wars.

The story, which was printed in the New Yorker, was made into a critically acclaimed film starring Maggie Smith in 1969.

"What made her fiction in the '60s very important and exhilarating is that she seemed to have found a way of making it new," said critic David Lodge. "She uses the omniscient authorial voice, not as it appears in the classical novel, but in a very playful, whimsical, unexpected way, jerking the reader about on the end of a string. The first time I read 'Jean Brodie,' I was baffled. The technique has become familiar now, but at the time it seemed extraordinary."

In 2004, the Scottish Arts Council established a literary fellowship in Spark's name. The council's head of literature, Gavin Wallace, said Spark's death was "an ineffably sad and deep loss to our literature."

"The Girls of Slender Means," considered by many to be her best novel, was published in 1963, drawing on her experience as a young woman struggling to make ends meet while writing in London.

"I was literally starving," she once said. "It was awful."

Novelist Graham Greene gave her a monthly allowance when she was poverty-stricken, on the condition that she did not thank him or pray for him.

Like Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Spark was a Catholic convert and dealt with questions of morality and metaphysics, directly or indirectly, in her fiction.

"I don't propagate the Catholic faith, but in a funny sort of way, my books couldn't be written by anyone except a Catholic," she told London's Sunday Telegraph in 1997.

Although her father was a Scottish Jew and her mother an English Anglican, she said she was always a Catholic at heart.

"It's the only religion I view as rational -- it helps you get rid of all the other problems in your life," she told the newspaper. "There really is such a thing as beauty of morals."

Spark did not preach, however.

"I don't like messages in novels. I don't like them being used as a propaganda machine, although what drives a novelist to deal with such situations is to improve the human race's understanding of itself," she told London's Sunday Times in 1996.

Born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918, she was married at 19 to Sidney Oswald Spark, a teacher, and had a son, Robin. They settled in Rhodesia -- now Zimbabwe -- but divorced after six years.

Muriel Spark returned to London in 1944 and worked in intelligence for the Foreign Office, sending her son to live with her parents in Edinburgh. She entered the literary world as a publisher's copy editor, poet and literary critic.

Her first novel, "The Comforters" in 1957, was a critical success. After a few more books, she moved to New York to get away from London literary circles.

After "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" became a Broadway hit in 1966, she moved to Italy to get away from the literati in New York.

Spark lived in Rome and later in a converted 13th-century church in Tuscany with her friend of many years, painter and sculptor Penelope Jardine, and several cats and dogs.

Spark had quirky writing habits. She wrote longhand, with little if any revision, in spiral-bound notebooks she got from a stationer in Edinburgh. She never used a pen anyone else had touched.

She was made a dame, the female equivalent of a knight, in 1993. She received the David Cohen Literature Prize for lifetime achievement in 1997.

Spark, who is survived by her son, was buried Saturday in Tuscany.

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