'Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark' by Alan Taylor (Polygon)
There is a church set back from Morningside Road near the post office. The famous clock is a bit further away but not too far. No longer required for its original purpose, the building is now a pizza restaurant run by one of the popular chains. While they wait for their food, customers can watch the chefs run hither and thither in front of the hot ovens like poor Mary MacGregor or they can look at the pictures of Jean Brodie and her girls high on the walls, their presence presumably meant to establish a local connection and pre-empt charges of bland uniformity. It's a pleasant enough setting but much better, you would think, to have enjoyed a meal in Italy with Muriel Spark herself.
Alan Taylor was so lucky. He met Spark – he calls her Muriel because she was his friend – for the first time in July 1990 at the Continentale Hotel in Arezzo. He was there on assignment, she arrived wearing a characteristically vibrant yellow and black dress. Things were easy between the two, a fact Spark's friend and housemate Penelope Jardine attributed to 'blood speaking to blood.'
The following summer, Taylor and his family agreed to stay at Spark and Jardine's San Giovanni home while the pair made one of their frequent car trips across Europe. It was a stay marked by comical mishaps. Shortly after arrival, Taylor's son got himself stuck in an old well and Spark had to help him out. Unbeknownst to him, a snake had been close by, but they were such a common sight that venom serum was kept in the fridge. Wolf-like dogs with bandit mentalities were the real masters of the scene and their night-time commotion sometimes had to be quelled by means of dousing them with water.
Seven cats, including 'One-Eyed Riley,' roamed in their haughty way. It was Riley with the missing eye who attacked Taylor in the kitchen while he was dealing with a swarming invasion of black ants coming at his bolognaise sauce. Other incidents included a foot infection that required medical attention and a flood caused by accidentally switching on the water pump. The relationship prospered.
Spark's highest loyalty, however, was to a refined artistic calling that has few equivalents in the grey, Presbyterian run of Scottish history. Her career found its springtime outside Scotland, leading some to conclude she had rejected the country of her birth. This perception is represented by a mutton-headed quote from Robin Jenkins, but Taylor is dismissive. That's not to say Spark found Scotland unproblematic. According to Taylor, she thought it 'too small, too inward-looking, too mindful of other people's business, too mean-spirited, too unreceptive to the wider world.'
Alastair Reid, her friend at the New Yorker, also felt 'more at ease with his native land when he was no longer living there.' And yet, despite the multitude of personalities she subsequently oversaw, she was never anything but 'Scottish by formation.' Her admiration for the Border ballads was unlimited and there was a hint of the miraculous in Spark's belief that Edinburgh was where she was first understood. But she refused to accept that her world should be Scotland and nothing else. Taylor refrains from speculating about how their friendship might have allowed Spark to keep Scotland at a distance she found comfortable. Nevertheless, there is a palpable sense of homecoming attached to his account of her triumphant appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2004.
One reason she visited Scotland infrequently was her fear of family confrontation. Difficult relationships, particularly with men, were scattered about Spark's life like unread books. The relationship that undoubtedly caused her most pain was the one with her son, Robin. A significant part of his childhood was spent with Spark's parents in Edinburgh, although she provided financial support well into adulthood.
Early in Robin's life, Spark had left the family home in Rhodesia to escape her husband and Sydney Oswald Spark subsequently did all he could to stop Robin joining his mother in London after the war. Taylor is unsparing: 'Sydney's obsessiveness, his paranoia, his victimhood, was the inheritance he passed on to his son.' Time seemed to have a souring effect on an already difficult situation. In one letter, Spark offered to visit Robin in Edinburgh but only if she could 'be absolutely sure there would be no more unpleasantness and abuse.'
Robin never accepted any offers to visit his mother at San Giovanni. A disagreement about the family's Jewish heritage started in 1981 and ran, with much public fuss, until Spark's death in 2006. Robin interrogated her with reference to obscure religious edicts in such a way as to induce queasiness. Finally, she lost her patience and told him 'there's no use writing to me with all that pompous bureaucratic religiosity as if you were John Knox in drag.' At one point, Taylor advised her to decline all interviews lest the issue should be raised and suggested she refuse to talk about Robin while promoting her books.
At no stage does Taylor find it remarkable that he so quickly developed a close relationship with one of the 20th century's great writers, but this can be taken as proof of the genuine nature of the relationship and Taylor's good faith in writing about it. 'Appointment in Arezzo' is a warm and perfectly proportioned tribute to a friend now sadly gone. If Taylor's objective was to defend Spark against the charges of distant onlookers and mythomaniacs, then he can count the book a happy success. His Spark, his Muriel, is a bright swish of concealment, generosity, intrigue, vulnerability and gossip.
There is something of Louisa Jepp, the diamond-smuggling grandmother from Spark's first novel 'The Comforters,' about her. She is given to anger on behalf of her friend Iris Murdoch at the memoirs written by her husband, John Bayley, believing them to be 'exploitative and mercenary and self-serving.' She is hospitable rather than hostile, often organising parties when Taylor came to visit. Many of their conversations seem to have taken place with a glass of wine in hand and a meal before them on the table.
Taylor's book doesn't aspire to be a biography, but neither is it strictly an account of Spark's final 15 years. It is a balance some readers will find unsatisfactory, if only in the sense of thinking he might be well-placed to write an account of her life that would surpass Martin Stannard's official biography. If he is reluctant to do so then perhaps it is to protect the delicate memories of the Spark he knew rather than have her overwhelmed by the historical figure. 'Whenever I want to hear her speak,' Taylor writes touchingly, 'I open a page at random of any of her novels and there she is, loud and clear, note perfect.'
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