The first time my sweetheart came to my apartment, I made him cry with my ode-to-chili-peppers chana masala. Burn, you sweet thang. For some reason, in my early twenties I was under the impression that the world needed more pain and needed it in the form of spicy foods. You can always tone heat down with some honey or butter, or Honey Butter, but I’ve found toning down the quantity of chili is far more efficient. Though less spicy, I still like to play around with tried and true recipes, like reconstituting dry chickpeas in black tea (it’s good!).
My point isn’t the food, but that first visit. Because while I made sure that each burning seed made it into the pan, boyfriend scanned my book shelves and asked why I read so many biographies. I believe my wise answer was something like, “I don’t know. Why’s my wine glass empty?” Charmed, I’m sure. But we don’t always know why we read what we read when we read it.
Maybe biographies are what some young adults read to get a close-up of possibilities to come, roads less traveled in which the driver managed to live a full, creative life. These kinds of stories give hope when you’re living off of crunchy corn flakes unable to land a temp job with your fancy university degree. Or maybe I was developing a stalking habit to complement my staring problem caused by an over-interest in strangers’ lives?
In any case, I eventually turned back to fiction and have neglected these literary peepholes for way too long. I think the last great bio I read was Muriel Spark’s Child of Light: Mary Shelley. Now it’s time to read about the woman behind the flawless prose who also happened to be quite the beauty.
You know this autobiography is unique from page one as Spark recalls her early years with a sense of history. She grew up in Edingburgh, and if you’ve ever wondered where people bought their bread, its taste and how much it cost, or what it was like to buy butter from a mom and pop who only sold their homemade dairy products, Spark tells you. She tells you because these details have meaning. They belong as much to her story as they do to this world’s. And if you’re the kind of person who seeks a connection to the past, reading about the sounds and smells of Scotland in the 1920’s is a pure pleasure.
Raised in a working class family, Spark was a child when children were not catered to. They were expected to be quiet and mind the company of adults. She cites this upbringing as the reason why she grew to become a habitual behaviorist, an observer who prefers conversation to nature.
As a teen, she had the benefit of an outstanding education, thanks to a deceased snuff benefactor and high test scores that qualified her parents to pay a lower rate at an excellent school. Dedicated teachers had a strong impact on her life, encouraging her poetry to the extent that becoming an author was inevitable, in her hind sight. The perspective of fondness and gratitude she looks back on her life with is refreshing. She succeeded because she had a loving family and a rigorous education. That’s a score for the peasants!
Sparks wicked humor pops up only from time to time. One story about a science teacher recalls how he warned her class of the “dangers of trusting in appearances”:
…there could be people like that: no color, no taste, no smell. The moral is, avoid them; they might be poison.
She writes about the difficulties without high emotion, more as facts of life. Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown before her birth and was afraid to be alone in the house for many years. Though brief, her time in Rhodesia led to a short marriage with an unstable man who gave her a son and the last name Spark. During the years of World War II, the combination of food rationing, poverty and the bad habit young adults have of not taking good care of themselves led to a series of hallucinations, probably caused by lack of nutrition and rest. In one instance, while editing for a magazine she thought she found secret codes in Elliot’s poems.
Spark will make you long for the times of thoughtful letter writing, when the sight of a dear friend’s hand writing made her smile. Her life was filled with good friends, work and a tireless dedication to her craft. After many years of working editorial jobs while writing poetry and short stories on the side, a publisher finally commissioned her first novel. This marks a turning point and the end of this brief, but concise autobiography on the early years of this writer’s long, prolific life.
I felt, too, that the novel as an art form was essentially a variation of a poem.
Spark’s strong mind and originality lends a no-frills confidence to her work. Not once does she fall into the tropes many authors do, particularly memoirists, of writing purely from memory, taking liberties in the name of humor or drama. From the beginning, she says she’s only written of incidences that could be supported by eye witnesses or documents.
I can’t imagine anyone not having a good time with this book, but because this is Spark we’re talking about I have to qualify “good time”. This isn’t a “Weeeeee” roller coaster, laugh out loud or hold your your breath with angst giddy fun read. It’s smart and stimulating in the way a really good documentary is.