LONG before Britain's current crop of punk-inspired enfants terribles were writing anything more shocking than accounts of how they spent their summer vacations, the prim-and-proper, dauntingly ladylike Muriel Spark was tastefully spinning tales of hidden perversity and unexpected violence. Spark's elegantly spare style and cool, witty voice were perfect foils to her often creepy themes.
Born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh of Scottish and English, Jewish and Protestant descent, Spark has generally been reticent about her private life, but readers who've enjoyed her fictional portraits of Edinburgh school days and life on the fringes of London's literary world may well feel they've come to know something of their author.
Now Spark has written what seems intended as the first volume of her autobiography, covering the period from her birth in 1918 to the publication of her first novel, "The Comforters," in 1957. Yet readers in search of deeper insights into her character or merely more details about her life are likely to be disappointed. The title proves an all-too-apt description of the bare-bones, neatly modular contents - except that this particular "curriculum vitae" is not quite the straightforward, businesslike summ ary of facts it first seems to be.
From the outset, Spark emphasizes the importance of facts and her ability to document them. "I felt it time to put the record straight," she announces in her introduction. "I determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses." She rightly points out that erroneous stories that find their way into print take on a life of their own. But, as the reader proceeds through this eminently verifiable life-history, a rather different kind of disingenuousness makes itse lf felt, a kind of falsification by omission.
It seems innocent enough to start with, as Spark portrays her early childhood by recalling three vital commodities: "Bread," "Butter," and "Tea." "Bread" lists the kinds of loaves available from the local bakery; "Butter" offers a charming tour of the gleaming dairy-store; "Tea," regulation instructions for preparing a cup. Things perk up when little Muriel goes to school. There she has the good fortune to be taught by Christina Kay, who would serve as the inspiration for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1961). The real Miss Kay seems to have been free from the darker qualities that Spark gave to the fictional Miss Brodie, an interesting example of Spark's gift for locating in the ordinary the potential for the bizarre.
As the story proceeds into Spark's adulthood, the tone grows increasingly defensive. While there is nothing wrong with trying to set the record straight, especially when fallacious versions of one's past have been circulating, Spark devotes what seems a disproportionate amount of space to rehashing minor disputes. But, unlike the author of "Loitering with Intent" (1981), who transformed literary squabbles and office politics into delectably malicious comedy, autobiographer Spark is short on charm and thi n on significant detail. The tone of moral self-righteousness that was ironic and funny in the mouths of her fictional narrators sounds more like plain old self-righteousness here.
Spark is a disciplined writer who started out as a poet. She had a joyful childhood, some difficult love relationships, and a hard, though exhilarating, time working to establish herself. She grappled with issues of religion (converting to Roman Catholicism in the 1950s) and experienced moments of epiphany. But few of these concerns are explored in this book, making it something of a missed opportunity.