I’ve spent a rainy spring weekend reading the new biography of Muriel Spark. Award-winning novelist, famous Catholic convert, reclusive celebrity — and an impossibly difficult woman. She fought with almost everyone who crossed her path. Gave her son to her mother to raise and then, when she could afford to parent him, bought a racehorse from the Queen instead and simply forgot about the surly adenoidal boy. Dumped lovers, publishers, spiritual advisors, housekeepers, bankers and agents on a regular basis. Fought with her biographer so that this first study could only appear after her death. ’She went throught people as through tissues of Kleenex,’ said her friend Ved Mehta.
I have a certain grudging admiration for difficult women. I may be one myself.
My friend Helena is very difficult. She repeatedly says things of herself that most of us believe should only be said of us, not by us. I had an email from her this morning.
‘I have always been a very honest person and humble too. My God has helped me become the person I am today. No matter what the cost, I have always said what I think. And what I think dear Mary, and I say this as a longstanding friend and academic colleague of unquestioned ability, is that you are not really a very good book editor. I hated your vague comments on my paper and you seem unable to appreciate the subtlety and originality of what I was saying. My work is often misunderstood and I don’t care. I know how envious others are of me and very few have any idea what my integrity has cost me. ‘
Not something you want to find in the mailbox, especially as there was no criticism of the paper in question! I just didn’t praise it extravagantly enough. My friend Helena, a monster of egotism.
My friend Toinette. Who put up photographs of herself as slim and sylph-like next to photographs of her plump and spotty teenage daughter so that the daughter (and any chance visitors) might see how lovely her mother had looked at her age. Reason for matricide.
My friend Noreen. Who has stayed 29 since 1983. And pretends that her old schoolfriends were in fact her teachers rather than her contemporaries.
Muriel Spark was a brilliant novelist — try to get your hands on a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Abbess of Crewe. Witty, satirical and gleeful. She wrote novels based on the Book of Job and a study of one of my favourite theologians, John Henry Newman. She attended Mass every Sunday but left before the sermon because she said boredom was more painful than guilt.
All morning Una has been typing a letter to a friend in Mpumalanga. She types with her two forefingers, very slowly and thumpingly. From time to time she asks me about spelling.
Una: How do you spell ‘insincerity’? And ‘beleaguered’? Or maybe ‘irreproachable’?
Mary: Who are you writing about? What is going on? What has happened?
Una: Oh just something, nothing really
Una: How do you spell ‘unimpeachable’?
Mary: As in unimpeachable virtue? What are on earth are you trying to say?
Una: I am just showing off my excellent spelling, I don’t think the sentences make too much sense. My friend Bar thinks she spells better than me but she doesn’t have you to help her.
Mary: You have MS Wordcheck.
Una: But then I might sound very snobby and American.