Get Your Bookshelf (And Your MIND) Right With Muriel Spark

2014 has been called the Year of Reading Women; it should also be the Year of Reading Muriel Spark. Just short of a hundred years since her birth, and nearly 60 since the publication of her first novel, Spark remains as essential as ever. She cannot be reduced.

But that’s not to say a little facelift wouldn’t hurt. New Directions will be revamping and re-releasing eight of her novels here in America later this year, including Man Booker favorites The Driver’s Seat and Loitering with Intent. (My favorite part about the new editions is that when you line up all of the spines together, they make a picture. Can you do that on your Kindle? NO YOU CANNOT. I mean, not yet, who knows what they’re working on.) Not only that—the essay collectionThe Informed Air offers an illuminating ensemble of her inspirations, passions and influences.

A prolific writer until the end of her life in 2006, Spark had plenty of experience to draw from for the essays gathered in The Informed Air. Born in 1918 in Scotland, Spark spent much of her life abroad—first in Rhodesia, where she lived with her husband Sidney Oswald Spark. Mr. Spark was manic depressive and abusive; Muriel eventually fled, although she kept his name when she began writing her fictions (it has “some ingredient of life and of fun” she would say of her surname). Back in the U.K., Spark worked for the British Intelligence during WWII. Afterward, she moved to New York City, then to Italy, where she lived for the rest of her life with her secretary, Penelope Jardine. Jardine herself is responsible for the curation of the essays in The Informed Air, as well as the foreword; it is the perfect primer for newcomers.

Spark’s style is hard to pin down—it’s girlish, but girlish in the sense that it is youthful, playful, and curious, even in its wisest observations. Of course Spark would have denied this categorization, as she denied all labels: Jewish writer, Catholic writer, Scottish writer, female writer. There’s the additional danger that by calling Spark “girlish,” it might suggest that she is a so-called women’s interest writer, which could not be further from the truth. Nor is there anything elementary or juvenile about Spark’s writing. While she did not publish her first book until she was nearly forty years old, a young and unembarrassed wit persists. But her tidy storytelling contains the constant promise of darkness. The New York Times described it accurately as such: “In [Spark’s] writing, evil is never far away, violence is a regular visitor and death is a constant companion. Her themes were generally serious but nearly always handled with a feather-light touch.”

Muriel Spark also had some feelings about cats:

I cannot speak highly enough of the cat, its casual freedom of spirit, its aloof anarchism and its marvelous beauty. The Greeks, observing its fearful symmetry in motion, called the cat ailouros—a wave of the sea. Nothing restores the soul so much as the contemplation of a cat. In repose, it is like a lotus leaf. Its contentment is mystical; anatomists have still not discovered what or where the cat’s purr-box is.

(Finding reverent cat quotes in Spark books is a little bit like a really great Easter egg hunt.)

Spark was formally recognized for her contribution to literature in 1993 when she was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire—a stuffy title for a writer with such humor. Although The Informed Air (containing the rest of the cat essay, “Ailourophilia”) and the other books in the collection won’t be released until April, they’re worth preordering if you are forgetful.Othersie, keep an eye out for them when they end up on bookstore shelves—if they’re stacked correctly, they won’t be hard to find.