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Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction.

Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction. Ed. By MARTIN MCQUILLAN. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave. 2002. xi+245 pp. 45 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-333-79414-1.

As Martin McQuillan suggests, a theoretical approach to Muriel Spark's work is 'long overdue' (p. 7). Spark criticism is painfully thin for such an important figure (arguably the first British postmodern writer) and, although she can claim Malcolm Bradbury, Helene Cixous, Frank Kermode, David Lodge, Patrick Parrinder, and Patricia Waugh among her fans, none has written a book on her. Of the books that have appeared, the best are uninformed by the influential theories of gender, race, and deconstruction. McQuillan seeks to rectify this with essays on each area, by his long introduction and his own piece on the relationship between autobiography and fiction, by reprinting two Cixous reviews, and finally by his interview with Spark. It is an admirable project and a labour of love. The difficulty is the frequent mismatch between what Spark herself says and the enthusiastic attempts to nail Derrida, Bataille, and the others onto her literary practice.

The book's impatience with the old guard is attractive. Its point of departure is the tendency of earlier critics to label Spark a 'Catholic writer' and to deal with the fiction only in terms of theology. 'Spark', he insists, 'writes fictions (for God's sake) not theological pamphlets' (p. 4), and the stress throughout is on the deconstructive nature of her work: 'Her novels are a conductor for all the signs and meanings in circulation in the contemporary scene' (p. 5). Fair enough. Graham Greene's caveat (never alluded to) that he was not a Catholic writer but a writer who happened to be a Catholic applies equally to Spark. Nevertheless (as Spark would say), the faith remains, difficult as it is to maintain amid humanist, anthropomorphic notions of a benevolent God, and theology has been seen to occupy for these writers the space most of the contributors here would wish to assign to literary and cultural theory. Some others, notably Bryan Cheyette, Alan Freeman, and Cixous, take more seriously Spark's belief in an absent, ineffable, and immanent presence and deal with this as the point of departure generating the endless anteriority and doubleness of human discourse.

On the one hand, then, we have essays (by McQuillan, Jeremy Idle, Willy Maly, and Nicholas Royle) which assault the 'dated' (p. 7) criticism of Bradbury, Lodge, Parrinder, and Patricia Waugh. On the other, there are those (by Susan Sellers, Judith Roof, Eleonor Byrne, Alan Freeman, Patricia Duncker, and Julian Wolfreys) which take Spark texts and analyse them in terms of psychoanalytical, queer, postcolonial, genre, and deconstructive theory. In between stand Cheyette and (oddly) Cixous--but even Freeman assumes that 'Spark's characters seek to write their lives, all the while enacting a life sentence of a higher author's devising' (p. 138).

Along the way there are interesting observations: by Sellers on narcissism; by Roof on fetishism; by Duncker on the status of Lucy Snowe and Sandy Stranger as secretive outsiders, the 'calculating observer' (p. 75) in implicitly transgressive and lesbian texts; by Cheyette on conversion as subversion, Byrne on the 'sexually predatory environment' (p. 120) of the African stories, and Wolfrey on the Gothic in Spark's rendering of Mary Shelley's life. Idle offers intriguing parallels between Spark's 'interest in extravagance and the useless' (p. 143) and Bataille's The Accursed Share, but here we return to the old problem (the only problem?) of theology. Idle simply casts it out. Ruth Whittaker's book is lampooned as of 'the Meringue School of literary criticism' (p. 150). The widespread assumption that Spark views life sub specie aeternitatis (rendered here as 'aeternitas') is regarded as 'flimsy' (p. 148).Other contributors, however, appear stuck on the horns of biographical fallacy. Even Maley, often ingenious and convincing, cannot escape it. His objects of attack are Joseph Hynes (who produced a similar compilation in 1992) and Parrinder, arguing against them that Spark's writing is 'affirmative, open, playful and determinedly materialistic' (p. 170), that the paucity of theorized criticism has neutralized her radicalism, and that 'in principle there is no disagreement between [her] and Derrida' (p. 171). All this is good, but to support this position he defines her identity largely in terms of biographical information: 'Jewish by birth, Presbyterian by schooling, Catholic by choice, anarchist by ethos, deconstructive despite herself, and postmodernist before her time.' Again, apart from the first category (Spark denies that she is 'Jewish by birth', as Cheyette is at pains to emphasize), this is engaging. Spark has described herself as constitutionally an exile. She is thus seen 'as at once wandering Jew, cloistered Catholic, and posh Presbyterian' (p. 173). Yet somehow this impressionistic deployment of cultural stereotypes seems to sit uneasily with deconstruction.

Perhaps it does not, and perhaps McQuillan hoped to marry these approaches by interrogating Spark. But he does not appear to get the answers he seeks. The interview was granted on the grounds that discussion would concentrate on her work rather than her life. As he admits, however, 'we talked of little else' (p. 29). His book, then, has difficulty in dealing in an entirely theorized fashion with a writer who, when theorists attempt to nail her down, gets up and walks away with the nail. McQuillan's literary categories seem of little interest to her. The life will not stay out of the work. Spark rightly emerges as a disturbing author who enters the sign systems of conventional representation in order to disrupt them. Ultimately, however, the book as a whole is diffuse. Perhaps this is (dare one say it?) the intention. But the writing is too often self-important and opaque, absurdly dismissive of critics such as Waugh. Cixous towers above the rest in terms of fruitful intellectual complexity and her capacity to manage language, yet her approach appears to contradict the remit of the volume. She has no difficulty discussing Spark's novels in terms of the 'irreparable duplicity of the universe, where ordinary things co-exist with supernatural ones in hideous harmony' (p. 205). In fact, there is little to separate her views from those of Whittaker, Parrinder, Waugh, or Kermode-for they are sensible views, alive to the metaphors of metaphysics and to the parallel between a putative God's putative relationship with his creation, and to the author's with hers.


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Author:Stannard, Martin
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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