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Our Crack Tongue & Groove

muriel18.jpg You’re terrible, Muriel!

February marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Muriel Spark, an author who had no truck with the notion of “likeable” characters, even going as far as to break into narrative strands to stick the boot into her own creations.

Book lovers! Are you afflicted by the Curse of the Likeable? Warning signs include spouting phrases such as, “I couldn’t get into it because there were no likeable characters” and also citing David Nicholls’ One Day as your favourite novel because of its eminently likeable lead character, Emma Morley (who was so likeable that many readers reported feeling genuine grief when, three quarters of the way into the novel, she was abducted by space kangaroos: last sentence deliberately scrambled because of spoiler issues).

If those symptoms ring any bells then I’d advice some shock therapy in the form of Muriel Spark, because, in over 20 novels, I don’t think she presented readers with one likeable character.

Her most famous creation, after all, is Jean Brodie – the devastating schoolteacher from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – who made the Marcia Blaine School for Girls her personal fiefdom, tyrannically controlling her students’ education, and opening them up to the delights of Mussolini and Hitler.

Elsewhere the novelist’s worlds are populated by misogynists, murderers, frauds, the devil, and a whole litany of the downtrodden and resigned.

Spark herself – in godlike mode - often behaves monstrously with her creations. She was fond of pointing out that as a child she never mothered dolls, they were puppets to be commanded, and so it is with her characters.

She often steps into the narrative to describe what will become of them outside of the main story. Near the beginning of The Girls of Slender Means for instance she tosses in the fact that one of the protagonists will become a missionary before being brutally killed in Haiti; while, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one of the pupils is described as being: “lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid…”

In her first novel The Comforters, Caroline Rose, a novelist, starts hearing voices and the sound of a typewriter, the words she hears coinciding exactly with her own thoughts. An early example of postmodernism, it reads as though Rose has grasped the fact that she is stuck in a Muriel Spark novel and is desperate to clamber out before some sticky fate befalls her.

But for all of the bullying on show, Spark’s protagonists are never less than compelling, proof positive that “likeable” is not necessarily endearing.

There used to be a bloke that lived across the road from me who was raffishly handsome, amiable with anyone he bumped into, and, if you caught him up a tree rescuing a stray cat, then you wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised. He was the very definition of “likeable”. But I didn’t like him.