One of the best things I read this past summer was a small collection called The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark. (It’s a slightly misleading title, in my opinion, although one that probably sells better than, say, “stories by Muriel Spark that contain, to varying degrees, phantasmagoric elements, such as the supernatural, a few of which have ghosts in them, although those that do don’t really follow any genre conventions you might be expecting.”)
I discovered the book in the wonderfully chaotic library at the Barn. I read it in a few hours one afternoon, the first (and last) time I ever sat in the not-too-comfortable red velvet chaise longue in the common room (go here, scroll down, second to last picture).
My favorite story in the book was “The Seraph and the Zambezi,” which integrates the fantastic with the quotidian seamlessly, even casually (in the positive sense of the word “artless”). The neat trick Spark pulls off, I think, is two-fold. First, she doesn’t bother to waste any time introducing the fantastic bits, and drops the reader right in the thick of things. Not such an unusual device, perhaps, but the great thing about reading this story is, you land smack in the middle of this odd world, and everyone—humans and angels and, for lack of a better, singular term, bored French ex-pats cursed with eternal life—is either mildly irritated or hopping mad. There’s no room for doubt; all the characters are already too annoyed.
I bought her collected stories when I got back to New York, which has a foreword, in which Spark tells the story of how she became a writer. In 1951 she saw an ad in the newspaper one Saturday for a short story contest on the subject of Christmas, with a prize of £250, which was a lot of money in those days, she writes. So she went out and bought a notebook.
I started writing a story on my favorite subjects, which at that time were angelology (the fascinating study of the order of angels) and the French poet Baudelaire. To make the story unusual, I placed it in Africa, on the River Zambesi, where I had lived for some years.
She won the contest, and became, well, Muriel Spark. Which blows my mind—such amazing writing, straight out of the gate—like this description of the Seraph who, descended from heaven, has interrupted a Christmas pageant:
This was a living body. The most noticeable thing was its constancy; it seemed not to conform to the law of perspective, but remained the same size when I approached as when I withdrew. And altogether unlike other forms of life, it had a completed look. No part was undergoing a process; the outline lacked the signs of confusion and ferment which commonly indicate living things, and this was also the principle of its beauty. The eyes took up nearly the whole of the head, extending far over the cheekbones. From the back of the head came two muscular wings which from time to time folded themselves over the eyes, making a draught of scorching air. There was hardly any neck. Another pair of wings, tough and supple, spread from below the shoulders, and a third pair extended from the calves of the legs, appearing to sustain the body. The feet looked too fragile to bear up such a concentrated degree of being.
Her first story ever! Written in a notebook on a Saturday for a contest! Should a writer be completely inspired, or wilt from the heat of envy?