My only experience with Muriel Spark prior to this collection of short stories is a first-year tutorial on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie circa 2014 – and I can only remember being pleasantly confused. It’s with that in mind that I began reading the new edition of The Complete Short Stories, released to mark the centenary of her birth this year.
Short stories are not the easiest genre to read or to write; there’s a sweet spot between brevity and being underdeveloped that is all too often missed. Yet Spark seems to have mastered them: the tales feel fully formed and are testament to her literary talent. She moves between subject matter and tone with ease, and yet her distinctly funny voice shines through in each one.
For many readers, Spark has flown under the radar, which might make the fuss over her centenary seem overstated. Born and raised in Edinburgh, however, she is one of the city’s biggest exports, and has been read by millions worldwide.
She can at times be difficult to read: a character almost larger than life, she seems to contain all manner of contradictions. As she writes in ‘The Executor’: “he said I was like a book without an index – all information, and no way of getting at it” – one wonders if she might be talking about herself.
These short stories, spanning her career, are a fantastic introduction to her work. Take ‘The Seraph and the Zambezi’, which in 1951 won a competition to be published in The Observer and marked her emergence as a fiction writer. It’s a surrealist take on magic realism that also hints at her unique religious beliefs. Or, ‘The Go-Away Bird’, one of the longest and the first story in the collection, which deftly tackles the still relevant issues of colonialism, sexism, and racism through the tale of an expatriate in Africa, inspired by her own experiences in Southern Rhodesia.
Those are just two examples of the diversity within the collection, which moves between ghost stories, mystery, social realism, the absurd, and all manner of other forms. Full of wit that speaks both to her home (“Golf is the curse of Scotland”) and the world that she explored and made her own – Spark travelled and lived abroad extensively throughout her life – the collection is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of long-term fans and Spark inductees alike. As Janice Galloway writes in her introduction to the collection, Muriel Spark: “five foot one and not small at all”.
The Complete Short Stories by Muriel Spark.