Flavorwire Author Club: Muriel Spark’s ‘The Informed Air’ Is a Charming and Insightful Essay Collection

In Parul Seghal’s excellent look at Muriel Spark at The New Yorker‘s Page-Turner blog, she discusses the flurry of Spark reissues that are happening this month, calling The Informed Air, a collection of the author’s miscellany, journalism, and juvenalia, “lumpy and slightly stale.” Perhaps nonfiction isn’t Spark’s forte: Seghal also writes that the writer’s memoir, Curriculum Vitae, has a “sinister dullness.”

Having read The Informed Air, I can imagine that Spark’s memoir may, quite possibly, be rather boring. But I have to say that I found this odds-and-sods collection of her essays on life, literature, miscellany, and faith quite charming and insightful at its best. At its stalest, there are essays about why Spark is a cat person, complete with photos of her cat. (Although her cat essay, “Ailourophilia,” starts with, “If I were not a Christian I would worship the cat,” and gets better from there.) Yet perhaps The Informed Air is more necessary then her memoir. It does feel like the obsessions and interests explored in this book have served Spark’s crisp, clear, brilliant writing.

When fiction writers release odds-and-sods collection — B-sides if you will — that include their journalism and other forays into the truth, the resulting book may not, necessarily, be rich with the sort of holy-shit insight into the human condition that comes from the best fiction, but it can be a really fascinating glimpse into what makes a writer tick. (William Kennedy’s Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, while hardly necessary, is one of my favorite books by him for that very reason.)

the informed air

There’s a great deal in The Informed Air that give us some insight into how Spark became a fiction writer. She insists that she is never jealous of other writers, but at one point she did want to write Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. Two separate pieces sit near each other: “The Writing Life,” from 2001, and “How I Became a Novelist,” from 1960. In the earlier essay, she describes her movement from writing about 19th-century novelists like the Brontës and Mary Shelly to writing her first novel, the result of convalescence, a publisher’s suggestion, and her entry into the Roman Catholic Church, a decision that changed her view of life. In the latter essay, she discusses how her first book, The Commoners, made her the “new young thing,” Graham Greene- and Evelyn Waugh-approved. The second essay ends with impeccable advice: “The main thing about a story is that it should end well, and perhaps it is not too much to say that a story’s ending casts its voice, colour, tone and shade over the whole work.”

The section on literature dives into much of Spark’s early work on 19th-century literature. She wrote a book about Mary Shelley: we get to see her proposal, her biographical essay on the author, and her analysis of Frankenstein and The Last Man. She gives Frankenstein new dimensions, writing, “Her story culminates in the romantic notion of man in search of himself and in conflict with himself.”

When Spark gets to “miscellany” and “faith,” the content is all over the place. She reminisces on her travels to Venice and other romantic European cities. She writes a hilarious oddity called “Eyes and Noses,” about how noses are the superior topic to write about, the true windows to the soul. (She must’ve loved the spectacular schnozzes on men like John Updike and Adrien Brody.) Her essay on “Love” starts with The Tempest and heads towards cranky thoughts on people’s outdoor PDA. There is a short and sharp piece called “Fuzzy Young Person,” which serves as a biographical sketch of Bettina Brentano. Appreciate this paragraph, please:

Bettina lost no time in seeking out her mother’s lover, Goethe, whom, one gathers, she began by enchanting and ended by boring. She was observed, dry-eyed, by the visiting Crabb Robinson; she cultivated Beethoven, Schelling (of whom she said, ‘There is something about him I do not like, and that is his wife’), Schiller (who said of her that when she had left he felt as if he had recovered from a severe illness), and in fact everyone in politics and art.

You can figure out who Bettina was as a person with those two sentences. It’s hilarious, wicked writing. There are lots of gems like that strewn carelessly about The Informed Air. It’s its own story about how a bright girl became an essential and pithy writer, and the chance to read Spark’s inimitable voice is a pleasure.