Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 17 Jul 2019

Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark by Alan Taylor

I’m a great fan of literary biographies. Indeed, I think that literary biographies have been amongst some of the most outstanding non-fiction of recent years, and women writers – both as authors and as subjects – have been at the forefront. One thinks of Hilary Spurling and Claire Tomalin, Caroline Moorehead on Martha Gellhorn, or Hermione Lee’s wonderful biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, to name just a few.

But sometimes you don’t want an entire biography. You want to know more about a certain writer, but not that much more; you don’t necessarily want the childhood and the parents and the schooling and the teenage years…

In these instances, literary memoirs about writers seem to offer the perfect compromise. What I generally hope to find in these kinds of books is a more intimate picture of the writer concerned, ideally written by someone who is themself of some interest, and ideally done with brevity and a much lighter touch than anything approaching a full-scale biography. Great examples are rare, which is a shame.

These thoughts were prompted by a recent rereading of Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark by the journalist, literary editor and writer, Alan Taylor.

Like Spark, Taylor was born in Edinburgh. An assignment to interview Spark – then in her later years: this was 1990, and the great acclaim accruing from her novels of the 50s, 60s and 70s was some way behind her – developed into a friendship that spanned the rest of Spark’s life.

The steely determination with which Spark transformed herself from a ‘girl of slender means’, growing up in the 20s and 30s in semi-genteel poverty in Edinburgh, into a grande dame of mid-twentieth century fiction is well-documented – perhaps nowhere better than in Martin Stannard’s ‘official’ biography, which Spark herself authorised but came to loathe and ultimately did all in her power to obstruct the publication of.

But what Taylor offers is something different. It is an intimate portrait of Spark’s final decades, and of her unconventional household in Tuscany, shared with her companion of thirty-odd years, Penelope Jardine. (“We’re not lesbians,” Spark would explain to anyone rude enough to enquire, “we’re that old-fashioned thing: good friends.”)

You get to find out just enough about Spark’s disastrous marriage and her estrangement from her son; and just enough about her early schooling and Scottish life to help understand where some of the early fiction – notably, of course, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – came from. But what I like most about Taylor’s book is that he writes from a great love of her novels and manages while doing so to leave the enigma of both the novels and their creator largely intact. The iron will and ruthlessness required to become an internationally popular metaphysical novelist, capable of weaving realism, the supernatural, the philosophical and even a sort of proto-postmodernism into darkly elegant novels of unparalleled economy and feline grace, are rendered more understandable, but the transformation remains as mysterious, as enigmatic, as ever.

But memoirs of this type are deceptively difficult to pull off, I think. For to succeed, it is vital that their writers avoid overshadowing their subjects. Their aim – at least in my eyes, for this is why I read them – should always be to illuminate the main subject in a way or from a direction that hasn’t previously been achieved by conventional biographies. Two other examples that I read recently illustrated this problem well. Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri, for instance, her memoir about a friendship with Graham Greene during the years that he lived on Capri always seems to have Hazzard and her husband (Francis Steegmuller, the Flaubert scholar) in the foreground, and always rather pleased with themselves. Similarly, Judy Golding’s The Children  of Lovers, her memoir of William Golding, while superbly written eventually comes to focus more on Judy than father William and might better be described as a family memoir.

And this is why Alan Taylor’s book succeeds so well. He never loses sight of the fact that he is second fiddle to Muriel. Yes, he has a part to play, and it is an important one, and this is the story of his and Muriel’s time together: but he never loses sight of the fact that the reader is  here for Muriel Spark, and his role is entirely a supporting one. Appointment in Arezzo is a fine little addition to the literature about Muriel Spark. It only came out in 2017 and I think I have already read it three times. It’s always a good sign, I think, when books get under your skin like that.

I shall now set myself the task of finding more examples of literary memoirs about writers. I’m sure there must be others out there that I simply haven’t been able to bring to mind.


Alun Severn

July 2019


Literary memoirs about writers elsewhere on Letterpress


My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff


Insomniac City: New York, Oliver & Me by Bill Hayes


Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris by Derek Johns