08 October 2020, The Tablet

Looking for Muriel


Looking for Muriel

Muriel Spark by Ian Rankin
Sky Arts

Ian Rankin’s generous and perceptive homage to Muriel Spark (inset) was cemented by their shared affiliation to the city of their births: Edinburgh. Rankin, creator of the Edinburgh-based Inspector Rebus detective novels, had many years ago written a PhD on Spark – and attributed to her inspiration his early efforts in fiction writing. He only met her once – “when I was a fanboy” – but no other celebrity encounter apart from meeting the Rolling Stones has been more important to him. In one touching scene we see him holding to his nose the handwritten manuscript of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in one of the James Thin spiral notebooks that she always used. “Man,” he breathed, “this smells like literature.”

Instead of a conventional cradle-to-grave biography, Rankin gave this something else: the genuine pleasure of a fellow writer and a willingness to let a mystery lie. Talking to fellow enthusiasts of the novels or people who had known Spark, Rankin was engagingly reticent, a good listener. The struggle for all of them was pinning the Spark butterfly down: she was, as the critic Allan Massie put it, “a very slippery novelist indeed, like mercury”.

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