Muriel Spark – The Public Image

Muriel Spark is, was, one of the finest writers of the last century. I would like to say one of the most important but, as the majority of writers today still think that novels should use either Henry James or Ernest Hemingway (or terrifyingly both) as a model, that is more difficult to argue. Spark was a master of technique; her novels flit through time and space in incredibly complicated shapes yet are often seen as being light, easy reads. She also had one of the darkest senses of humour of any British novelist and an all too rare ability to write novels consisting of less than 180 pages. The phrase ‘short, sharp shock’ could have been coined for her work. It wasn’t, but it could have been. It is very possible that if she were born a man she would be more widely acknowledged as one of the great twentieth century writers.

So it is something of a disappointment to have to report that The Public Image didn’t blow me away. If only the Booker judges had waited a year for The Driver’s Seat, or four for The Hothouse by the East River, or had been around in 1963 for The Girls of Slender Means, or paid as much attention to Spark as they did Murdoch over the years. If they had I wouldn’t be so desperately praising Spark now, knowing that this is my only chance. The Public Image was her only novel to be shortlisted for the prize. Pity. Because…

The Public Image has its good points; the dialogue is very good, it is tightly written, but…

The novel is about a young film star, Annabel Christopher, who is on the brink of real success and her husband, Frederick, a failure as an actor and a middling writer of scripts who becomes increasingly obsessed with Annabel’s public image. He sees her, and in particular her public image, as something to despise and eventually this hatred spills into action. Sadly the book is not much less flat than that summary suggests. It lacks the spikiness of most Spark novels. It lacks…

In a nutshell, Spark is easily one of the best writers to have been shortlisted for the Booker but The Public Image is not her finest moment. Now can we move on? I’m all upset from having to say not nice things about Muriel Spark.


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