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Muriel Spark: Metamodernist

How Muriel Spark navigates literary convention through her novellas.
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Muriel Spark | Leo Reynolds

Born in early-twentieth-century Scotland, Muriel Spark was a Catholic convert from a Jewish background who defied categorisation. There are several recurring motifs to her writing - social class, psychotic visions and the navigation of educational and religious social institutions (Herman 2). However, common to all these experiences is Spark’s explorations of the boundaries of artistic expression.

We can understand modernism as focusing on new techniques in art; its literature includes methods such as metafiction, non-linear narratives, and absurdism. Postmodernism focuses on the social, historical, and political movements that define our environment. There is no singularity in postmodernism; instead, interweaving understandings of society. Herman argues that Spark combines ‘the modernist emphasis on technique’ and postmodern understanding through ‘projecting complex social worlds’ (Herman 2). This meta-exploration of art movements can be described as metamodernism (Vermeulen and van den Akker).

Spark’s earliest writings trace a path from the modernist technique to broader postmodern social movements. Her first novel, The Comforters, centres on Caroline, who finds the author speaking to her through the typewriter (Spark, The Comforters). Robinson works as a meta-fiction, exploring January’s connection to faith and survival (Spark, Robinson) (Observer Staff). Memento Mori follows retirees coming to terms with loss, haunted by the voices on the phone that proclaim, ‘Remember that you must die’ (Spark, Memento Mori). The characters find themselves struggling to escape the limitations of their stories.

Spark’s later works integrate postmodern identity as part of a realist environment. The Ballad of Peckham Rye discusses the connection of temporality to social identity and class (Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie explores fascism and its impact on interpersonal relations within state environments (Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). The Mandelbaum Gate compares the physical division of Jerusalem to the division of Barbara’s interpersonal social identities (Spark, The Mandelbaum Gate). Spark draws little distinction between the confines of the environment and the character’s conception of themselves.

Spark’s complete works extend much further, but we can understand from this selection that Spark regularly employs a breadth of literary techniques to emphasise the malleability of the format (Herman 10). The frequent reference to identity, psychology and religiosity is not just for the sake of the storyline, but it serves as an exploration of the social forces that define our lives (Herman 10). The richness of method and story works beyond postmodern ‘appearances’, containing a complexity that transcends any singular art movement (Mitras 69).

Spark stated in an interview that she was ‘postmodernist, mostly, whatever that means’ (Mcquillan 216). Her works hold this true, an author constantly questioning the boundaries of form, through a myriad of techniques. As a result, Spark’s stories create authentic storytelling that continues to challenge the limits of the format.


Herman, David, editor. Muriel Spark: Twenty-First-Century Perspectives (A Modern Fiction Studies Book). Revised ed. edition, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Mcquillan, Martin. “‘The Same Informed Air’: An Interview with Muriel Spark.” Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction, edited by Martin McQuillan, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2002, pp. 210–29.

Mitras, John. Disorder and Transfiguration: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Dec. 2013,’s_The_Prime_of_Miss_Jean_Brodie_1961.

Observer Staff. Intellectual Monster: The Life and Work of Muriel Spark. 17 Apr. 2006,

Spark, Muriel. Memento Mori. Edited by A. L. Kennedy, 1st ed., Virago, 2013.

---. Robinson. Canongate Books, 2015.

---. The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Reprint edition, New Directions, 2014.

---. The Comforters. Edited by Ali Smith, Virago, 2013.

---. The Mandelbaum Gate. Virago, 2013.

---. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Unabridged edition, Canongate Books, 2015.Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 2, no. 1, Routledge, Jan. 2010, p. 5677.