Sparks of truth and lies
Muriel Spark, who would have turned 103 this month, was no stranger to rumours, half-truths, outright lies and other kinds of falsehood. Indeed, they swirled around her as they do around so many authors of note — especially if they are women. This was what spurred her on, in large part, to write her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae: she did it to “put the record straight”. She made no bones about her aversion to fabrications. “Lies,” she cautioned, “are like fleas hopping from here to there, sucking the blood of the intellect.”
However, Spark was also deeply interested in the fine line that separates lies from the truth, as well as the contingency of truth in a historical context, especially in a time of war. She was, after all, an MI6 agent during World War II, spreading what has been described as “a tangled mixture of damaging lies, flattering and plausible truths” to throw the Axis powers off-course. (One can only feel pity for German spies trying with all their might to navigate their way through the labyrinth of fiction she would have undoubtedly crafted.) Her characters, thus, are also masters of deception. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the teen novelist, Sandy Stranger, leads a “double life”; Douglas Dougal, the Scottish migrant in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, is both the exorcist and the devil, someone whose lies produce “a kind of truth”, a phrase Spark even used to describe her own writing.
Moreover, Spark’s works provide great insight into the frightening power of the media (the telephone or even wireless communication) and the paranormal (disembodied voices, demonic creatures) to propagate misleading representations of reality. In The Comforters (1957), Caroline Rose hears voices and the sound of a typewriter; this leads her to believe that she is a character in a novel.
Can Spark’s satirical vision be effective in the 21st century, given the dominance of lies, ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’? It can, and it must. Caroline rebels against the ‘Typing Ghost’ in order to take control over her own narrative: “The narrative says we went by car; all right, we must go by train... It’s a matter of asserting free will.” As far-right ideas and misinformation spread, Spark’s books serve as sharp reminders of how even the most reasonable people can fall prey to the lure of lies, and that malfeasance and half-truths must be relentlessly fought.