Photograph of Scottish writer, Muriel Spark

The International Style of Muriel Spark: Sparkiving in Japan

February 1st 2017 would have been Dame Muriel Spark’s 99th birthday. What it will be is the beginning of a year-long countdown to her centenary, signalling a series of events and activities that will celebrate the life and writing of one of Scotland’s greatest 20th Century writers.

And while we at the Library are busy securing some of the leading names in contemporary literature to join us – and you – to talk all things Spark, we’re by no means the only organisation planning Muriel Spark centenary celebrations. Nor are we the only country doing so.

Spark is a writer of international standing, and it’s no surprise that her archive attracts worldwide interest. All of which goes some way to explaining why I currently find myself in the town of Kōfu, nestled in the foothills of the Minato Alps, about 2 hours west of Tokyo. I’m here in Japan at the invitation of Professor Chikako Sawada, herself a frequent visitor to the Spark archive at the National Library of Scotland, to talk to students of the University of Yamanashi.

As you can read on our Spark webpage, “Muriel confessed herself ‘fascinated’ by the sight of her novels in Japanese as far back as the early 1960s”. Recent translations of 3 Spark novels and the short stories by the writer Masanori Kimura have received praise from leading Japanese authors Kaori Fujino, and Kanae Minato. Combined with the enthusiasm of academics such as Professor Sawada, the result is that Spark’s work is finding a new audience in Japan.

Yamanashi University students, staff and curator Colin McIlroy
Some of the University of Yamanashi students and Professor Sawada with Muriel Spark curator, Colin McIlroy

So a group of students and faculty members have come to hear about the Library, famous Scottish writers such as Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Muriel Spark archive. Like the local optical illusion – whereby Mount Fuji appears hazy and distant in the morning, but massive and looming in the afternoon – it’s a delightfully disconcerting experience to be talking to students from another culture, on the other side of the globe, about writers who lived in Edinburgh and wrote about the streets and wynds that we navigate daily. It’s one that illustrates Spark’s belief that we can bridge these geographic and cultural distances through fiction; that “we can express ourselves and meet other people through words, music, art”.[1]

Liz Taylor letter to Muriel Spark
A letter from Elizabeth Taylor expressing admiration for Muriel Spark’s work. Copyright estate of Elizabeth Taylor.

The students see images of the collection; including letters from Hollywood stars and the Italian President, illustrating the glamorous international circles in which Spark moved.

An invitation to Muriel Spark to attend the Italian Presidential palace.
Invite to the Italian Presidential palace. Copyright Spark estate.

Typescripts of early poems, many of them unpublished, include the date and location of writing. They plot her early journey from Edinburgh to Africa and back: Madeira; South Rhodesia; Victoria Falls; Cape Town; London; Liverpool; and back to Edinburgh.

Dates and locations of Spark's poems.
Dates and locations of Spark’s poems, 1937-1945. Copyright Spark estate,

Spark’s international travels were only beginning, and she subsequently lived in London, New York, Rome, and Tuscany. So our major exhibition, opening in December 2017, will be ‘The International Style of Muriel Spark’. If the burgeoning Japanese interest in Spark is anything to go by, the centenary celebrations will have a distinctly international style, much like the Grande Dame of Scottish literature herself!

Colin McIlroy, Muriel Spark project curator.

[1] ‘‘The Same Informed Air’: An Interview with Muriel Spark’, in Martin McQuillan, ed., Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction  (Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2002), pp.210-229, (p.218).