“You’re going to be spellbound,” promises Val McDermid as she introduces “Scotland’s greatest living writer who’s here to talk about Scotland’s greatest dead writer.” Ali Smith’s lecture on Muriel Spark as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival’s centenary celebrations of Spark’s birth is a sell-out, much publicised, and filled with the crème de la crème of the Scottish literary scene.
This lecture is a repetition of the one she delivered at the Muriel Spark Society Annual Lecture earlier this year and McDermid admits that there is so much content she only took in half the first time she heard it. I perhaps take in less than that. Reading from the now published-in-book-form lecture, Smith is eloquent and very obviously passionate in her knowledge and love of Spark’s works, but listening to someone, no matter how interesting, reading for an hour is tough and my mind often wanders. I feel I would have taken in more had she said the same things in conversational form, but judging by a wealth of subsequent tweets I am mostly alone there. What I did grasp was the beauty of Spark’s succinctness in her description: “He looked as if he would murder me and he did” from short story The Portobello Road is highlighted, and, despite Smith’s mother’s fears that her daughter was reading only suicidal women, her positivity, demonstrated by a quote from Loitering with Intent in which lead character Fleur “went on her way rejoicing”. But, Smith tells us, Spark is not suicidal, but very much alive, even a decade after her death, rewriting her books on shelves during the night, as she believed ghosts of authors do – how else do you explain getting something different every time you read the same book? Spark in her time was also topical, and political, and remains so, for example The Mandelbaum Gate explores unrest in the Middle East; The Abbess of Crewe, a veiled Watergate, hit the shelves whilst the scandal itself was still ongoing; The Public Image has much to say about today’s social media obsession. What would Spark have made of the present political climate, Smith ponders; oh, to have seen her trumping Trump!
There is some ad libing from Smith during what is essentially an hour long reading (though not a lot, as she admits she is no good at it). Her personality also shines through, which is no easy feat. Her brother has challenged her to include the title of an ABBA song in her talk, and she does so, so unsubtly it is met with much applause. Perhaps I have absorbed more than I thought. I leave the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre uplifted, and perhaps slightly more knowledgeable, but too overwhelmed to be spellbound just yet; just give me a couple more listens…
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival click here.