British Novelist Muriel Spark Dies at 88

Dame Muriel Spark, whose spare and humorous novels made her one of the most admired British writers of the postwar years, has died in Tuscany, Italian officials said Saturday. She was 88.

Spark died Thursday in a hospital in Florence, said Massimiliano Dindalini, the mayor of the Tuscan village of Civitella della Chiana, where Spark had lived for almost three decades.

Spark wrote more than 20 novels, including "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," which was later adapted for a Broadway hit and a movie.

Spark had lived in Italy since the late 1960s, first in Rome and later in a converted 13th-century church in Tuscany with her friend of many years, painter and sculptor Penelope Jardine.

But she retained the accent of her birth and youth in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she attended James Gillespie's High School for Girls and was taught by the prototype for her most famous character — Miss Jean Brodie.

While that 1961 book made her famous internationally, she already had written seven novels, three volumes of poetry and respected biographical and critical work about the Bronte family, Mary Shelley and John Masefield.

In 2004, the Scottish Arts Council established a literary fellowship in Spark's name. The council's head of literature, Gavin Wallace, said Spark's death was "an ineffably sad and deep loss to our literature."

"Her achievement and influence as Scotland's, if not the U.K.'s, greatest novelist have been so vast and far-reaching that in an odd way she seemed to be an immutable part of the cultural landscape," he said.

Gail Wylie, chairman of the Muriel Spark Society, said Spark was "avant-garde in her time."

"She took the conventions, I suppose, of English narrative and turned them upside down," Wylie said.

"The Girls of Slender Means," considered by many to be her best novel, was published in 1963, drawing on her experience as a young woman struggling to make ends meet while writing in London.

"I was literally starving," she once said. "It was awful. I had nothing to eat."

Novelist Graham Greene gave her a monthly allowance and some wine when she was poverty-stricken, on condition that she did not thank him or pray for him.

Like Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Spark was a Catholic convert and dealt with questions of morality and metaphysics, directly or indirectly, in her fiction.

"I don't propagate the Catholic faith but in a funny sort of way, my books couldn't be written by anyone except a Catholic," she told the Sunday Telegraph in 1997.

Although her father was a Scottish Jew and her mother an English Anglican, she said she was always a Catholic at heart.

"It's the only religion I view as rational — it helps you get rid of all the other problems in your life," she told the newspaper. "There really is such a thing as beauty of morals."

Spark did not preach, however.

"I don't like messages in novels. I don't like them being used as a propaganda machine, although what drives a novelist to deal with such situations is to improve the human race's understanding of itself," she told The Sunday Times in 1996.

Most of Spark's novels are short and spare, with the plots often bizarre or macabre, satirical or darkly humorous.

In "The Driver's Seat" (1970), the main character searches for someone to murder her. "The Abbess of Crewe," a 1974 satire written after the Watergate scandal, is about the political machinations in an ecclesiastical community.

Born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918, Spark was married at 19 to Sidney Oswald Spark, a teacher, and had a son, Robin.

They settled in Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — but divorced after six years.

Muriel Spark returned to London in 1944 and worked in intelligence for the Foreign Office before entering the literary world as a publisher's copy editor, poet and literary critic.

She was general secretary of The Poetry Society and editor of The Poetry Review from 1947 to 1949.

Her first novel, "The Comforters" in 1957, was a critical success. After a few more books, she moved to New York to get away from London literary circles.

After "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" became a Broadway hit in 1966, she moved to Italy to get away from the literati in New York.

She found it useful to be an expatriate.

"Being at an angle I find a help," she told the Sunday Times. "It means one has a different perspective, a new angle of absurdity."

Spark had quirky writing habits. She wrote longhand, with little if any revision, in spiral-bound notebooks she got from a stationer in Edinburgh. She never used a pen anyone else had touched.

She was made a dame in 1993, the female equivalent of a knight. In 1963, she became a fellow of The Royal Society of Literature, and in 1978 an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

She received the David Cohen Literature Prize for lifetime achievement in 1997.

Spark is survived by her son. A funeral was scheduled in Civitella della Chiana later Saturday, the mayor said.