Yesterday I happened to mention on Twitter — yes, that’s me at @samgrj — that Brock Clarke’s terrific piece on late great novelist and short-story writer Muriel Spark in the March issue of The Believer didn’t mention the role of dexedrine in the writing of Spark’s 1957 debut, The Comforters.
Now, just to clarify: Muriel Spark did not write The Comforters on dexedrine. Nor did she write it on a single scroll of paper 120 feet long while a guest in the home of Caroline Cassady. However, dexedrine was materially involved. Here’s the whole story, from Spark’s wonderful memoir, Curriculum Vitae (pp. 200, 2004-5):
“No one,” writes Tony Strachan, “has ever been as poor as you were in those days.” . . .
This was true. I was getting tired of it. I also had very little to eat. Those were the days of rationing, tighter even than during the war. If one didn’t eat the whole of the allotted rations one was in trouble. In 1952 and 1953 a single person was allowed one and a half ounces of cheese, four ounces of bacon, two eggs and eight ounces of butter per week (there was a special coronation issue of four ounces of butter in May 1953). Butcher’s meat was rationed by price, limited to one shilling and ninepence per week in 1953. This was, in fact, the basis of a fairly balanced minimum diet. But living alone, as I did, I neglected to take these basics. I didn’t care enough …. the fact remains that I was thoroughly undernourished. When I went to Edinburgh for The Observer to cover the Edinburgh Festival in 1953 I felt thoroughly ill, and hardly knew what I was doing.
. . .
But in 1954 shortly after my reception into the Church of Rome something strange occurred. Something strange was not surprising, because, foolishly, I has been taking dexedrine as an appetite supressant, so that I would feel less hungry. It was a mad idea.
As I worked on the Eliot book one night the letters of the words I was reading because confused. They formed anagrams and crosswords. In a way, as long as this sensation lasted, I knew they were hallucinations. But I didn’t connect them with the dexedrine. It is difficult to convey how absolutely fascinating that involuntary word-game was. I thought at first that there was a code built into Eliot’s work and tried to decipher it. Next, I seemed to realize that this word-game went through other books by other authors. It appeared that they were phonetics of Greek, and were extracts from the Greek dramatists.
This experience lasted from 25 January 1954 to 22 April 1954. I saw Dr. Lieber, a general practitioner, in Wimpole Street . . .
As soon as I stopped taking dexedrine the delusions of the word-game stopped. But I felt ill, as I had felt at Edinburgh the previous year . . . In the mean time Graham Greene, through Derek Stanford, had offered to give me a monthly sum of twenty pounds until I got better. He really admired my work and was enthusiastic about helping me. With the cheque he would often send a few bottles of red wine — as I was happy to record when speaking at Graham’s memorial service — which took the edge off cold charity.
I took refuge first at Aylesford in Kent at the Carmelite monastery, and next at nearby Allington Castle, near Maidstone, a Carmelite stronghold of tertiary nuns. There I rented a cottage in the grounds, and it was there that I put into effect the determination I had fixed upon, which was to write a novel about my recent brief but extremly intense word-game experience.
. . . .
From the aspect of method, I could see that to create a character who suffered from verbal illusions on the printed page would be clumsy. So I made my main character “hear” a typewriter with the voices composing the novel itself. This novel, The Comforters, was published in February 1957.
I just happen to have Graham Greene: A Life in Letters out of the library this week, and I was pleased to see a letter from Greene to “Dear Mrs. Spark,” dated 2 December 1955. It begins:
I am delighted to hear you are better and I do hope that MacMillan’s will publish your book. Perhaps they are not quite the publisher for anything weird and if you have trouble there don’t hesitate to as advice on another publisher. At the end of a misspent life one has quite a lot of experience.
One more connection: the Greene letters volume also includes a letter to GRJ idol Flann O’Brien (p 257), one of the few authors, one could argue, whose novels, particularly his own debut novel At Swim-Two-Birds, teach the same lessons in “artifice and self-conciousness” that Brock Clarke praises in his article on Spark.
25th October 1961
Dear Mr. O’Brien
I was delighted this morning to receive a copy of The Hard Life from your publishers and find it dedicated to me. I’m a proud man! At Swim Two Birds has remained to my mind ever since it first appeared  one of the best books of our century. But my God what a long time it has been waiting for the next.
I also have The Hard Life to hand. The dedication reads, “I honourably present to GRAHAM GREENE whose own forms of gloom I admire this misterpiece.” I like the disclaimer too: “All the persons in this book are real and none is fictitious even in part.”
Anyhow, it’s funny, isn’t it, that Greene was a champion of both Spark and O’Brien? Do you suppose Greene shared with Spark his enthusiasm for Flann? Did Flann influence Spark?
Incidentally, inspired by Clarke’s piece, I picked up a copy of The Comforters yesterday. I’ve read only the opening pages, but it seems just as brilliant as Clarke suggests.