San Diego On a well-to-do street in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Thursday, June 18, a 60-year-old gentleman named Robin Spark received an anonymous package from San Diego, California, and promptly called the police. In a very short time, nine apartments near Mr. Spark's were evacuated, and the area surrounding his building was sealed off. An army bomb inspector advanced on the package, only to find inside something the press later identified, wrongly, as a "whoopee cushion."
Just why Scottish authorities would call in an army bomb inspector to dismantle a San Diegan gag gift was partly answered in the following days' headlines:
"SPARK FAMILY'S FEUD LEADS TO BOMB SCARE," said the Scotsman. "DAME MURIEL'S FEUD SPARKS BOMB SCARE," said the Scottish Daily Record.
"HOW A BITTER FAMILY CONFLICT OVER DAME MURIEL'S FAITH LED TO A LETTER BOMB ALERT," said London's Daily Mail.
The Dame Muriel in question is none other than 80-year-old Dame Muriel Spark, Scotland's greatest living writer, author of 20 novels, including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, four volumes of short fiction, three books of criticism and biography, one play, one book of poetry, and, published in 1992, an autobiography, Curriculum Vitae.
Robin Spark is Dame Muriel's son. As the headlines suggest, relations between the two are somewhat strained.
To Americans, British family life often appears comparatively staid, not much given to great shows of affection, to screaming matches, or to letter bombs, real or imagined. The person with keenest insight into why Dame Muriel's relationship with her son has become so publicly passionate is Dame Muriel's brother, 85-year-old Philip Camberg, who lives in a quiet trailer park in Santee. It's Camberg who sent the package Robin Spark imagined, or claimed to imagine, to be a bomb.
"He's a meshuggeneh," Camberg says of his nephew. "Excitable. Sensitive. Been that way all his life. He gets that from his father's side. But never did I imagine Robin would think my package was a bomb. I sent him something called a 'crying towel' that I bought at a novelty shop in El Cajon. I sent it as a kind of joke because he's been giving such a hard time to his mother, who's really a wonderful woman.
"But a letter bomb? The police? An army bomb inspector?" Camberg throws his head back and laughs. "That's the funniest thing I've heard in my life. And I needed a good laugh. I haven't had any since my wife recently died. I think Robin called the police because he wanted to attract attention to himself. Publicity, you know."
Camberg, a retired chemical engineer, immigrated to the United States in 1949 and moved to San Diego in 1963. Despite his many decades in the United States, Camberg still speaks with a light Edinburgh accent, an accent not often associated with Yiddishisms like meshuggeneh.
It is this unusual combination of Scottishness and Jewishness that's at the heart of the conflict between Dame Muriel and her son. Dame Muriel, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1954, has frequently stated that she was "half-Jewish," that her father was Jewish and her mother Anglican. While she explored her mixed parentage in her fictional and autobiographical work, it was the latter which of late has proved most crucial. As a famous writer, her life, and what she wrote about her life, were given close scrutiny, and not all of it dispassionate. A disgruntled former boyfriend wrote in a book about London literary life that Dame Muriel was, of all things, part Gypsy. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, was her effort to assert, once and for all, her truth.
"So many strange and erroneous accounts of parts of my life have been written since I became well known, that I felt it time to put the record straight," she stated in the introduction. "I determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses; I have not relied on my memory alone, vivid though it is."
Of the other memories she relied upon, one was that of her brother in San Diego who, she stated in the same introduction, was "able to recall names, places, dates, facts, more clearly than I could."
As far as the world was concerned, the "names, places, dates, facts" laid down in Curriculum Vitae were accurate, and the perception would likely have remained so if earlier this year a London professor specializing in Anglo-Jewish literature had not lectured at the Edinburgh synagogue that Dame Muriel's son Robin, an Orthodox Jew, attends. During the course of his talk, the professor mentioned that Dame Muriel Spark was "half-Jewish." There was a stir, then anger. Didn't the professor know, the synagogue's congregants asked, that Dame Muriel was fully Jewish? That her own son, Robin, was a member in good standing of their shul?
To Gentiles, half-Jewish or fully Jewish may seem noncrucial nuances, but to Orthodox and, in America, Conservative Jews, the difference is vital. According to Talmudic law, only someone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. Anyone else who wants to be a Jew must persevere through a rigorous conversion process that can take several years. The "Who Is a Jew?" question has caused endless havoc in Israel, bringing Knesset members to fisticuffs. In the case of Dame Muriel and her son, the already volatile issue has threatened a man's religious status and a famous writer's credibility.
Robin's response to the professor's offhand remark was immediate. He announced in a Scottish Jewish newspaper that not only did he have documentary evidence that his grandmother, Dame Muriel's mother, was fully Jewish, but that Dame Muriel had "covered up" this fact in her writing. Dame Muriel wasn't amused. So began the "family feud" that grew rapidly into an all-out war waged through interviews, counter-interviews, and letters-to-the-editor published in the London Times and Scottish newspapers. In other words, it was the sort of nasty, high-profile literary dust-up the British press loves.
Even before the troubling headlines, however, it seems Dame Muriel and her son were never very close. Upon returning to England after her unhappy marriage in Rhodesia, she placed Robin in her parents' care in Edinburgh, an arrangement that, according to Curriculum Vitae, was good for everyone concerned. Her parents were glad to have a grandchild in their home. Muriel, living in London, had no money and was struggling hard in England's post-war economy to build a career for herself as a writer. Mother and son led very different lives. Dame Muriel's ultimate conversion to Roman Catholicism, a leap of faith not unheard of among English writers, underscored the distance between her and her son.