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Scottish playwright, actress and musician... writing about writing.

Muriel's Rome

By mornayoung, Dec 22 2018 01:23PM

“Wherever I live I am in the writer's condition: Work is pleasure and pleasure is work. I find Rome a good place to work. The ordinary Roman is nearly always a ''character,'' which is to say there are no ordinary Romans and therefore life among them, although it may be exasperating at times, is never boring.” (Muriel Spark, 1983).

I am taking a picture of a couple taking a picture. I wonder if they notice me. I wonder what the ethics of this situation are. It is a small, meta experiment whereby I want to capture ‘the public image’ in and around Rome. The location is the Baths of Caracalla, one of the greatest thermal springs in antiquity. Muriel Spark described this place as a “mammoth spectacle with its superabundance of camels and cavalry, its luxurious scenery and massed troops.”. I am here because of her recommendation.

The Baths are quiet today. It is off season and they are away from the centre of town. Still, there are enough iphones and selfie sticks on display to keep me occupied. But my greatest feat comes whereby, turning into a courtyard, I see a woman wearing a full VR headset. In amongst these collapsed vaults and ruins, the juxtaposition of old meets new is extraordinary. I take a photograph and pause for a moment to think: “What would Muriel make of this?” I do not have an answer.

Muriel Spark was an explorer. During her life, she lived in Edinburgh, Southern Rhodesia, Milton Bryan, Kensington, Aylesford, Camberwell, New York, Rome, as well as travelling extensively. She described herself as an exile, yet seemed at home wherever she went. In 1967, she settled in Rome, attracted to “the antiquity of everyday life.”

In 1983, Spark wrote an essay for the New York Times titled ‘My Rome’. Within this, she details each apartment that she lived in whilst listing the atmospheric influences and inspirations she experienced; from the Rome Opera to the Baths of Caracalla, the church of San Pietro to Campo dei Fiori. Rome, said Spark, was “the motherland of sensation”.

I am staying in Italy to follow in Spark’s prestigious footsteps as part of a self-led research and development programme to consider the themes and setting of “The Public Image” (shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 1968). Set in Rome, the novel concerns an up-and-coming film actress who carefully constructs her image to keep her career on course. Written in the 1960’s, I want to explore the ever-contemporary relevance of the central theme – of one’s crafted/projected public image – in today’s online, social media driven society.

I have set myself many interlinking aims for this residency: To follow, visit and explore the places and spaces that Spark cites in ‘My Rome’. To take inspiration and international influence from Spark’s creative haven. To use “The Public Image” and its central theme as a springboard to consider a contemporary response to the piece in situ. To use this theme to consider, interrogate and research Spark’s characters that she describes in and around the city. To carefully consider and develop a response to ‘publicly document’ my own journey to further interrogate the idea of ‘advertising one’s public image’. To further my understanding of using social media and online platforms as part of creative development. To understand and develop ‘complex characters’ inspired by Spark’s eye for detail. And, finally, to use this research as the developmental basis towards writing a play for stage that acts as a contemporary response to the theme of ‘public image’.

Though work has led me to Italy a few times previously, I have never visited Rome. Muriel was a brave woman to write an essay about it; words desert me on many an occasion to describe the vibrant life that exists around every corner. Many a day, I am thankful for her guided walk; visiting the streets she lived on and the places she loved.

The nature of one writer following another intrigues me. I walk many miles every day and, more than once, I think of the film “Julie and Julia” where young New Yorker Julie Powell aspires to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's cookbook in 365 days, a challenge she described on her popular blog. I wonder what Muriel Spark would think of my adventure; would she encourage me to break free and find my own way around the city? I amuse myself with the title “Muriel and Morna”.

Alone in the city, I find myself watching constantly; an observer, witness or voyeur. During a visit to the Roman Forum, I become the official photographer for couples seeking pictures from the top of Palatine Hill. A lassie with a notebook must seem an unlikely camera thief. After a few days, I realise that I have not had a conversation with anyone since arriving, bar the brief ordering of food or drink. This continues throughout my lone trip and, I have no doubt, Muriel would be dismayed by my lack of sociability. In her essay, she describes the lifelong friends she made with the expatriate community in Rome and the many spectacular parties she attended; with writers and actors but, grander still, with ambassadors, cardinals, princes and courts. One of my favourite essay passages describes hierarchical parties and the difficulty of seating guests accordingly. In true, wry Muriel style, she states: “Fortunately these were not my problems, for whenever I throw a party, high and low as it may include, I make it a buffet.”

Socialise I do not but I do partake in one of Muriel’s favourite evening activities; a night at the Opera, though my choice of show – Pinocchio – perhaps breaks away from the classics she adored so much. At this time of year, the programme is a little slimmer. Nonetheless, I have a joyous evening watching the ‘usual’ Opera goers surrounded by young children, boisterously excited to see their favourite story brought to life. On another evening, I visit Muriel’s favourite restaurant, Galeassi’s in the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, where I eat the most divine Carciofi alla Romana (literally, Roman-style artichokes). To my shame, until this moment, I hadn’t realised that artichokes could be served any other way than in a jar. Thank you for the culinary lesson, Muriel. I show her essay to the waiter who delights in their 1983 reference; but, no, they do not recognise her name. I am a little disappointed.

I use Twitter, primarily, to record my journey. I write short posts, include monumental photos and quote Muriel’s words. I enjoy the briefness of tweeting; the concise summary of a moment. When I trained as a journalist, we had to practice writing NIBs (news in brief) – the tiny stories that exist in the side columns of newspapers. Twitter reminds me of writing those NIBs; of condensing news into brief summaries, cutting out all extraneous details. It is a simple, succinct way to publicly document my journey. This is part of my live research but I wonder how these tweets read to others; are they bragging? More often than not, I use social media for work, preferring to keep a small sliver of my life private. With this job, it feels like most of a person becomes available to the outside world. I like to think I can hold onto a tiny part of myself. I ponder over this a lot throughout my residency; about why it feels so important to me to hold something back. My musings lead to no concrete conclusions.

Most days, I walk through Piazza Navona, which “dazzled” Muriel. On one occasion, I force myself to take a selfie to fully embrace the public image through a contemporary lens. Standing in front of a great Bernini fountain, I turn the camera on myself and feel like the biggest wally in the world. I realise that I am much better suited to the role as voyeur than subject. I’m sure in years to come, I will be thankful for this one photo of myself in the city but, for now, I think that my face gets in the way of a beautiful view.

I think often about the infamous characters that Muriel created and, in particular, the complex female ones. Many have been deemed ‘unlikeable’ or even ‘monstrous’; she openly describes Annabel, the protagonist in “The Public Image”, as ‘stupid’. Creating complex, fallible female characters is key to my work. I do not want to simply write ‘strong women’ – I want to write women with strong characteristics. As I make daily notes, I look around at the diverse women I see; I don’t think I have ever seen the reality of these different ages, shapes and races portrayed on television or in theatre. I see women in love, women arguing, women crying. There is one woman I watch for a long time as she tries to take the perfect selfie. She contorts her face and pushes back her shoulders. She looks at the photo unhappily. She shifts her head and smiles. She looks at the photo unhappily. She flicks her hair and shrinks down a little. She looks at the photo unhappily. This take and retake goes on and on with just the slightest shift in focus each time. I wonder who she is taking the picture for and where it will end up. I wonder why she is so unsatisfied by the first fifty or so takes. I pick up my notebook and write a little; not about her per se, but imagining who she might be and why she is here.

Concurrently to reading “The Public Image” and Spark’s essay, I dive in and out of “Curriculum Vitae”, Spark’s autobiography. If anyone’s public image is worth exploring, it’s Sparks. In 1992, she agreed for Martin Stannard to commence work on her biography. This was surprising as Spark reiterated that she thought no life could be wholly captured in words. Furthermore, she had released “Curriculum Vitae” earlier that same year. Spark was not pleased with Stannard’s efforts. Her ex-husband also wrote two memoirs which offered an unflattering portrait. In “Appointment in Arezzo”, Alan Taylor emphasises that the public perception of Spark was very different to her private person. Tapping into Spark’s identity whilst thinking about my own offers a strange narrative; one that blends the past and present, linked only by the commonality of writing.

This merging of past and present is a common theme throughout my residency. Rome, an ancient city steeped in culture, drew Muriel in in the 1970’s and now, I, in 2018, follow her path. I wonder what Muriel would make of the city now; how she would find humour in the selfie sticks or perhaps she too would partake in the carefully curated images as part of a social media driven world. Part of me likes to think she would shy away from it, keen to maintain a sense of the personal and private. She was a classy woman and I doubt she needed to prove that. Nonetheless, I’m sure it would have given her much fodder for her writing.

“The Public Image” feels like a novel much before it’s time; the obsession with curating a life, the perfect photo opportunities and the attempted destruction of an image. The theme feels more pertinent today that ever. Why do we so obsess over how we appear to others? Why do we shape and construct to only show a half truth? How do our real-life identities suffer as a consequence? Of course, there are positives to social media – that I will not dispute and it is not the point of this blog – but image fixation and public identity as a theme feels like rich, fertile ground.

I write a little every day. At each site, I select a point of public image and record a short thought or story about it. Sometimes I simply document the moment. For now, I do not know what this material will amount to but I have opened the door to an interest which is slowly developing and growing in clarity. I wonder if it’s possible to combine all of these thoughts – about Muriel, the past, the voyeur writer, the image obsessed public. For certain, I know that the key character within this work would be the city itself; full of vibrant life and vintage charm.

On my final evening, I return to Piazza Navona and decide to eat dinner on the square. I have avoided this so far, keen to dodge the over-priced, tourist filled restaurants. I order spaghetti and a glass of wine; an appropriate final dinner. I retrieve my notebook and watch the people around me. There are touts selling back-up battery’s and glow-sticks, flashes of cameras capturing Bernini’s beautiful monuments, the sound of busker’s differing songs clashing as their notes meet. I put down my pen and close my notebook. Tonight, I do not want to write; I want to experience.

Muriel Spark remains a mystery to me. Every time I get close to discovering her, I fall back a little more. She was complex and talented and, the more I learn, the more fascinated I become. My Rome residency may have only lasted a fortnight but I know that Muriel’s spirit will stay with me much longer. On the flight home, I feel an old ambition to write a novel sneak up upon me once more and I let myself dream about a place, a people and a public image. “What would Muriel make of this?” I find myself wondering once more. I still do not have an answer.

Thank you to Creative Scotland and the Muriel Spark centenary team for allowing me to embark on this adventure. I can’t wait to continue my literary journey with Muriel in 2019.

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