Friday, June 30, 2006

Miss Brodie and The Finishing School

“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or is you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write,’The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”

So begins Muriel Spark's last novel, The Finishing School,
a satiric look at a private progressive institution that Miss Jean Brodie in her prime would have been quick to deem a “crank” school and would have been loathe to be associated with.

Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina Parker operate College Sunrise, a school where parents with “dire wealth” consent to send their teenagers for a year or two to get them out of the way. College Sunrise could not in any way compete with the famous schools and finishing establishments recommended by Gabbitas, Thring and Wingate in shiny colored brochures. Indeed, College Sunrise was almost unknown in the more distinctive educational circles, and in cases where it was known, it was frequently dismised as being rather shady. The fact that it moved house from time to time, that it seldom offered a tennis court and that its various swimming pools looked greasy, were the subject of gossip when the subject arose, but it was known that there had so far been no sexual scandals and that it was an advanced sort of school, bohemian, artistic, tolerant. What they smoked or sniffed was little different from the drug-taking habits of any other school, whether it be housed in Lausanne or in a street in Wakefield.

When the novel opens College Sunrise is in operation on the lake at Ouchy after previously being located in Brussels and Vienna. Nina conducts “casual afternoon comme il faut talks” with the school’s eight students ("'Be careful who takes you to Ascot,' she said, 'because, unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.'") while Rowland teaches creative writing. In fact, one of the students, 17-year-old Chris Wiley, red-haired, handsome, annoyingly self-assured, has enrolled in College Sunrise specifically so that he can write his historically inaccurate novel on Mary, Queen of Scots.

Rowland reads the opening pages of Chris' novel, finds them "quite good," and then experiences a debilitating case of writer's block where his own novel is concerned. Most of Spark's novel is thereafter concerned with the uneasy relationship between Rowland and Chris: Rowland's jealousy at first amuses Chris, who taunts Rowland with his hidden-away work-in-progress and thrives on reports that Rowland has been searching his belongings in a desperate attempt to find it. Later, after Nina is finally able to convince Rowland that his obsession with Chris' novel is bordering on insanity and he seeks a cure by temporarily checking into a monastery, Chris finds he requires Rowland's presence or else he is unable to write. Clearly, the madness goes both ways.

Nina wants Chris gone but realizes his tuition is needed less the school go under. She begins an affair with an art historian who lives in a neighboring villa. Rowland knows and doesn't care; he's busy attempting to sleep with the servant who is sleeping with Chris.

Nina, her lover, and the students all speculate whether Rowland's obsession with Chris' novel is actually a case of misplaced homosexual desire.

Finally, two of the publishers Chris has sent his novel to come to Ouchy and begin to offer a bit of perspective on Chris's talent and prospects. Chris' confidence is momentarily shaken, but he's quick to once again manipulate those around him, especially when he sees Rowland's chances at literary success wax considerably. I won't say who or how, but someone almost dies.

Now, while I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I remained largely indifferent to The Finishing School. I read it twice to see if I could put my finger on what kept it from being a more enjoyable, a more memorable read. The best I could come up with is that Spark’s natural inclination to omit all but of vital import undercut her efforts here. Chris and Rowland discuss whether they feel their characters take on a life of their own; Chris maintains that his are firmly under his control and can do nothing he does not will. Spark’s characters here definitely fall under strict authorial control; she pushes them about to advance her story without bringing them fully to life. And why she chose to have the character whose writing is called "actually a lot of shit" by a prospective publisher, who recognizes that Chris' approaching success is based on his youth, not his talent, be the one whose methods most mimic her own is definitely beyond my understanding.

I also thought that the use of flash forwards, which I am, in general, exceedingly fond of, and found most effective in Jean Brodie (and in The Driver's Seat, which I read last month), undercut my concern in The Finishing School. While knowing that Miss Brodie is to be betrayed, that Sandy will become a nun, that Mary will be killed in a fire (or that that strange Lise is going to be murdered before morning comes), heightens the suspense and keeps me engaged with how future events are to come about, foreknowledge here deflated my interest. Why should I care now about the state of Rowland and Nina's marriage when I know she's going to be much happier as an art historian married to someone else? Why should I care now that Chris' novel is no good if he's still going to manage to get it published? Why should I care now about any of the students at the Sunrise School when I know they all have enough money or family prestige to take the rough edges off their years to come?

Based on these two books, I'd have to say that if an author can't or isn't willing to vary her style and technique from book to book, she ought to take care that the stories she has to tell will work with her style rather than against it.

I'm late getting this posted compared to everyone else, so I'll wait to discuss Jean Brodie in the Metaxu Cafe forums. I will say I'm glad this Slaves of Golconda reading gave me reason to read it again--I read it back in high school and retained very little--and that I do intend to read more by Spark. I'm going to chose titles for the most part, though, from the first half of her career when her style is economical, but not yet miserly. I don't have a problem meeting a writer halfway, but I'm not willing to do more than that.

(cross posted at pages turned)

The Mastery of Muriel Spark

Cross posted at :

I read
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark maybe eight or ten years ago. I had little recollection of the story other than it was about a teacher who has a particular group of favorite students. The novel was set in 1930s Edinburgh, and there was some significance of the Spanish Civil War and fascism to the story. More than one Amazon reviewer has mentioned they believe this book would be lost on younger readers and one said on readers under the age of 40. I don't entirely agree. I do think that younger readers could appreciate Spark's work, but I can say that for myself I got much more out of the second reading than the first. Perhaps this has something to do with life experience, but I did read it more carefully the second time and read some additional criticism after the fact as well.

Despite the fact that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a slim 160 pages, she manages to tell a witty yet complex story. Her novels can be read on more than one level. There is indeed the story of a teacher and her particular group of favorite students, but there is also more than meets the eye to her stories as well. Miss Jean Brodie from first appearances seems benign enough, but she turns out to be anything but. Jean Brodie is a completely self absorbed character. While she appears to want to impart knowledge into her students (or more the case "draw it out") really she wants to dictate to them what she believes to be important. Maybe this is why she admired the fascists so much. In the book she chooses six as her favorites--to be "the creme de la creme". Really her choice is less decided upon by the characteristics of each girl and more upon the fact they come from families who won't question her methods. From this group of girls one will eventually betray her.

I won't go into
Spark's biography, but I do think it worth noting that in her mid-30s she converted to Catholicism. She is quoted as saying "the reason I became a Catholic was because it explained me." Prior to this she wrote only short stories, poetry and criticism. After converting she began writing novels. Religion seems to have played a great role in her work. From the criticism I have read one of the big themes in her novels is "good vs. evil", and Dorothea Walker (Muriel Spark published by Twayne Publishers) even said "Brodie is a departure from explicit exploration of good and evil. Miss Brodie is the embodiment of the demon become god." I am not entirely sure I consider her a "demon become god", but she certainly was wrapped up in herself and quite manipulative of people and circumstances. Maybe she was trying to play god.

I am not giving away many details here as I hate to spoil the book for anyone planning on reading it, and I daresay that my fellow Slaves of Golconda will perhaps be going into greater detail than I of the story itself. I could literally write pages and pages on this book. I had no idea that Spark was such an intricate writer. Her style is different than the norm as well. Early on she gives away who Jean Brodie's betrayer is. She tends to jump back and forth in time giving you bits and pieces of information, and it is all slowly revealed to you. It is all quite easy to understand, yet it is also very complicated as you ponder what her motivations are. Sandy, her betrayer, is also a very complicated character and one of the more fleshed out characters next to Jean Brodie.

The Driver's Seat (possible spoilers in this section).

I chose The Driver's Seat as my "extra credit" reading. It was a somewhat shocking and very dark book. I am not sure it was the best choice for a second book to read compared to her other books. Lise, a 30-ish single woman from a Northern country (I have read it is Sweden) goes on vacation to Italy. You get the feeling that she is going looking for a man. She is, but not exactly with the intentions you think. Lise is one of the oddest characters I have met in literature. Her behavior is erratic and unexplainable. In a book by Judith Saxton called The Women of Muriel Spark she describes Lise well:

"Nowhere in Muriel Spark's work is a character presented so remotely as Lise in
The Driver's Seat. Her behavior is never explained, merely described. She has no
clear intentions as far as the reader can make out. Her feelings are never
intimated; the reader can only make wild guesses at them, whilst trying to make
sense of her erratic speeches and actions. Her very inaccessibility is a
disturbing yet compulsive feature of the narrative. The style of the account is
as bizarre as Lise herself; it is in the present tense, which emphasizes the
narrator's detachment as each moment is carefully picked out without comment.
However, occasionally the tense leaps forward in the future, indicating a
further alarming and inevitable dimension. From the statements about what will
happen the following day, it becomes clear that Lise will be murdered. And it
also becomes clear that she herself has all the time been wholly complicit in
this event. "

Even after having read the book and criticism in addition, I still do not understand why she did what she did. I have read that this novel "confronts the problem of existence". Lise seems to want not only to disappear, but she goes to extensive ends laying a trail of herself as well. In the beginning of the novel she is described as living in an apartment where "everything is contrived to fold away into the dignity of unvarnished pinewood". It is almost as if no one lives there. Later when she is in the hotel she begins unpacking and hanging up her clothes, but then puts them back in the suitcase, once again as if not leaving a trace that she was there. However she also seems to go to great lengths to make herself noticed. She throws fits when buying clothes, talks loudly, makes scenes, leaves her passport in a cab. She wants people to be able to piece together what has done or what was done to her. Once again Spark gives away what is going to happen before it actually happens. And while the story is playing out and she interacts with other characters and makes her necessary purchases you can just sense where all this is leading. Even knowing the outcome I was still shocked at the end.

Muriel Spark was really an amazing author. She manages to tell complex tales in such small amounts of space. There are authors who can't tell a story with half the complexity in twice the amount of pages I think. She is certainly an author deserving of more study! I am looking farward to
the discussion at the Metaxu Cafe and learning more about her other novels (which I hope to make my way through eventually). Expect posts/comments from: Bookworm, Cam's Commentary, Kate's Book Blog (including visuals!), Necessary Acts of Devotion, Of Books and Bicycles, Pages Turned, So Many Books, and The Blog Jar. Did I leave anyone out? Let me know and I will add you. It looks as though our group has been expanding, which makes for very interesting discussion! One more little note--I have the film adaptation of the novel finally, which I hope to watch this weekend. There is also one of The Driver's Seat which stars Elizabeth Taylor, which I am not sure I can get my hands on (and not sure I want to!).

In the Prime of Her Hubris

Cross posted at So Many Books

Where to start with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? On the surface the book is simple, Jean Brodie, teacher, a woman in her prime, and the six girls who are the Brodie set. Miss Brodie's methods of teaching are unorthodox but the girls are loyal to her even when headmistress Miss MaKay begins inviting the girls to tea to pump them for information she can use to get Miss Brodie fired. Eventually, when earnest encouragement has stopped, one of the girls betrays Miss Brodie.

Underneath the simple story with the simple style, is a surprising depth: the power a teacher has to shape the lives of her students and the disillusionment of the student when she realizes the teacher is only human. The book takes small leaps into the future now and then so the reader knows fairly early on that Miss Brodie will be betrayed and by whom it will be done. The how and why is left to develop with the progression of the narrative.

Miss Brodie never finds out who betrays her. She never knows the betrayal came from the one she trusted most, and still trusts after it is all over. I don't know if Miss Brodie genuinely doesn't know, or if she just doesn't want to know, refuses to believe in the truth that is before her. Miss Brodie is a likable character. I feel bad for the end of her prime. It ends, I think, because of a certain amount of hubris, too much belief in her power to hold her girls' loyalty forever. She forgets that even though the girls are young and impressionable, they grow up and they learn different ways of looking at the world--Miss Brodie cannot control their thoughts, she cannot control who the girls become. She thinks she can. And that is her downfall.

While I feel sorry for Miss Brodie I also found myself wondering how she could be so stupid. The book takes place in the 1930s. Mussolini and Hitler are just coming into power. Miss Brodie thinks fascism will make the world a better place. Maybe it is because I have the hindsight of history that her thinking makes me cringe.

I felt throughout the book an underlying sense of menace. I have tried to put my finger on it, but I am not sure what it is exactly. Perhaps it is the early knowledge that Miss Brodie will be betrayed by one of her own. Perhaps it is the personal details of her life, real and imagined, that she imparts to the girls. Maybe it's both, or something else. Whatever it was, it gave me a creepy feeling now and then.

How does Miss Brodie compare to my extra credit book, A Far Cry From Kensington? Both have the same wry humor. Sandy, one of Miss Brodie's girls, reminded me a little of Mrs. Hawkins in A Far Cry. It also had a touch of menace in it. Both books also focus on a sort of closed community--the school in Miss Brodie and a boarding house in A Far Cry. Each of them is peopled with delightfully quirky individuals. Miss Brodie, however, is definitely a deeper read.

I enjoyed both Spark books very much and after a bit of a break, plan to read more of her.

This is a Slaves of Golconda group read. All are welcome to joint the discussion at the MetaxuCafe forum.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

(Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles)

I liked this book well enough to read it twice, one time right after the other. It was well worth the re-read.

The story is about the “Brodie set,” six girls whom Brodie, a schoolteacher, takes under her wing, nurturing them and teaching them her version of culture – and sometimes the regular school lessons too. Spark sums up each of the girls in a few phrases which she repeats throughout the book. There is Monica Douglas, “famous mostly for mathematics which she could do in her brain, and for her anger which, when it was lively enough, drove her to slap out to right and left.” There is Rose Stanley, “famous for sex,” Eunice Gardiner, “small, neat and famous for her spritely gymnastics and glamourous swimming,” Jenny Gray, who will become an actress and is “the prettiest and most graceful girl of the set,” and Mary Macgregor “whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame.” Most importantly, though, there is Sandy Stranger, whom the book will follow most closely. She is famous for her squinty, disconcerting eyes.

Brodie is an unconventional teacher; she spends much class time telling stories, some of which are about her love life, and while she tells stories she sometimes asks students to hold up their books so that if the headmistress walks into the classroom they will look like they are working. She doesn’t balk at instilling her particular eccentric opinions and biases, and while she claims the sciences have their place, she makes it clear that art is what really matters.

Most importantly, she forms her “set,” the girls she cultivates particular relationships with, and who remain loyal to her even once they have passed through her classroom and moved on to higher grades. Her unconventional teaching and the loyalty of this set upset the other teachers and the headmistress, who spend the book scheming to get rid of Miss Brodie. This forms part of the tension of the novel: will she lose her job? Will the girls remain loyal to her? Who is it who finally betrayed her?

The nature of Brodie’s relationship with the girls is what’s really at the center of the novel, and this relationship changes – at first they admire her and follow her almost unthinkingly, and as the novel progresses, the girls grow up, and begin to question her, Sandy especially. And Brodie herself changes, from an idealistic, independent role model, dedicating the “prime of her life” to the girls, to something much more sinister. Sandy must separate herself from Brodie in order to figure out who she is and to become an adult. Sandy struggles with the feeling that she is too-closely identified with Brodie quite early on; in one scene when Sandy is tempted to be nice to Mary, a girl to whom almost no one is nice, she stops when she realizes Brodie is nearby:

The sound of Miss Brodie’s presence, just when it was on the tip of Sandy’s tongue to be nice to Mary Macgregor, arrested the urge. Sandy looked back at her companions, and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the head. She perceived herself, the absent Jenny, the ever-blamed Mary, Rose, Eunice and Monica, all in a frightening little moment, in unified compliance to the destiny of Miss Brodie, as if God had willed them to birth for that purpose.

She was even more frightened then, by her temptation to be nice to Mary Macgregor, since by this action she would separate herself, and be lonely, and blameable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although officially the faulty one, was at least inside Miss Brodie’s category of heroines in the making.

And, ominously, Brodie admires Mussolini and the fascists. The novel is set in the 1930s, and we as readers understand just what it means to admire Mussolini. And here are Sandy’s thoughts, shortly after the passage quoted above:

It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of the Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way, marching alone. That was all right, but it seemed, too, that Miss Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault. Perhaps the Guides were too much a rival fascisti, and Miss Brodie could not bear it. Sandy thought she might see about joining the Brownies. Then the group-fright seized her again, and it was necessary to put the idea aside, because she loved Miss Brodie.

So Sandy’s struggle with Brodie – her love for her, her admiration for her, her suspicion of her, and eventually her feeling of suffocation because of her – becomes a way of thinking about the larger cultural lure of and struggle with fascism.

The girls’ curiosity about sex is a part of the story too; they try to imagine Brodie with her lovers and figure out the mechanics of sex, and then they observe in fascination as she begins an affair with one instructor, Mr. Lowther, and falls in love with another, Mr. Lloyd. They are both thrilled and horrified. But Brodie crosses a line when she starts scheming to turn the now late-adolescent Rose into Mr. Lloyd’s lover, as a proxy for herself. Sandy is fully aware of what is going on, and reacts in her own, completely unexpected way. Near the end of the novel, she tries to come to terms with what is happening:

She thought of Miss Brodie eight years ago sitting under the elm tree telling her first simple love story and wondered to what extent it was Miss Brodie who had developed complications throughout the years, and to what extent it was her own conception of Miss Brodie that had changed.

It is when Sandy realizes that Brodie “thinks she is Providence … she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end” that she is able to separate herself fully. Sandy is a mysterious character; I’m intrigued by her decision to become a nun, and I’m not sure I fully understand it, except that she has a longing for order, inspired in part by Brodie:

All the time they were under her influence she and her actions were outside the context of right and wrong. It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of disorder that she could look back and recognize that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects …

Sandy seems to shuttle back and forth between longing for order and feeling stifled by an order too powerfully imposed on her. It takes her a long time, and perhaps it also takes the experience of being a nun, to learn to value a fruitful disorder. But this is something that as an adolescent she is not prepared to deal with.

The writing style is spare and economical, and Spark uses repetition – of the girls’ defining characteristics, of the phrase “the prime of life,” – which creates a sense of an incantation, as though she can conjure up a sense of her characters, not through the accretion of detail, but by dwelling on the most telling details over and over again. And she moves around in time, skipping back and forth while the story slowly reveals itself. It’s as though she’s circling around the main point, approaching it from many angles, giving us the story in a disjointed way that over time begins to come together.

I found Sandy’s artistic interests intriguing; here Spark dwells on the way the artist seeks out patterns and creates patterns out of life. Sandy realizes after a while that Brodie embellishes her stories and changes them to suit her moods. In this example, the girls are thinking about Brodie’s retelling of the story of her love affair with Hugh, an event that predates the novel:

This was the first time the girls had heard of Hugh’s artistic leanings. Sandy puzzled over this and took counsel with Jenny, and it came to them both that Miss Brodie was making her new story fit the old. Thereafter the two girls listened with double ears, and the rest of the class with single.

Sandy was fascinated by this method of making patterns with facts, and was divided between her admiration for the technique and the pressing need to prove Miss Brodie guilty of misconduct.

This is the same conflict we saw in Sandy’s response to Brodie’s “group-think,” the lure of Brodie’s cult of personality and the fear of chaos she evokes. Sandy is attracted and repelled by Brodie’s disorder, the willingness to play with facts if this makes a better story, the impulse to shape the world to meet the demands of art.

Spark’s own shaping of the raw materials of life is obvious in the novel; she draws attention through the repetition and the shifts in time to the fact that the novel is a constructed, made thing. She is not straightforwardly “realistic.” Her characters have life and interest, but she is more concerned with locating the patterns of their lives and interactions than with accumulating detail about them, in the way most novels do. Spark does brilliant things with her short form; using just a few details, she creates the sense of real, complete human beings, but her economy of detail also allows the underlying lines and patterns to shine through.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Muriel Spark

Cross-posted from Bookworm

It was a bit distracting reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie right after reading Muriel Spark's autobiography. Just about every page of the book contains some object, setting, or event that was part of Spark's own schoolgirl experience in 1930's Edinburgh. Certainly they have been transposed, modified, reworked to fit the fiction, but it was hard not to notice them as I went along—the musquash coat, the smashing saucer, the poor of Edinburgh, the charismatic teacher enamoured of art and Mussolini.

I found myself wondering which parts not mentioned in her autobiography were also from her real life and which were invented. Spark calls her school years "the most formative years of my life" and devotes a great deal of space to them in her memoir. It's no wonder that the environment that made such an impression on her has made such an impression on readers, even in its rearranged form.

What is this book about? That is the question I had in my mind after reading it, and I confess I can't come up with a good answer. The explanations in the book, mainly given through Sandy, just seem too easy. Or am I mistaken in thinking that a good book must be difficult? Is it as it appears, a story about the dethroning of a frustrated, fascistic, self-deluded woman who wrought havoc among men and girls during her "prime"?

After reading Muriel Spark's autobiography and her descriptions of the various "utterly abnormal" people she had known, it is certainly possible that Spark just wished to create her own species of mental case (inspired by one of her own teachers) and see what would happen when she was unleashed on a variety of vulnerable people. That would be very much like the obsessive observer of human idiosyncracies that Spark was.

Though broader issues—Calvinism, fascism, Catholicism—feature in the story, I am inclined to believe that the book is more about people than ideas, or, at most, what happens when ideas impinge on personalities formed by nature and distorted by experience. Would Miss Brodie have come to admire Mussolini and Hitler had her lover not died in the war? Would Sandy have become a nun and psychologist were it not for Miss Brodie? How is that Rose was able to "[shake] off Miss Brodie's influence as a dog shakes pond-water form its coat" and the others were not?

As you can see, I seem to have more questions than answers, so I think I'd better go read the other Slaves' posts and learn a thing or two about this book. But before I do that, I'd like to announce that the next Slaves of Golconda read will be chosen by Stefanie of So Many Books. Anything but Clarissa, OK Stefanie?

For more Brodie questions, see

Photos of Muriel Spark's Edinburgh

(Cross-posted from Kate's Book Blog)

In anticipation of the commencement of our discussion of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, here are a few photos from my recent trip to Edinburgh.

“I was born in Edinburgh, at 160 Bruntsfield Place, the Morningside District, in 1918.” (Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae)

“From where I lived the school was a ten-minute walk through avenues of tall trees.” (Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae)

“I spent twelve years at Gillespie’s, the most formative years of my life, and in many ways the most fortunate for a future writer.” (Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae)

“They were crossing the meadows, a gusty expanse of common land, glaring green under the snowy sky. Their destination was the Old Town, for Miss Brodie had said they should see where history had been lived; and their route had brought them to the Middle Meadow Walk.” (Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

“They approached the Old Town which none of the girls had properly seen before, because none of their parents was so historically minded as to be moved to conduct their daughters into the reeking network of slums which the Old Town constituted in those years.”(Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

Muriel Spark's Aiding and Abetting

Cross-posted from Of Books and Bicycles

Aiding and Abetting is a very short book – almost short enough to be a novella – at 165 pages with large print and margins. But so much happens in it, and Spark manages to give you lots of characters and action without creating the feeling that things are rushed and undeveloped.

How can you not like a main character with the name Hildegard Wolf? She is a wonderful character: smart, powerful, mysterious. And also deceitful. She is a psychiatrist with some unusual methods: she spends the first few sessions telling stories to the patient instead of the other way around. The patients love this, for the most part, and she is very successful. She has always had healing powers. In an earlier episode in her life she was a fake “holy stigmatic”; every month she would take menstrual blood and smear it on at least one of the places Jesus was wounded, hands, feet, or side, and people flocked to her for healing. People sent her money in return for her “miracles,” and this is how she survives until she is exposed as a fraud and has to flee. This, of course, makes one wonder about the legitimacy of her status as psychiatrist. She insists that she really did heal some people as a stigmatic, and she really does seem to help her patients, so the book becomes a meditation on the power of belief. Is she so bad for having helped people, even if she did so under false pretenses? All this, by the way, is backstory, sketched in early on before the action begins.

The other part of the story involves two men, both Hildegard’s patients, each of whom claims to be “Lucky Lucan,” an Earl who killed his daughter’s nanny in a failed attempt to kill his wife and then went into hiding for over 25 years. Hildegard, with the help of some of the novel’s other characters, tries to figure out which one is the murderer while keeping out of danger herself. This part of story touches on issues of class: at the time Lucan committed the murder, the story as people told it was mostly about Lucan himself – it was a shocking tale of upper-class “bad behavior” and the friends who aided and abetted his escape. The nanny herself, the victim, was forgotten. As time goes on, Lucan’s high-class friends begin to realize that Lucan is a murderer, not just an Earl who had string of bad luck. They lose their sense of privilege and Lucan begins to lose his friends.

The novel is a mystery story in a number of senses. Which patient is the real Lucan and which is the pretender? Or are they both fakes? How has Lucan survived all those years without getting caught? What is it about Hildegard that people respond to so strongly so that she can perform miracles when they believe in her? Is she, as a fake stigmatic, so different from the fake Lucan? Here is what the novel says about mystery:

The case of the seventh Earl is only secondarily one of an evasion of justice, it is primarily that of a mystery. And it is not only the questions of how did he get away, where did he go, how has he been living, is he in fact alive? The mystery is even more in the question of what was he like, how did he feel, what went on his mind that led him to believe he could get away with his plan? What detective stories has he been reading? What dreamlike, immature culture was he influenced by?

Isn’t that the real mystery – what people are like, what they experience, and what shapes them?The writing here is simple and direct. It’s as though Spark knows she has a complicated story to tell in a limited space and so she must be efficient in her storytelling. The plot moves fast, the words do their job quickly, and yet somehow Spark manages to convey a completeness in those few words. She conjures up an entire world with just a few strokes.

Muriel Spark: Curriculum Vitae

Crossposted from Bookworm

Curriculum Vitae is Muriel Spark's attempt to answer what she calls the essential poet's question: Who am I? Like a true professional she researched her own life, digging up old documents and consulting friends and family to corroborate her own memories. The autobiography describes the first 39 years of her life, from her birth to the publication of her first book, The Comforters, in 1957. If there is an answer in Curriculum Vitae to the question of who she was, it is simply that she was a writer.

Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh in 1918 to an English mother and Scottish father, and although her family was poor, her formative years were rich with experience—perfect for a future writer. Spark's parents included her in their vibrant social life, and she encountered a great variety of interesting and memorable people before starting her formal education. I suspect she picked up part of her penchant for observing people from her parents who would talk about their acquaintances in front of their daughter, often making fun of them and giving them nicknames.

The main beneficiary of Scottish philanthropy over several centuries was education, so Spark was able to go to a good school at little or no cost to her parents.

Education was held in awe, and the Scottish idea was that nobody should be denied this privilege.

At Gillespie's Girls' School she was taught by many excellent teachers, including the "exhilarating and impressive" Miss Christina Kay who was the model for Miss Brodie. Miss Kay lived a rich and adventurous life and shared it with her girls, stimulating Muriel's imagination and thirst for experience of her own.

What filled our minds with wonder and make Christina Kay so memorable was the personal drama and poetry within which everything in her classroom happened.

From a young age Spark showed an aptitude for poetry and literature, and was encouraged and supported in this at home and at school.

Miss Kay predicted my future as a writer in the most emphatic terms. I felt I had hardly much choice in the matter.

She read all the poetry and fiction she could get her hands on, and sought feedback on her poems and stories from friends and teachers. By the time she left school she was already an award-winning and published poet. Despite her obvious talent and intelligence, she did not pursue a university degree, partly due to a lack of money, and partly because she preferred to study on her own. She did take some writing and secretarial courses that enabled her to enter the working world and gain more of the life experience she was looking for.

At the age of 18 she met and married Sydney Spark and moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he was posted as a teacher. The marriage was "disastrous." She calls her husband "mentally ill," but what she describes, in very detached language, is a violent, abusive man. Spark never describes what he did to her or anyone else, nor does she say how she felt about it. She does say she feared for her life, which propelled her to obtain a divorce.

Spark longed to leave Africa, partly because of her domestic situation, and partly because she could not tolerate the hideous racism of the white colonists. "Life in the colony was eating my heart away." By this time the war had started and civilian transport was restricted, but with a little trickery she did secure a passage home for herself. She had to leave her son behind because children could not be transported in to the UK; indeed many were being shipped out for safekeeping. Friends and relatives questioned whether she wouldn't be safer in Africa, but she wanted to "experience" the war. In fact she chose to settle in London rather than Edinburgh in order to witness the bombing.

All women under 45 without family obligations were required to join the war effort. Spark's employment agent turned out to be an avid reader, and as they conversed about literature and poetry the agent soon realized Spark had a superior intellect. As a result she was posted to intelligence work, helping to create and distribute anti-Nazi propaganda via fake German radio stations. Spark began to feel a "definite desire" that gaining experience was no longer enough, but that she wanted to "give experience" to the reader with her writing. It was a vague feeling, however, and she didn't feel ready to try it yet.

After the war she worked in publishing, eventually becoming the editor of Poetry Review. Her attempts to raise the quality of the journal and welcome more modern poets was met with fierce and underhanded resistance and she was eventually forced out. After that she became a "hoarder" of all her records, papers, letters, etc. so that she could submit "documentary evidence" the next time she was attacked. This apparently continued for the rest of her life, and now that she has passed I imagine her archives will be of great interest to Spark scholars.

She also had another unsuccessful relationship with a possessive and vindictive man. She cobbled a living together by working for magazines and writing literary biography and criticism, but it was barely enough to keep body and soul together. A combination of post-war rationing, self-neglect, and Dexedrine (an appetite suppressant) led to malnourishment and she eventually had to leave London to convalesce. There are hints that alcohol was also a problem, but no more than hints. It was her friends that kept her afloat through all her troubles, and she remembers them with great fondness.

By the mid-50's she started making a name for herself in the literary world and was commissioned to write her first novel, an unusual thing in that day. The timing was right because she was already shifting her work towards story-telling.

I was now moving, myself, from lyric poetry to narrative verse. This was the start of my move in literature towards the short story and then the novel.

The book ends with the success of her first novel, The Comforters, which is based on the word hallucinations she had while taking Dexedrine, and also on the Book of Job. She writes of that book:

I didn't feel like 'a novelist' and before I could square it with my literary conscience to write a novel, I had to work out the novel-writing process peculiar to myself, and moreover, perform this act within the very novel I proposed to write.

As a Catholic convert myself I was looking for what she would say about her own conversion experience. I find it difficult to explain why I became a Catholic and it seems to be no different for Spark.

The simple explanation is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I have always felt and known and believed. … The more difficult explanation would involve the step by step building up of a conviction. … Indeed, the existential quality of a religious experience cannot be simply summed up in general terms.

Some of those steps undoubtedly took place with Father Frank O'Malley, who counselled her during her illness, and during her convalescence at two Carmelite monasteries. Unfortunately for the curious, she keeps the details of those experiences to herself. Indeed she keeps a lot to herself, relating the facts of her experiences without much emotion or personal comment. Some crucial moments are described only through her friends' comments. She says next to nothing about her son, and as I mentioned earlier, very little about her marriage. Perhaps this reflects her Anglo-Scottish background. She writes that "It was certainly an attitude typical of Edinburgh to deny feelings for the sake of principle," and the English are not known for emotionality.

One has to read between the lines to infer where her feelings were involved. Loyal friends are clearly one thing she feels passionate about, particularly, I imagine, since her romantic relationships were so disappointing. (A friend called her "a bad picker" of men.) The book was also written in part to "put the record straight" after a former friend and writing partner wrote unauthorized accounts of her that were filled with inaccuracies. She does the research into the facts of her life that he did not, and she refutes his work through her narrative and directly in her account of her (non-romantic) relationship with him. A word to the wise: take any works about Spark by Derek Sanford (and works based on his works) with a grain of salt. She describes his "disregard for the truth" as "very uncharitable towards students and scholars," but I believe she herself felt betrayed and deeply hurt. This book is her public response to that betrayal.

In the last chapter she writes:

Since I wrote my first novel I have passed the years occupied with ever more work, many travels, and adventures. Friends, famous and obscure, abound in my life-story. That will be the subject of another volume.

Sadly for us she did not write that volume before her death this year. Let's hope her next biographer will be as scrupulous as she was in writing Curriculum Vitae. Muriel Spark, rest in peace.

Loitering With Miss Jean Brodie

If not for the Slaves of Golconda, your Bibliothecary most likely would never have picked up a book by Muriel Spark. Now, in the past two months, we have read two: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Loitering With Intent. The second was not the book we had proposed to read for extra credit, but it was at hand, and the other wasn't. So, having read two novels by an author we were aware of but had never been interested in, we thank Sylvia for her choice.

We were surprised to learn Muriel Spark just died two months ago. In 1993 she became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her services to literature. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Ms. Spark's sixth novel, originally published 1961. Time magazine recently listed it among their 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923. In her autobiography, Ms. Spark identified Miss Christina Kay and the James Gillespie School in Edinburgh as the models for Brodie and the Marcia Blaine Junior School where she teaches. Loitering With Intent is Ms. Spark's sixteenth novel, published in 1981.

Let us dispense with the second book first.

Loitering With Intent

The narrator, a novelist called Fleur Talbot, is enlisted by a wealthy old man called Sir Quentin to help ghost-write the autobiographies of his circle of friends. She finds their stories boring, and so proceeds to embellish them. The more she comes to know the members of the Autobiographical Association, the more they remind her of characters in the novel she has been writing, until she begins to suspect she has been hired merely to mine her fiction. When Sir Quentin accuses her of misusing him and his friends as models for her novel, she must quickly figure out who is on her side and who is not in order to prevent Sir Quentin from destroying the manuscript.

Fleur seems to be a good woman, befriending the elderly mother of Sir Quentin when everyone else tries to shut her away. She maintains a casual relationship with the wife of her former lover, even after she discovers the woman has betrayed her. She completes her novels, she perseveres, she is not a victim. She learns from her experience, which she marks as the end of her poverty and her youth. Still, she is just one of a strange lot of people who seem to deserve one another. None of the Autobiographical Association seem to have a purpose in life, and perhaps it is thus they are so easily lured in by Sir Quentin.

This is a novel that contains a bit of mystery, a hint of suspense, and much reference to the writing life. It was easy to fall into, quick to read, and confusing only if we tried to keep accurate track of time--Fleur is in the present, beginning her story in the near past, from where she flashes back to the distant past, and then freely refers back to the present now and again.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

There is near the end of the novel a paragraph that succinctly describes Jean Brodie:
She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end. And Sandy thought, too, the woman is an unconscious Lesbian. And many theories from the books of psychology categorised Miss Brodie, but failed to obliterate her image from the canvases of one-armed Teddy Lloyd.
Though Miss Brodie teaches her students many things outside the standard school curriculum, she does not reveal everything. The girls begin to fill in the spaces in their instruction with their own imaginings, much like the other teachers do in their knowledge of Miss Brodie. Two of the girls fabricate a series of love letters between Miss Brodie and Gordon Lowther, the music teacher. The last letter of the series is the only one presented, and provides a moment of great humor. Ms. Spark does a wonderful job of capturing the thoughts of pre-teen girls on the edge of obsession about sex. They have Miss Brodie recall a moment of passion with Lowther, and then go on to say:
"I may permit misconduct to occur again from time to time as an outlet because I am in my Prime."
And the closing:
"Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing."
We have a soft place for unorthodox school teachers. To a great extent, modern public education in America has devolved into mere skills training so that students will become productive members of the economy. Anyone who teaches critical thinking to students, as Miss Brodie clearly does, gets a gold star beside their name on our classroom poster. We had the privilege of a teacher who would take class outdoors on fine days; a teacher who taught algebra in advance of the curriculum; and a political science teacher who showed murder/mystery films in class, and who would discuss anything. What joy to have John Keating for a teacher.

Unfortunately, it feels as if Miss Brodie goes a little too far. We had an uneasy feeling when she would speak of her personal life with her grade-school girls. And she seemed to prefer the company of these girls, who she so easily influenced, and over whom she held a position of authority, to the company of her peers, by whom she felt mainly threatened. She does engage in a love affair, yet it does not strike us as genuine, and she suggests with determination that one of her girls become the lover, in her place, of her true love interest, Teddy Lloyd. While Miss Brodie is dismissed in the end because of politics alone, and she regularly champions her strong morals, her influence over the children borders uncomfortably on exploitation.

Lurking hidden by her prime, hypocrisy clouds much of Miss Brodie's thoughts and teachings. Why does she believe it would be unseemly for her to become the lover of a married man, but it would be fine for one of her students? Why does she urge her students to be individualists, but try to keep them together under her wing--the Brodie set--and sing the praises of the fascisti?

Several things struck us about both novels. First, they are brief in length. They might be called novellas--The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published first in a magazine--and yet they feel to us more like an expanded slice-of-life short story, or maybe even a whole pie of life. They do not create a world, though, as most of the best novels do.

Second, Miss Brodie and Sir Quentin are both characters who aspire to gather others around them and manipulate, if not control, them. In these two cases, the end result is not in their favor. According to the Literary Encyclopedia, these are both personifications of a control figure that Ms. Spark uses frequently in her fiction.

Third, Ms. Spark's narratives moved back and forth in time. Though we began The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with the mildest of confusion, the shifts were done extremely well. Within the space of a few sentences, even within the same paragraph, the reader would move from past to future and then back to present. For aspiring writers who desire to do the same, Ms. Spark provides a fine example of how to accomplish it smoothly, clearly, and without disruption to the story. Time is so fluid in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, it would require careful study to plot the events in chronological order and determine whether or not the skips are purposeful to the novel, or merely an omniscient style with which Ms. Spark is comfortable, and proficient.

Finally, Ms. Spark writes in a style in both books that to us is reminiscent of John Gardner. Both writers seem completely in control of their stories. Their books read pleasantly, with a careful workmanship flavor. The language is correct and exact. Despite all these qualities, their books stir little emotion. There are no characters we identify with or root for. We would probably not recommend them for enjoyment, yet we wouldn't offer them up at the next book burning. We struggled to find much to say beyond a synopsis of both Ms. Spark's books. Though Julie enjoyed Loitering With Intent, Suzanne commented that she had read the book but had no recollection of it at all. That is how it seems to us to be with Ms. Spark: we read her books, and then we move on to the next book in the TBR pile.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006