Friday, June 30, 2006

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!).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"It is all quite easy to understand, yet it is also very complicated..."

That's exactly the impression I got.

After reading posts on her various books, it seems to be a theme with Spark to present strange characters whose motivations are inscrutible, at least to us. Spark was above all an observer of people--perhaps she thought readers could see below the suface of bizarre behaviour as well as she did.