Thursday, July 27, 2006

Reading Wells

The Island of Dr. Moreau still awaits on the horizon. Meanwhile, I have been sailing towards it on two other short novels by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Rather than wait to post on these extra credit books, I am going to go ahead now, and I can draw comparisons as needed later.

My first real memory of War of the Worlds was a vague impression of a probably made-for-television version of the 1938 Orson Wells radio dramatization of the book. I remember Wells wrote his script as a series of "Breaking News" interruptions of a fictional musical entertainment, and a great number of people, who had missed the introduction at the top of the program, thought the Martian invasion was real. Stefanie's selection gave me reason to pick up the book and discover the story for myself.

The context of this novel is important. Today astronomy is full of the likelihood of existence beyond our planet, as well as the possibility that life on earth is of extraterrestrial origin. But try to imagine a time before space travel, even before winged air travel. Much science was still just coming into its own, becoming something people could trust and rely upon. England was at the height of its empire, with colonies across the world. Mars had only recently been mapped, and some theorised the linear features of the planet were not naturally made. Wells combined these ingredients--Martian life, hostile colonisation, and flight--into a novel of social commentary that was ahead of its time in plot and treatment.

He begins and ends the book with stunning narrative passages that set the tone and deliver the setting and the message. Between these points we are given the first-hand account of a man who encounters and then must survive the Martian invasion. We are told that humans go about their daily lives without a care and with an air of superiority. When the capsules from Mars crash into England, people are curious but not nervous or wary or frightened. Even when men begin to die, they do not seem to take the threat seriously. Finally the Martian tripods appear and begin their takeover of the country. The narrator goes into hiding, avoids, runs away, and generally survives the ordeal to tell us about it. And when nothing particularly gripping is happening to him, he tells us about how his brother hid, avoided, and ran away. The English war machine is destroyed, and the Martians begin their colonisation of earth by growing a red weed. Imagine, if you can, that England's destiny is not to rule over other peoples from pole to pole, but to be subjugated and overthrown by another life form entirely unknown--the despair of this novel was unprecedented entertainment. Then, just when all hope is lost and total annhilation is imminent, the Martians are suddenly brought down by a germ or virus that they have no tolerance for, but which has ever lived symbiotically with man.

For me, the climax was a bit anticlimactic. This novel has never been out of print, yet I doubt it would be published today as it is written. However, let us remember the context, and the amazing (for the time) possibility that something we cannot even see could save us from certain doom when all our weapons and survival skills and superiority fail. Germs are obvious to us now, but this must have been quite a little twist to Wells' Victorian audience.

To round out my experience, I viewed the 1953 and 2005 films based on the novel. Both took liberties with their source material. In place of a priest who accompanies the narrator for some time, the early film has a helpless screeching woman, and the recent film has children. This change seems to me meant to address the lack of an active hero in the story, for now the narrator must protect the woman or save the child. It doesn't make it, though. Like so many big disaster movies that ultimately disappoint, the main character doesn't actually fight back and defeat whatever threat exists, he simply survives it. Would we ever have applauded Bruce Willis if he had merely hidden and run away from the terrorists in "Die Hard" instead of fighting back? Not bloody likely.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Expanded from a short review at Girl Detective.

My copy of The Abbess of Crewe notes it is "a wicked satire of Watergate." The novel opens with a discussion between Alexandra, the newly elected Abbess of Crewe, and Sister Winifrede, "land of the midnight sun." Alexandra cautions Winifrede that their conversation in the avenue of meditation is not private. Winifrede pauses, then speaks.

'You mean, Lady Abbess,' she says, 'that you've even bugged the poplars?'

Very little is private at the Abbey, which Alexandra oversees with a bizarre mixture of medieval religious practices combined with the study of "modern" electronics. Surrounded by her cronies Walburga and Mildred, and advised at a distance by the deep-voiced, traveling Gertrude, Alexandra was not suprised to be elected the new Abbess. She had worked hard to ensure it would be so. Alexandra's rival was Sister Felicity, and a scandal has erupted in the outside world due to the election, and something about a missing thimble of Felicity's. Like other books of Spark's, the story begins near the end, then loops back and forth in time, layering new details until a whole picture is achieved.

I assumed I would dislike tall, attractive Alexandra, who serves fine food and wine to herself and her inner circle, while the rest of the abbey dines on other, less attractive, things:

...a perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk.

But short, homely Felicity, who is having an affair with a Jesuit and preaching free love to the other nuns, is pathetic, rather than sympathetic. By contrast, Alexandra is sharp and darkly funny, and so wickedly adept at obfuscation, that I couldn't help but root for her as the book progressed.

The Abbess of Crewe is dated, both by its subject and the electronic equipment it references. Spark nevertheless made her story timeless by setting the power struggle in the removed culture of an abbey, and expanding it far beyond a one-to-one analog to Watergate. It is filled with snarky one liners, and is much funnier than the other three Spark novels I read: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Driver's Seat, and The Finishing School.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Muriel Spark

Better late than never, I suppose! The June 30 due date for Slaves of Golconda submissions coincided with an influx of new work (yay!). As well, I have to confess I didn't find either of the books all that compelling. Gushing or panning, I can do. But what do you say when you just don't have much reaction at all? Part of the problem was my fault, the same problem that led me to abandon My Life as a Fake: the problem of not having nice long stretches of time available for reading, the problem of trying to read and simultaneously care for an energetic three-year-old.

First, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'm sure by now y'all know what the story is about. Miss Jean Brodie is the schoolteacher, the charismatic schoolteacher with "advanced and seditious" teaching methods, at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh. She has carefully selected a "set" (isn't that such a better word than clique?) of girls with whom she spends much time, carefully feeding them the manners, opinions and ideas that will make them the "crème de la crème." She has an affair with one of her colleagues and she tries to engineer an affair between another teacher and one of the girls. Eventually one of the other girls in the set, Sandy, secretly "betrays" her and she loses her job.

The most interesting aspect of this book is the characters, particularly Miss Brodie and Sandy. Miss Brodie: is she for real? Why does she try to set up one of her students to have an affair with a teacher? I mean, it's explained in the book ("Sandy looked at her, and perceived that the woman was obsessed by the need for Rose to sleep with the man she herself was in love with") but why does she actually do it? And Sandy: why does she betray Miss Brodie? I assume Sandy is the autobiographical character here; she has the storyteller's imagination (her flights of fancy are the best part of the book) and later converts to Catholicism, like Spark herself, and becomes a nun.

Second, Memento Mori -- a soap opera about old people! A very funny idea. A group of men and women in their 80s keep getting prank phone calls: a voice intones, "Remember, you must die!" This group of people are all interrelated a set. They're all either the spouses, the illicit lovers, or the maids of each other. As they react in their various ways to the prank calls their moldy old secrets are revealed, including love affairs, blackmail, bigamy. Pure soap opera!

Overall, Memento Mori was a bit disappointing, especially given the spectacular premise. I had trouble keeping track of the characters. I wish Spark had done in this one what she did so nicely in Jean Brodie, cueing the reader with a repeated detail (Rose, who was famous for sex; Mary Macgregor who was stupid and died a gruesome death, etc.). And although one or two characters surmise that the prank caller might actually be Death I wish the idea had been explored more fully.

I will go out on a limb here and complain that Muriel Spark has a way of treating big subjects too lightly. I find it hard to believe that she was a religious person. I know she became an R.C. and was obsessed with Cardinal Newman. Obviously religion must have been important to her, and the themes in her books reflect this (life, death, moral choice, truth, etc.) but she comes across as so callous and cynical. For example, "everyone likes to visit a nun, it provides a spiritual sensation, a catharsis to go home with, especially if the nun clutches the bars of the grille." Yuck! Though I suppose it's also possible that this nice Jewish girl with a not-so-secret infatuation with the Catholic church takes this stuff a just wee bit too seriously?

My other complaint is that none of the characters are particularly likeable. I've now read three books by Spark (here's what I wrote about Loitering with Intent last year) and out of all three books there was a grand total of one (1) character that I actually liked. That would be Fleur from Loitering, whom I liked immensely. Maybe I'm just not one of the crème de la crème, but it's hard for me to appreciate a book when I don't like any of the characters in it.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I posted some preliminary thoughts on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on my blog a few weeks ago. You can read the post here.

I had originally hoped to write some more regarding this fine book, but so far, because of network connectivity problems for the last week, I've only been able to post on my 'extra credit' book: The Only Problem. I have been reading along when I could steal a few minutes at work, but posting/commenting wasn't an option. The individual posts and the discussion in the MetaxuCafe forum has been great.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Only Problem & The Book of Job

cross-posted at Cam's Commentary

To take on the book of Job is a monumental task. To refute the book of Job -- or at least to challenge some of the conventional thinking regarding the work, even suggesting that it shouldn't be part of the Bible -- is an equally daunting task. Yet, Muriel Spark, in The Only Problem does just that.

The Only Problem is a short novel (about 130 pages) about Harvey, a wealthy, self-proclaimed student (as opposed to 'scholar') who is writing a treatise on Job. He has abandoned his wife, Effie, about a year before the narrative begins, and can't be persuaded by either his brother-in-law Edward or sister-in-law Ruth to provide a cash settlement in a divorce that both he & his wife want. Ruth travels to France with Effie's illegitimate child Clara to convince Harvey to do the moral thing, but, instead, separates from Edward and becomes Harvey's lover. Soon, all are caught up in events beyond their control when Effie joins a terrorist group that incites violence throughout the region where Harvey & Ruth are living. Harvey can't reconcile the idea of the wife he used to love with the terrorist she has become; nor can he admit that while he doesn't want to live with Effie, he loves her and while he doesn't love Ruth, he wants to live with her.

Ruth flees the police surveillance and media-frenzy and returns to live with Clara's father. Retreating from the scholarly, intellectual discussions common in her life with Harvey, Ruth adapts to the environment of her new lover, Ernie, even taking on his distinctive lower-class accent. Without Ruth or Effie, Harvey's thoughts about Job become more obsessive, his perception of being tortured more pronounced. In the end, Ruth, about to give birth to Harvey's child, moves back to France to raise Clara and the new child with Harvey. A year after the narrative begins, Edward comes to visit them, Harvey has finished his work on Job, a sense of harmony in the lives of all seemingly has been restored. With his writing on Job completed and his acceptance of Effie's political actions having resulted in her death, he states he will live a 140 years with his 3 daughters -- just like Job.

In the opening pages, Edward has a theory that "people have an effect on the natural greenery around them regardless of whether they lay hands on it or not; some people, he would remark, induce fertility in their environment, and some the desert, simply by psychic force" (p 323-24). Like the comforters in Job, Edward believes that one's actions affect one's fate. Harvey, on the other hand, struggles with the 'only' problem -- how can a loving omnipotent God also be the author of suffering? Why would such a Creator allow his faithful followers to suffer through no fault of their own? It is only Job's faith that redeems him, despite the beliefs of the comforters and Job's wife, that he should turn his back on the god who has abandoned him. This is the antithesis of Edward's view: individuals don't make their environment. As much as we seek to control it, it is out of our control.

Harvey does not 'suffer' in the same way that Job suffers, but he is a 'tortured soul'. Harvey is very wealthy, yet chooses to live with only basic comforts. While he sees injustice in the world, he doesn't take action to prevent it. He regrets losing his wife, yet he is the one who walked away -- literally, on the autobahn -- from his marriage. He doesn't want people to be around him, yet cannot live completely as a hermit. He seeks to control others -- telling Edward to cut his hair; telling a maid that it is her fault that he will not bring his guest to the lunch she has prepared; wanting to be alone, but unable to tell Nathan, an unexpected guest and unknown conspirator of Effie's, to leave. Yet, the more Harvey seeks to control, the more the situation with Effie -- a situation he has no power to control at all - gets out of hand. The fallout from Effie's terrorist activities take over his life with everything from property searches, suspicions of wiretapping, constant police surveillance, lengthy interrogations, and a treatment by the media that makes him look more villainous than his terrorist-wife.

And, yet, Harvey could have controlled some of it, or at least influenced it's effect, if he had taken different actions. If he had simply granted his wife a divorce, the media and police attention would have been different. If he wasn't as self-centered as he is, he might have seen the harm he caused Effie and Ruth. He would have cared less about trivial things like the length of Edward's hair, and would have cared more about inadvertently hurting Anne-Marie's feelings by destroying a bouquet that was meant to cheer him up. If he had talked about Effie and distanced himself from her in a press conference, he wouldn't have been portrayed as he was because he chose to talk about his scholarly work on the book of Job instead of terrorism. As a result, he not only harms himself, but Ruth and Clara as well.

It is difficult for the reader to see Harvey as suffering like Job. He does suffer, but not nearly as much as he thinks he does. But, maybe that is the point -- one's sufferings are one's own. They may not be mythic like Job's, but one's miseries are one's own to endure. And that is where faith comes in.

Spark, a convert to Catholicism, does not hit the reader over the head with her thoughts on Job and religion. Harvey struggles to engage most people he meets in discussion about Job. Mostly, this fails. As Spark often does in her work, she includes in the narrative a clever bit, so brief it almost could be missed, that the French do not understand who Job is. "It was difficult to get across to them what the Book of Job was. Harvey's French wasn't at fault, it was their knowledge of the bible of which, like most good Catholics, they had scant knowledge" (p 359). Elsewhere, there is a discussion regarding the correct translation of the Bible to understand whether Job's wife admonished him to 'bless' or to 'curse' God. What Spark subtly does by including this, is to set up the difference between faith and reason. Harvey tries to figure out the 'only' problem by reason. Others don't understand because of their faith, a belief in things not seen. One can choose to believe that one's actions predetermine or influence one's fate. Or, one can choose to believe that, despite a loving God and one's faith in him, bad things can happen. The solution to the 'only' problem may be to not use Job as a moral yardstick. Rather, be ignorant of Job (or, at least ignore him), of the 'only' problem. Instead,choose to do what is right and moral, and choose to be content with it. As Harvey states at the end, he will live 140 years, like Job. He stated earlier that Job probably continued to suffer. Harvey will too, despite the sense of harmony in the final chapter.

Muriel Spark’s Masterpiece

(Cross-posted from Kate's Book Blog.)

One of the marks of a great book is the extent to which it bears rereading. I was bowled over by Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on first acquaintance many years ago. I’m now on my fourth read, and my admiration for and appreciation of it increase each time.

Having recently spent three weeks in Edinburgh, it’s no surprise that on my latest read through I was particularly struck by the sense of place that Spark evokes in the novel. You don’t have to know Edinburgh to appreciate The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but knowing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie certainly helps one to more fully appreciate Edinburgh. It’s set primarily in the 1930s in the Morningside district which boasts respectable schools full of middle and upper class pupils whose mothers dress not too ostentatiously in tweed and address their daughters as “dear” rather than “darling” in clipped Edinburgh accents. Yet just a short walk across the Meadows, the squalor of the Old Town slums serves as a counter point, so distinct as to offer Sandy Stranger “her first experience of a foreign country, which intimates itself by its new smells and shapes and its new poor.”

Miss Jean Brodie, we are told, though an arresting presence at the Marcia Blaine School, is not unusual for her time and place:

There were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.

These progressive spinsters co-exist with other legions, for example, the unemployed men waiting for the dole that Miss Brodie and her girls encounter on their walk through the Old Town:

A very long queue of men lined this part of the street. They were without collars in shabby suits. They were talking and spitting and smoking little bits of cigarette held between middle finger and thumb.

This trip through the Old Town has an enduring impact on Sandy at least:

And many times throughout her life Sandy knew with a shock, when speaking to people whose childhood had been in Edinburgh, that there were other people’s Edinburghs quite different from hers, and with which she held only the names of districts and streets and monuments in common. Similarly, there were other people’s nineteen-thirties.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie doesn’t just invoke these multiple Edinburghs of the 1930s; it also situates it in the distant past, the immediate past, the immediate future, and years hence. We get a sense of Scotland’s romantic and dark history (at least the popular version thereof) in Sandy’s references to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped and also in the kinship that Miss Brodie claims with the infamous Deacon Brodie, a historical figure and also the model for RLS’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This Edinburgh is shaped by the recent experience of the Great War and by the current experience of the depression. It is an Edinburgh tied to Europe (“We are Europeans,” Miss Brodie proclaims) where the rise of fascism is evident. We also get a peek at a future Edinburgh from which the Old Town “slums have been cleared.”

This brings me to the second aspect of Spark’s writing on which I want to focus here. There was an interesting discussion recently on Dorothy W.’s blog about what qualifies as experimental writing. I don’t know whether Spark is lauded in the critical literature as an experimental writer; if she isn’t, she ought to be. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, first published in 1961, Spark breaks many of the conventions of the novel to brilliant effect.

I’ve already hinted at the way Spark plays with time. In 1963, Frank O’Connor wrote: “[T]he element of Time is [the novelist’s] greatest asset; the chronological development of character or incident is essential form as we see it in life, and the novelist flouts it at his own peril.” Spark flouts it in dramatic fashion in this novel. The girls of the Brodie set are sixteen when the novel opens, but soon we move back to age ten when they first encountered Miss Brodie. Their ten-year-old selves are continually illuminated by what comes later (the various things that they are said to be “famous for” at age sixteen). At intervals we move forward again to sixteen, and still further forward into the girls’ adult lives. For example, as early as page 15, we learn how the entire life of poor Mary Macgregor (“whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame”) unfolds. There are various moments when suspense seems to be building (for example as to the identity of Miss Brodie’s eventual betrayer), then the ending is abruptly given away. Spark swoops back and forth through time at will and it works.

Spark similarly plays with perspective. The third person narration moves in and out like a camera with a zoom lens. The novel begins with wide-angle shot (simply boys and girls talking outside the Marcia Blaine school), zooms in a little closer (the girls in question are revealed to be the Brodie set), then closer still (to deal in turn with the individual girls by name). This is not an uncommon progression at the opening of a novel. But having thus honed in on the individual characters, Spark doesn’t stay there, but continues to move in and out to dazzling effect. To the extent that we get inside any one character’s head, that character is Sandy Stranger. But the novel doesn’t unfold simply from Sandy’s perspective. The effect of the constant shifts is to give us the opportunity to view the characters, foremost among them Miss Brodie, from multiple angles, through the eyes of different characters at different moments in time, as well as from the perspective of a distant omniscient narrator. Consider, for example, these sentences:

This was the first winter of the two years that this class spent with Miss Brodie. It had turned nineteen-thirty-one. Miss Brodie had already selected her favourites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy, these parents being either too enlightened to complain or too unenlightened, or too awed by their good fortune in getting their girls’ education at endowed rates, or too trusting to question the value of what their daughters were learning at this school of sound reputation.

With each qualification, yet another perspective is opened to us.

Given Spark’s penchant for very short novels, it's tempting to describe her writing as spare or minimalist. Certainly she gets a lot of mileage out of a very few words. But the effect is not one of spareness or minimalism. On the contrary, she manages to accumulate an extraordinary level of detail. One of the ways that she does this in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is through repetition of key words or phrases: “the boys and their bicycles,” what each of the Brodie set is “famous for,” Miss Brodie’s “prime,” the “crème de la crème.” Each time these words and phrases are repeated, they serve to conjure up again all that has gone before and somehow add to it. The repetition gives Spark’s prose a wonderful rhythm, and also gives the novel great depth and richness.

In a 1996 interview, Spark expressed some frustration over the extent to which the success of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie had overshadowed her other novels. She did not consider it her best work. I won’t venture to rank it against her other novels. But I have no hesitation in describing it as a masterpiece that is entirely worthy of all of the attention it has been accorded.