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.

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