The Prime of Ms. Muriel Spark

Her latest novel isn't her best work, but it illuminates the novels that are
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If American fiction has been swarmed over recently by so-called chicklit, British writing has been dominated by its tougher sibling, ladlit. It is hard to enter any London bookstores—memorably disdained by V. S. Naipaul as now resembling "toyshops"—without being assailed by a dictator-size poster of some bullet-headed pugilist, his lips pursed in a macho moue, the apparently unhappy author of a novel whose title is invariably a punchy single word, such as Porno. The ideal title might be Dumpbin, because the quality of most of these books is almost beside the point; they exist as easy windows onto their authors, who have found themselves in print largely because they are so young, and whose promising juvenility represents the real raison d'être of the publishing event. In a world in which one can still be a "younger writer" at forty, to be twenty-five and a published author—or, better still, nineteen—is to be indeed a mere chick or lad, loaded with metropolitan gold.

In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson defined Grub Street as a place inhabited by hacks and writers of "temporary poems," and of course publishing's current superficiality will not last. Nevertheless, it feels long enough, and perhaps Muriel Spark, now in her eighties, fears that she will not outlive it. Her new novel, The Finishing School, satirically assails, among other things, the culture of spectacle that has grown up around novel-writing, and in particular around novel-writing by attractive young people. In a Swiss finishing school run on distinctly liberal lines are gathered nine pupils, most of them girls. One attractive boy, Chris, seems to be a prodigiously gifted writer, a mere seventeen-year-old who is already at work on a historical novel. The school's owner and principal, the twenty-nine-year-old Rowland Mahler, teaches creative writing and has read some of Chris's bewilderingly talented book. Alas, he, too, is an aspiring writer, but thoroughly arrested where Chris is fertile. His wife, Nina, exasperatedly asks him one day, "Don't you feel you're one of those people who can get by without writing a novel?"

Rowland is consumed by jealousy of Chris's talent, and Spark's very short novel—short novella, even—charts the growth of that envy as it burgeons almost to madness. (Rowland is advised to cure himself by checking in to a local monastery named St. Justin Amadeus—a typically Sparky little reference to the most canonical case of creative envy in history.) He dreams of killing Chris, and is drowning amid his empty pretensions: "At the present time he had shaved his face clean, feeling more like a brilliant young novelist under this appearance." But Chris actualizes what for Rowland is mere imagining: Chris is a brilliant young novelist and feels like one, and he is a successful seducer to boot.

But is Chris brilliant? Film producers and publishers who have heard about the young star, and are eager to bottle the light he radiates, arrive at the school to interview him; yet Spark carefully hints throughout the book that Chris may be only mediocre. To begin with, the man who rates his talent so high, Rowland, is himself without any, and thus a poor judge of it. And Spark, who loves to control the rations of her authorial knowingness, refers almost in passing to "the eventual flamboyant literary success of Chris himself, if not entirely of his book"—a characteristic dig. Spark's novel is as much about psychic co-dependence, or even homoerotic love rivalry, as about literary competition. Spark may be one of the least Dostoevskian contemporary novelists (she's far too brisk and logical for all that wallow and murk), but here she strikingly reprises the Russian writer's novella The Eternal Husband, in which a feeble, cuckolded husband stalks his dead wife's lover, alternately murderous toward the seducer and envious of his superior sexual prowess. In that book cuckold and seducer eventually become dependent on each other, and perhaps secretly desire each other: the dead wife is the silent third who completes their love triangle. Likewise, although Rowland's obsessive interest in Chris is at first unrequited, eventually Chris admits to his own need of Rowland: "I need his jealousy … I can't work without it," he tells Nina. You could say that text—Chris's completed novel, Rowland's stalled one—is the silent third that completes their love triangle.

Muriel Spark has always been a writer of fiercely composed, devoutly starved fictions. The Finishing School, like several of her most recent books (Symposium, Aiding and Abetting) has a somewhat anorexic quality; Spark's austere principle "Never apologize, never explain" is embodied in storytelling of a fablelike simplicity and directness. She can seem to view events with all the detachment of a choirboy at a funeral. When Chris is visited by a film producer and a director, we are told only that "one was tall and middle-aged, the other short and young." Chapter Fourteen of this slight book begins, "Rowland's father died. He flew to join his family in Yorkshire."

One current of this kind of storytelling, in which a certain tact of omission is united with a high degree of authorial control, flows from Jane Austen to Penelope Fitzgerald, and seems distinctively British or even English (despite Spark's Scottishness). E. M. Forster famously kills off Gerald in The Longest Journey with the bracing "Gerald died that afternoon." But Spark has always been interested in precisely the questions raised by such peremptory storytelling: What does it mean, as a novelist, to create characters whose lives one can then control and curtail? Is it allowable for a novelist to have this kind of Godlike knowledge about her creations? Does it not mean that even the most "sympathetic" novelist is really a cruel deity, playing with lives in order to make pretty moral patterns? Nabokov, for instance, always insisted with pride that his characters were mere chess pieces, to be pushed around in brilliant displays of authorial gamesmanship. Chekhov might be at the other end of the spectrum, a writer who wants to disappear into his characters, to let them seem to throw away their scripts and inhabit their freedom.

These may appear to be relatively abstract concerns. They are certainly self-conscious, even postmodern, and explain why Frank Kermode, in his excellent introduction to the new Everyman collection of four early Spark novels, compares Spark to nouveaux romanciers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and the British avant-gardist Christine Brooke-Rose. But one of the finest aspects of Spark's long career has been the way in which she has balanced the old-fashioned pleasures of storytelling and characterization with a persistent modern anxiety about the viability of those pleasures, yet without frowning pleasure away. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, still Spark's best book, remains so because it so beautifully creates a vital and intriguing character—Jean Brodie—while simultaneously asking us to reflect on how well we can ever know people at all, whether real or invented by novelists.

Jean Brodie is the devastatingly popular schoolteacher who dominates the junior pupils of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She tyrannically controls her students' education, forcing on them her love of Giotto, of Italy, and, finally, of Mussolini and Hitler. Her best pupils form an elite, which she calls "the crème de la crème," and they are fiercely loyal to her—though one of them, Sandy Stranger, will betray her and force her from the school (officially for "teaching Fascism"). The novel, like The Finishing School, is much concerned with the erotics of teaching, that contradictory authority of the teacher who seduces and bullies at the same time, and the primitive ways in which people know and label one another at school. Thus Spark carefully introduces each girl in Miss Brodie's set as "famous" for one thing or another. Mary Macgregor is famous for being stupid; Sandy is famous for insight and for small "pig-like" eyes; Rose is famous for sex; and so on. Spark uses these simple notorieties repetitively, almost as a kind of Homeric tag, whenever the characters are reintroduced in the book. This, she seems to say, is the only way we can know these particular characters.

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