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.

But do we know Miss Brodie very much better? It is a curious paradox that one of the best-known characters of postwar British fiction (alongside, say, Powell's Widmerpool and Naipaul's Biswas) is made real to us in barely more than a collection of brief sketches, bound together into an elegantly slender novella. Were you to roam the streets of Edinburgh with a microphone, interrogating surprised citizens, you'd learn that Miss Brodie is "known" and "loved" first because Maggie Smith once played her so consummately in a celebrated film, and second as a collection of famous maxims: "I am in my prime," "You are the crème de la crème," "The Philistines are upon us, Mr. Lloyd," and so on. Miss Brodie, in other words, is not "known." We, as readers, know her just as her pupils did: as a collection of sayings, a rhetorical performance, a teacher's show.

By not telling us a great deal about Miss Brodie, Spark forces us to become her pupils. Spark never lets us enter Brodie's inner life. We know she desires something, and we know that there is something pathetic and unfulfilled about that desire, but we do not know what it is, exactly, that she desires. Miss Brodie is convinced that she is in her prime, but perhaps, the book suggests, we talk about being in our prime only when we are not in fact in it.

Spark uses a kind of "flash-forward"—a wonderfully flexible and innovative device, also employed in The Finishing School—to let us know what will become of some of the schoolgirls in later life. Sandy will eventually become a nun. Mary will die in a fire at the age of twenty-three. The novel's second chapter begins thus:

Mary Macgregor … had not thought much about Jean Brodie, certainly never disliked her, when, a year after the outbreak of the Second World War, she joined the Wrens, and was clumsy and incompetent, and was much blamed. On one occasion of real misery—when her first and last boy-friend, a corporal whom she had known for two weeks, deserted her by failing to turn up at an appointed place and failing to come near her again—she thought back to see if she had ever really been happy in her life; it occurred to her then that the first years with Miss Brodie … had been the happiest time of her life. She thought this briefly, and never again referred her mind to Miss Brodie, but had got over her misery, and had relapsed into her habitual slow bewilderment, before she died while on leave in Cumberland in a fire in the hotel. Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. She ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie's pupils. 'Who has spilled ink on the floor—was it you, Mary?'

There is nothing, alas, as breathtakingly beautiful and careful as this passage in Spark's new novel—and little, in my opinion, to rival it anywhere in modern British fiction. There is no doubt that Spark "kills off" Mary here, and briskly; but is the passage cruel—as readers sometimes feel about Spark—or painfully compassionate? Notice how sternly and swiftly Spark writes that Mary joined the Wrens (the female navy corps) "and was clumsy and incompetent, and was much blamed"—as if to imply that poor Mary was still being judged as quickly and harshly in the armed services as she was at school. Spark savagely controls the dispensation of sentiment: "had relapsed into her habitual slow bewilderment, before she died"; that "before she died" hits us without any preparation, while we are still deciding how to feel about the nasty phrase "her habitual slow bewilderment." The tragedy of Mary Macgregor, it is suggested here, is that, unbeknownst to her, she was in her prime while at school: those were the happiest days of her life, and that life is about to end. And how awful that poor Mary dies as she lived—stupidly, clumsily, in "bewilderment," running foolishly back and forth. Just as we are absorbing this terminal information, Spark pulls us back to Mary's juvenile clumsiness: "Who has spilled ink on the floor—was it you, Mary?"

Many of Spark's novels insist on telling us, either at the start of the book or in the course of it, what will become of the characters many years hence. We learn at the beginning of The Girls of Slender Means that one of the protagonists, Nicholas Farringdon, will become a missionary and be brutally killed in Haiti, and this foreknowledge shadows our reading of the whole book. Spark has been intensely interested in how our lives are written and how one writes a life. Our lives are "written" because they are foreordained, and free will, once we can see the whole of a life, from start to finish, is an obvious illusion. Mary Macgregor was always going to die at twenty-three in a fire, and Chris was always going to have exactly the kind of literary career he eventually had. But only God and novelists see the whole of a life in this unnatural way. Should novelists do what only God can rightfully do? (Spark, it will be remembered, is a devout Catholic convert.) For what Spark does is also what Miss Brodie does: she bullyingly controls her characters, breaking in to tell us what will become of them. Sandy dislikes just this aspect of Miss Brodie, fearing that she wants to act like the predestinating God of Calvinism and decide in advance who will be saved and who will be damned.

One might say that for Spark to control her characters so blatantly while uneasily apologizing for it is contradictory rather than paradoxical, and smacks of having one's cake and eating it. Spark, I think, would reply that the novelist can do nothing else, because she simply has this power over her characters; not to admit it, to hide that control in fathoms of agreeable artifice, is to act in bad faith. (Similar scruples occupy the Ian McEwan of Atonement: the heroine of that novel atones for the sin of inventing a lie about people she knew by writing ideal endings for their lives.)

Nearing the conclusion of her career, Spark has returned to these themes in The Finishing School—with less success than in the great early novels, but nonetheless interestingly. Chris, the tyro, and Rowland, the failure, argue about these matters. The latter says that his characters always feel free to him (though this, the reader reflects with a smirk, may be because he has not actually ever created any): "The characters take over." Chris, sounding like Spark or Nabokov, disagrees: "They live the lives I give them … I'm in full control … Nobody in my book so far could cross the road unless I make them do it." Spark herself employs a Chris-like control, informing us throughout the book of what will become of her brood. Rowland, we learn, "was in a muddle, which was not to say he would not eventually get out of it, as in fact he was to do by writing a different sort of book." Rowland's wife will leave him and "was to become an art historian, but that was after great effort, and after time ahead." And the students, it seems, will all turn out pretty much as one might expect. Just as, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a girl "famous" at thirteen for something will then seem to be fixed for life by that tag, so at the finishing school personalities are already mummified. Spark is amusing on this score, combining a mordancy about contemporary journalism with a sarcasm about the intellectual level of the school's privileged students.

Princess Tilly was writing a thesis on the massacre of the Nepalese royal family in recent years. She had met one of their remote cousins at the Plaza Hotel in New York … Tilly was already launching herself excellently on her future journalistic career. Rowland marveled as he read her essay. How slick and self-confident these young people were … How they could cover the pages, juggling the paragraphs around on their p.c.'s and never for a moment thinking that any word could be spelt other than the way they wanted it to be. Tilly "dansed" with her friend from "Nipall." Why not? Rowland thought. She will always have an editor to put her story straight.

So the book's title may encode several puns. Chris is puzzling over how to finish his historical novel (like John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman, he has two different endings), while Rowland is unable to finish anything. A finishing school "finishes" one for adult life, polishes the rough stones into gems; yet how awful to be "finished" in one's late teens—as Princess Tilly is—when one should only be started! And the finishing school is where Rowland's marriage to Nina will finish. Horribly, the Marcia Blaine School for Girls is also, in this grim sense, a "finishing" school, wherein an entire life's course is preordained. Spark, it seems, not only exercises, however anxiously and self-consciously, an omniscient authorial control, but also has a somewhat austere and limited sense of individual freedom. The Catholic convert from Edinburgh, who has lived many years in relaxed Italy, turns out to wear a Scottish Calvinist corset after all.

In her best books—Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, Memento Mori—Spark wrings a pathos, if not quite ever a tragedy, from the vision of life's terrible unfreedom, while conducting a deep and parallel examination into the question of authorial control and limit. The Finishing School does not belong to that group. Spark seems to want to raise a discussion of how writers create and control characters, but such a discussion gets dispersed and too easily distracted by more-superficial subjects. In particular, Spark's irritation with the current literary scene, its triviality and populism, seems to make her book keep falling into sharp but weightless satire on these matters. (She is very funny about publishers.) Above all, Rowland and Chris seem disembodied, allegorical integers rather than achieved sums. We don't care enough about Rowland's jealousy, or about Chris's ambition—in part because we don't have enough evidence, as readers, to go on. Spark has never been an abundant imaginer; her deliberate deprivations and omissions have always represented a kind of pert challenge to the reader, as if she were saying, "This is all I will give you; make of these rations what you can." In her greatest books that challenge stirs a desire in the reader to complete the circle of which Spark offers a mere crescent, so that we create, in some measure, the characters she only sketches in. How, exactly, she provokes that readerly desire remains something of a mystery. In her new book the challenge is not quite deep enough, and our answer is correspondingly shallow. The omissions seem severe rather than suggestive. The Finishing School—surely forgivable from a writer of Spark's advanced seniority—seems not quite finished. But it sheds an interesting if pale retrospective light on this wonderful writer's best book.

James Wood is the author of The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (2004).
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