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 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. 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.
Forster famously kills off Gerald in The Longest Journey with the bracing "Gerald died that afternoon. 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 s. She tyrannically controls her students' education, forcing on them her love of Giotto, of Italy, and, finally, of Mussolini and Hitler.
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. Lloyd," and so on. Miss Brodie, in other words, is not "known. 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.
The Edinburgh Companion to Muriel Spark - Edinburgh University Press
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:.
- Chubby Wubbles: A Ferrets Tale.
- Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (a John Hope Franklin Center Book)?
- Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
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. 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. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
And now a word about good manners.
Almost as bad as having a name for being rude. Ostentatious manners, like everything else showy, are terribly bad. Never wash your hands in the air as did a late Cardinal on my acquaintance, when trying to please someone. It looks too well trained.
At the same time, you should consider others round you. It was in those days of the early fifties of this century that I formed the habit of insomnia. Insomnia is not bad itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? You can put your mind to anything most of the time. At night I lay awake looking at the darkness, listening to the silence, prefiguring the future, picking out of the past the scraps I had overlooked, those rejected events which now came to the foreground, large and important, so that the weight of destiny no longer bore on the current problems of my life, whatever they were at the time for who lives without problems every day?
Why waste the nights on them?
It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can slowly relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise.
A Few Words of Indispensable Advice from Muriel Spark
Children are quite psychic. Very intuitive. You should try always to give them happy memories. It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, and that is my advice to everyone except Parisians. How like the death wish is to the life-urge! How urgently does an overwhelming obsession with life lead to suicide!
That is the happiest stage. Be gentle.
A Few Words of Indispensable Advice from Muriel Spark
It is beautiful to be gentle with those who suffer. There is no beauty in the world so great as beauty of action. It stands, contained in its own moment, from everlasting to everlasting. It is well, when in difficulties, to say never a word, neither black nor white. Speech is silver but silence is gold. Now, it is my advice to anyone getting married, that they should first see the other partner when drunk.