Posts Tagged ‘Muriel Spark’

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

June 27, 2016

The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieI have an extremely clear memory of reading this book, one school summer holiday, sitting on a train and looking out of the window as we passed through Dawlish in Devon, where the train tracks seem almost to run over the sea itself. I remember enjoying the book, feeling a kindred spirit with the six schoolgirls of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’, all madly obsessed with finding out about sex, and under the spell of their teacher, Jean Brodie, who is forever telling them that she is in her prime.

Reading it again, in my thirties, it is a completely different book, and even better than I remembered.

This time round there seems to be a horrible poignancy to Spark’s portrayal of the schoolgirls. The narrative is extremely sophisticated, moving about in time (but she does this easily, not joltingly) so that we get little flashes of what will happen to the girls when they grow up. Mary’s innocent vagueness and clumsiness, we soon learn, will one day get her killed in a hotel fire:

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?’

‘I don’t know, Miss Brodie.’

‘I dare say it was you. I’ve never come across such a clumsy girl. And if you can’t take an interest in what I am saying, please try to look as if you do.’

These were the days that Mary Macgregor, on looking back, found to be the happiest days of her life.

The year is 1936; Miss Brodie tells us: ‘The age of chivalry is dead’. Chivalry is dead, and so are all the young men killed by the First World War, including Miss Brodie’s fiancé. And, of course we know that many more will die in the Second World War, which isn’t far off. But Spark shows us this little glinting corner of life – the six girls of Miss Brodie’s set, at this moment of their unconventional education, before their innocence is extinguished, and in the case of poor Mary Macgregor, her life too.

And yet what exactly does Miss Brodie, in her prime, achieve with her girls?

In her lessons, Miss Brodie tells the girls to hold up their school books, ‘in case of intruders’ before regaling them with stories about her lovers and her holidays, which are usually in Italy:

‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’

‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’

I read this last week, pre-Brexit, and kept on trying to reassure myself that good old Miss Jean Brodie would have voted Remain, as she is forever proudly telling her girls that they are Europeans. But whatever comfort this provided was rather undermined as Miss Brodie is also a great admirer of Mussolini, telling her girls that he:

put an end to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets.

Miss Brodie is perenially at odds with the rest of the school, claiming that this is due to her differing ideas about education, which she sees as nurturing individuals rather than forging clone-like teams – though in fact the school’s disapproval of her is largely due to her inappropriate sexual liaisons. Moreover, it becomes clear that in actual fact Miss Brodie is just trying to create clones of herself in her ‘crème de la crème’. She succeeds to some extent, when the art teacher, after kissing her, paints portraits of her girls – all of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Miss Brodie.

There is a lovely review of the book on Book Snob’s blog (here), in which she questions why Miss Brodie is so driven to make the girls in her image:

I do think there is something more than just a criticism of Fascism in Miss Brodie’s methods of creating clones of herself; I think Spark was also creating the idea of Miss Brodie wanting to build a legacy, leaving a part of her personality and world view behind through the children she taught. They became the offspring she never had the opportunity to have. It is, after all, rather symbolic that Miss Brodie dies of a ‘growth inside her’ – but not a child; instead, a malignant cancer, destroying her from the inside.

It’s a nice point and makes the book all the sadder. For this is the clever, weird, slippery thing about this brilliant slim book: I read it and found myself laughing and laughing all the way through – at the brilliant observations, the sharp turn of phrase, Spark’s ingenious wit and skilful brevity – but all the while, it also made me extremely sad.

Miss Brodie, for all the force of being in her prime, achieves very little. Her girls go off in the directions they would have taken anyway, and the one she thinks is the most loyal is the one who eventually betrays her. Her love affairs are unsatisfactory and she remains essentially alone, and all the more so for being so misguided in her fervent political beliefs.

I suppose Spark is asking: what can a woman in her prime do? And when is a woman in her prime? What about poor Mary Macgregor and her all-too-brief life, did she ever reach her prime? It’s a question which is ever relevant – as we battle our way through the exhausting minefield of balancing children and careers, surely we’re thinking: here we are, in our prime, and what on earth are we actually achieving? (Please tell me it’s not just me who is always worrying about this!)

Anyway, thank God, Miss Brodie did achieve something in her prime. Even if it wasn’t especially tangible, she made an unforgettable impression on her students – and on her readers. Sandy speaks for everyone when, in later life, she is asked about her main influence. She says, in the closing sentence of the book:

There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.

How I hope that in however many years’ time we won’t be doomed to looking back on the main influence on our lives and reflect, ‘There was a Mr David Cameron, in his prime… ‘ I suppose we just have to hope that the future holds something brighter than that faced by Miss Brodie’s girls in 1936.



Proust gave me the flu

September 2, 2013

A few weeks ago, I found myself going to a wedding in Brittany, which was a delight in part for the chance to spend rather a lot of time on a train. Trains are probably my third favourite place to read (after in the bath and in bed), as they offer such long stretches of book time, punctuated with lovely views out of the window. They are also free from the many problems that plague other modes of transport, such as feeling sick, overcoming irrational fears of death, or having to mapread.

Swann's WayI decided this would be the perfect opportunity to at last get around to reading some Proust. Swann’s Way – the first volume of In Search of Lost Time – has been sitting on my shelf for years now, tempting me with the treats that so many say lie inside, yet also keeping me at arm’s length, knowing that this isn’t a book to be attempt when jammed on the tube, or when otherwise distracted with London life. To be honest, I felt more than a little daunted by it. It’s massive. It’s seminal. It’s one of those books you’re forever being told you’re not old enough to read, and wouldn’t it be awful to read it too early and so not enjoy one of the great works!

It took me a little while to settle in to Swann’s Way. As I sat on the Eurostar, I kept peeking over the husband’s shoulder at the glossy magazine he was reading and wondering if I was a glutton for punishment. Why Proust, when I could just read the Proust Questionnaire at the end of Vanity Fair?

I felt impossibly self-conscious with my Proust. I could barely get through a sentence without thinking about everyone else who’d read that sentence. I kept wondering what Virginia Woolf would have made of it, or E.M. Forster, or even Jane Gardam. I am reading Proust, I kept telling myself. This is the real deal. If I am anything like Alain de Botton, it will change my life.

So it was a shaky start. I think it always takes a little while to settle in to the classics, to adjust to their slower pace, their long serpentine sentences. But by the time I got off the train at Paris, I was hooked.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to be sitting on a TGV the next morning, reading about Combray while looking out at exactly that landscape! It is such a sensuous book, I could almost smell the ‘bitter-sweet scent of almonds emanating from the hawthorn-blossom’ and the myriad other scents that perfume the pages as I looked at their real-life counterparts flashing past the window.

What struck me above all is how clever Proust is with his long winding sentences. They twist and turn, wrongfooting you with every comma, until you come to the end and it all falls perfectly into place. Here is one of my favourites, from ‘Swann in Love’, the second part of the book, which explores Swann’s love affair with Odette:

He would go and join her, and when he opened the door, on Odette’s rosy face, as soon as she caught sight of Swann, would appear – changing the curve of her lips, the look in her eyes, the moulding of her cheeks – an all-absorbing smile.

When I first read this I was jolted after ‘face’, feeling there must be some mistake, you don’t open a door on someone’s face. I began again and realised what he does with that comma after ‘door’ is allow a sudden shift in agency from the action of Swann opening the door to Odette’s change in expression as she catches sight of Swann. Then there is another shift as the description of Odette’s smile – ‘changing the curve of her lips…’ is relayed as witnessed by Swann. It is though this smile is as intensely felt by each of them – Odette as she moves and Swann as he observes it. How perfectly intimate for two lovers to share such a flirtatious sentence. How impossibly clever of Proust to convey an emotion even in his syntax.

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel SparkSo many of Proust’s sentences are every bit as good as this one. It is such luxurious prose, so rich. As it happened, when I got back to London after the wedding, still in the middle of Swann’s Way, I quickly re-read Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington for this Spectator article. I alighted upon a wonderful anecdotal description of Proust, from Spark’s Mrs Hawkins:

It’s about everything in particular.

She’s exactly right. Proust pays particular, minute attention to every little detail, resulting in these wonderful long sentences that perfectly capture each tiny gradation of everything.

Everyone goes on about the famous madeleine moment as being the epitome of wonderful writing about memory. (By the way, two things you might not know about that moment: 1. It’s dipped in lime-blossom tea; 2. It’s 50 pages in, not right at the beginning.) For sure it is good, but I thought just as good was the way Proust writes about music. This is also from ‘Swann in Love’:

The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. . . . But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils. . . . This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him, and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.

What a long quotation – and this is just picking out key bits from two whole pages – but I hope that from here you can see how well he writes about that inexpressible, tantalising power of music. He captures, perfectly, the way a certain exquisite phrase can get under your skin and lift you out of yourself, and how hard it is to pin it down, or conjure the same feeling in any other way. (Incidentally, for more on the actual phrase of music that inspired Proust, see this intriguing blog.)

Who am I to write about Proust? All I can say is that I loved it more than I’d anticipated and would thoroughly recommend it for a holiday or a long train journey. I finished it when I went to Andalucia last week for some villa relaxation with friends – many of whom were reading Laurie Lee, to my intense delight! I lay by the swimming pool in the hot Spanish sun and was utterly absorbed in Proust’s luxurious, endless sentences.

It was only once I’d finished Swann’s Way that I was struck with flu. Literally, no sooner had I put it down than my throat started to ache. The last few days of the holiday were Proustless and snot-filled, and my husky snottiness continues now I am back in London.

I worry that the only cure is to read more Proust. While Swann’s Way was heavenly, I fear that the remaining six volumes might have to wait until I spend rather a lot more time in France than a weekend’s train journey. Until then, I shall stick to hot lemon and honey, into which I might just dip a madeleine.

Daphne and Proust

Proust is, of course, Daphne’s cup of tea. She particularly loves the slow pace and long sentences.

A Far Cry from Kensington

April 18, 2011

There’s something about this title which sounds unbelievably posh. Probably because it contains ‘Kensington’ and the phrase ‘a far cry’, which I can’t read without hearing rather a stout granny exclaim it in a wavering, operatic voice.

But A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark is not a posh book. Kensington isn’t the Sloaney/French Wholefoods-loving camp that it is today. We are taken back to the 1950s, when Mrs Hawkins – the main character – is living in a ‘rooming house’ filled with odd characters. Much of London is taken up with ‘bomb-gap’:

The rubble had been cleared away, but strange grasses and wild herbs had sprung up where the war-demolished houses had been.

This is a bit of a digression, but I thought I’d point out that Richard Mabey writes about something similar in his marvellous The Unofficial Countryside. (Especially as he writes about ‘defiant sparks’ and this is a book written by another defiant Spark.)

It was not until the Luftwaffe began ploughing up our city centres that conditions were right for its [rosebay’s] spread. Suddenly there was a vast wilderness of scorched, devastated earth, laid open to the light for perhaps the first time in centuries. The first summer after the Blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation. By the end of the war there was scarcely a single piece of waste ground in the City that was not ablaze in August with their purple flowers.

It’s got to be one of the most positive spins on the Blitz I’ve ever come across. (There’s more about this magnificent book in an earlier post here. For now I better return to magnificent Muriel.)

Muriel Spark writes about these strange bomb-provoked patches of wildlife in the context of Mrs Hawkins having lost her job and filling her days with long bus rides around suburban London. It’s pretty bleak, ‘I spent my days after days on the top of buses staring out of the window and watching with discreet eyes my fellow passengers, most of them shabby’. But perhaps there is something of Mabey’s ‘defiant sparks of life’ in these grasses and herbs. Mrs Hawkins is a fiercely defiant character, and one who, like these plants, is constantly regenerating herself, flowering amidst the desolation of her rooming house.

But there is also something of an alien dreamscape in these ‘strange grasses and wild herbs … sprung up’ instead of houses. And this brings us to rather an excellent quirk of the novel, that it essentially consists of the thoughts and recollections of an insomniac.

Rather than telling the story of Mrs Hawkins, Wanda, Hector Bartlett et al in a simple third-person narrative, Muriel Spark has made Mrs Hawkins the storyteller. And Mrs Hawkins isn’t telling the story as it happens, she is lying in bed at night, ‘looking at the darkness, listening to the silence,’ thirty years later. She tells us, ‘it is a far cry from Kensington and the early 1950s, this scene of my night-watch’.

There is something dreamlike, or, rather, nightmarish about the story as it unfolds:

Suddenly, from Wanda’s room came a long, loud, high-pitched cry which diminished into a sustained, distant and still audible ululation.

This ‘cry from Kensington’ is horrific. It is the piercing cry which wakens one from a nightmare. And it is described with precise detail, as though it has scratched itself on to Mrs Hawkins’ memory so that she will never forget it. It is this cry, and the events that will follow, that still keep her awake, thirty years later.

The other thing about telling the story as the memories of an insomniac, is that a peculiar kind of pre-figuring often happens. Mrs Hawkins digresses about something that is about to happen, but hasn’t quite happened yet. So we learn early on, when she describes herself as ‘massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside’, that she is going to lose a great deal of weight: ‘It was not till later, when I decided to be thin, that right away I noticed that people didn’t confide their thoughts to me so much.’ And then follows the most eccentric piece of advice in the entire book:

If there is nothing wrong with you except fat it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half.

The getting thin doesn’t occur till much later, and is tied up with the plot in more ways than one might imagine. Yet Muriel Spark has already let it slip. My favourite example of this letting things slip is when Mrs Hawkins goes to a very posh dinner party. We first get an inkling of what’s to come when she says, ‘after dinner I forgot, being too puzzled and in the disarray of wondering if I had done the wrong thing about something else.’

The reader, of course, wonders what this something else might be. Then we get a little digression on quite how ‘formal and upper-class’ this dinner party was, but that, in spite of this, Mrs Hawkins had thought that she was ‘quite up to it’:

I didn’t think upper-class habits were so very different from any other English habits. It is true that I had read in novels about such eccentricities as ‘the ladies left the men at the table with their port’ but I didn’t attach these performances to real life.

And then we learn what happens:

At a certain moment there was a hush, not quite a silence. Lady Philippa was looking at me very intensely, and I hadn’t the slightest idea why … Suddenly Lady Philippa got up as if someone had said something that touched her on a tender spot; I thought she was going to make a scene about it. The other women got up, too. But I didn’t see what the men had done wrong that the women should leave them like that, haughty and swan-like, sailing out of the room. I would have liked to advise them to pull themselves together. The men shuffled to their feet and looked at me curiously, as if they couldn’t believe that I, too, wasn’t offended … Lady Philippa murmured, as she passed my chair, ‘Are you coming?’

While Mrs Hawkins at the time ‘hadn’t the slightest idea’ why there was this peculiar atmosphere and all the women were leaving the men, she has already told us exactly why. We are in the know, which makes the scene all the funnier – much funnier than if we too shared her naivete and had no idea what was going on.

So, really, you can see from her hopelessness at such a posh dinner party that it isn’t a posh book at all. It’s about someone very fat who loses a lot of weight, while working for various tiny publishing houses that are full of people who are completely mad. And it’s about a time when she terms a terrible hack, Hector Bartlett, a ‘pisseur de copie’, and the extraordinary consequences this will have on her life.

On the face of it, it’s funny, light and frivolous.

But it’s also about blackmail, suicide, poverty and terrible violence. Like dreams, horrific dark depths lurk beneath this colourful, silly surface. It may be a very funny book, but it’s also terribly unsettling. And it’s this strange, nightmarish combination that makes it such a brilliant book. No wonder poor Mrs Hawkins can’t sleep.