Thursday, October 02, 2008
Muriel Spark, The Finishing School
This novel was sent to me by Penguin, so that I could add a review to their Blog a Holiday Read site, where, apparently, it will appear sometime. You, discerning reader, can read about it now though.
Many things are coming to an end at the faux-bohemian College Sunrise: not just the education of a motley bunch of multi-national teenagers, but also the marriage of the proprietors, Rowland and Nina, and Rowland’s grip on sanity. It also marks another ending too: Muriel Spark, at the age of 87, published this novel in 2004. It was her last work. It is a testament to her vitality that the novel is as witty, sly and mordantly funny as the books for which she is most famous, Memento Mori, and, of course, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The major conflict in the novel is between Rowland, whose youthful success as a playwright he cannot now replicate, and Chris, precocious and faintly sinister red-haired prodigy, whose half-written novel about Mary, Queen of Scots triggers a bout of uncontrollable jealousy in the older man.
All this detail and much more is deftly delineated in the opening pages of this slight but immensely enjoyable novel. Spark’s reputation for a kind of elegant nastiness, most obviously on show in novels such as The Abbess of Crewe and The Ballad of Peckham Rye, is certainly sustained here. The lives of the characters are sharply observed, with the telling detail often being used to skewer the pretensions of her cast of minor European royals, county-set girls, ambitious youths and phlegmatic locals. The running joke throughout is that Rowland, consumed utterly by his jealousy of Chris, has writer’s block, but is obliged to teach creative writing.
Those reviews that claim this is a satire on the publishing industry seem wide of the mark to me. True, a couple of publishers are exposed as shallow and grasping, but then, no-one emerges as wholly pleasant, as Spark anatomises the rivalries, ambitions and narcissism of her entirely believable characters.
This novel is not great literature, yet it is compelling, a genuine page-turner that can be read in a day with comfort. What keeps you turning the pages is the sheer pleasure of discovering what the next development will be in this fascinating tale of obsession and jealousy.