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.

A Thousand Days in Tuscany by Marlena de Blasi

This is not the sort of book I would usually read, but since I was going to be in Tuscany for seven days, I thought it seemed an appropriate travelling companion. Evidently, it's a sequel to her A Thousand Days in Venice, and there are other volumes on Umbria and Sicily- so you can see a pattern, no? In the Venice volume, this American-Italian gourmet journalist of a certain age meets, falls in love with, and marries Fernando, a Venetian banker. The sequel chronicles their new life in a Tuscan village. It's a romanticised version of Tuscany, to be sure, and the heavy emphasis on the food of the region contributes to the production of a bucolic utopia only occasionally darkened by the intrusions of modern life.
Having made a leap into the dark by deciding to forge a new life in Tuscany, the couple immediately become the gastronomic heart and soul of the village, a fixture at the Bar Centrale, and enthusiastic preservers and revivers of old Tuscan customs. Their main ally in this project is a kind of village elder called Barlazzo whose knowledge is apparently infinite- he becomes their guide.
It's an entertaining journey, following the rustic rituals of the calendar, interspersed with recipes that, to this vegetarian seem somewhat long on preparation and short on consumption. My favourite was a leg of pork marinaded in three bottles of wine and cooked over seven days in a specially built outdoor oven. Life's too short.
The author, clearly a somewhat head-in-clouds romantic, veers off from her account of the ways of the Tuscan peasant occasionally to indulge in the kind of soul searching often to be found in those "follow your dream" life coaching manuals beloved of Americans. These passages are rather cloying, but they are compensated for by the pervasive presence of Barlazzo, for me the hero of this book. It is his dark secret that provides a teasing thread through the narrative.
Barlazzo's status as the village chieftain (de Blasi calls him 'the duke') is undisputed, and he is at the heart of every culinary activity. He also provides the historical and cultural context in not entirely credible style when, for no apparent reason, he decides to recount the history of Tuscany in guide book fashion. These sections are clunky, and although the context is useful, I don't see why de Blasi couldn't have told us in her own voice.
The book is published here by Virago, once fiercely feminist but now just another imprint of the giant Hachette empire. The text is, as is the way of things these days, resolutely American, so the usual linguistic differences occur- rigor, clamor, practicing, fall and so on. Less acceptable, it seems to me, is the use of 'sharecroppers' for the Tuscan tenant farmers, and 'unphased' for 'unfazed'.

It's an enjoyable read, especially if, like I did, you read it whilst gazing out over a beautiful Tuscan valley as pictured above. It's educational too, as even herbivores are provided with some useful recipes. And now I can pronounce 'bruschetta' correctly.