The Finishing School
by Muriel Spark
Doubleday. 192 pp. $16.95
Muriel Spark, Dame of the British Empire, expatriate Scot living in Tuscany, has been practicing her peculiar brand of elegant satire for half a century. Approaching ninety, Spark has just published The Finishing School, her twenty-second novel. The new book revisits old territory: the teacher-student relationship at the heart of The Finishing School recalls, perhaps deliberately, her early classic, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The parallel offers readers an opportunity not only to compare the social and psychic changes that have taken place in the years between the two books, but also to look back on her achievement as one of the most fiercely independent writers of our time.
When The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie established her reputation as an original voice in 1961, Spark had already published five novels, including Memento Mori, a wickedly funny tale about a group of irascible elderly people who begin receiving anonymous telephone calls reminding them of their mortality. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, Spark began her professional life in the publishing business. After a disastrous, short-lived marriage, she converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1954. Her early patrons included the two most famous British Catholic novelists of the day, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. As the reigning satirist of his time, Waugh found in the young Scotswoman a kindred spirit, praising her publicly and inscribing one of his books to her: “To Muriel Spark in her prime, from Evelyn Waugh in his decline.”
But where Greene and Waugh made Catholicism a central part of their fictional worlds, Spark preferred a far more elliptical approach. In interviews she would give only brief, enigmatic responses to questions about her religious convictions, saying, for example, that she liked to read Cardinal Newman’s sermons—for the beauty of their prose style.
The narrator of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sandy Stranger, comes as close as any of Spark’s characters to providing clues to her Catholic vision. Sandy is one of six girls who come under the influence of the charismatic Miss Brodie. The girls are mesmerized by their teacher’s free-spirited individualism in a woodenly conventional society, but things begin to go tragically wrong when the teacher determines that one of the girls should have an affair with one of her colleagues, Teddy Lloyd. In the end, the liberated Miss Brodie turns out to be an insidious tyrant, announcing to the girls: “You are mine.” Sandy’s awakening to the moral horror that is taking place around her triggers her religious sense. She writes her narrative years after the events took place—and after the experience led her to convert to Catholicism and become a nun.
Sandy’s pain and confusion stem from the ascendant liberalism of the period: she bemoans the fact that this permissive culture provides no standards by which she may oppose the utopian and ideological fantasies that drive Miss Brodie. She witnesses a freethinker reveal herself as a totalitarian. In response, Sandy embraces the seemingly restrictive life of a religious in a demanding faith—and finds a modicum of true freedom.
The tragic and elegiac tone of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was not a tone that Spark would employ again, or at least not with the same cumulative emotional effect. With the triumph of liberalism in the 1960s, Spark shifted her approach. Rather than creating characters who have explicit qualms about the moral and spiritual condition of the social order, she wrote about a more chaotic world, in a narrative voice that is more detached and aloof. Her irony went deep underground: the moral order that has been left behind can be found only in its absence—the alert reader can only discern the shape of a silhouette.
If there is a distinctive land in which her stories live, it is a place in which various characters attempt to impose personal fictions on the world around them, beginning with themselves. Perhaps that is why so many of her protagonists are would-be artists and writers. Without any true spiritual understanding of their human identity, these characters run around scheming and dreaming with a manic energy that is often appealing, if not admirable. Spark has mastered the art of black comedy: she lures us into just enough sympathy with her antiheroes that we become implicated in their crimes.
Take, for example, another recent novel, the 2000 Aiding and Abetting, based on an actual historical incident. The story begins when a man comes to a Paris psychoanalyst and claims to be Lord Lucan, the British aristocrat who disappeared in the mid-1970s after his wife was brutally murdered. A second patient arrives, also claiming to be Lord Lucan. Then the analyst’s own identity comes into question. Like all of Spark’s charming rogues, these characters tempt us to believe that perhaps we too could reinvent ourselves and break free from the bonds that tie us down.
In Spark’s fiction, the greatest and most pervasive sin is fraud. To our contemporary minds, that might seem a relatively trivial offense. But in this, Spark is close to Dante, who placed fraud in the circles near the very bottom of hell. Indeed, he devotes more than a third of the Inferno to fraud, simple and compound, parading before the pilgrim a host of hypocrites, thieves, counterfeiters, pimps, flatterers, false witnesses, and “sowers of discord,” among others. An underlying question in Spark’s novels is to what extent art itself may be considered a dangerous lie. When is art the “lie that tells the truth” (as Picasso put it) and when is it an act of fraud with dire consequences?
All of these questions are alive in Spark’s The Finishing School. Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina Parker, run a somewhat shady institution that offers young people the social and professional skills they need to make their way in twenty-first-century business, diplomacy, and media. College Sunrise is a moveable feast, changing locations in Europe on a regular basis in order to stay just ahead of its creditors. This doesn’t seem to bother the students’ wealthy parents—at least not those in somewhat shady circumstances of their own. They remain quite happy to fob off their seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds on Rowland and Nina.
But a student named Chris is proving to be something of a problem child. A handsome and supremely confident lad, Chris is hard at work on a historical novel proposing a new interpretation of the murder and intrigue that surrounded Mary, Queen of Scots. Agents, publishers, and film producers show up at College Sunrise, smelling the cash to be collected from a new teen sensation. For Rowland, a man of sensibility and an aspiring novelist in his own right, Chris’s cockiness, effortless success, and cavalier attitude toward historical fact are insufferable. The teacher becomes obsessively jealous of his student.
Spark extracts a good deal of comedy out of this updated version of the finishing school. In a more class-conscious era, the finishing school was a place where young ladies would be given training in etiquette, languages, and hospitality. In our more egalitarian and progressive era, College Sunrise offers classes in creative writing, “computer wisdom,” and advice on how to be a good employee of the United Nations. In one of what she calls her comme il faut classes, Nina counsels future UN workers on how to deal with dangerous animals in the jungle. In the case of charging elephants, “stand still and wave a white handkerchief. This confuses the elephants’ legs.” To avoid a python, sit down with your back against a tree and spread your legs. “The python will hesitate, not knowing which leg to begin with.”
But College Sunrise cannot be compared to the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Rowland is not a “born fascist” but a thoroughly postmodern cad, a teacher intimidated by his own student. Instead of writing his novel, Rowland’s literary efforts take a postmodern turn: he abandons his novel in favor of a nonfiction study of his nemesis, Chris. This motif—the story within a story—becomes an endless regression in a postmodern world without a center.
At one point in The Finishing School, Rowland is packed off by Nina to a mountain monastery in Switzerland to get over his jealousy. The monastery is recommended to him in this way: “They don’t try to convert you, they just give you peace of mind.” Given the popularity of what might be called spiritual tourism these days, Spark’s irony here might be too deep for most readers to catch. But Chris soon goes off to the monastery in pursuit of Rowland—when he realizes he needs Rowland’s raging envy. The two men circle each other hungrily, the ultimate co-dependent pair.
The problem that Spark and all satirists of a postmodern world encounter is that there’s no there there. Satire is grounded upon a belief in moral and cultural standards. In Spark’s lifetime, as those standards have disintegrated, the satirist’s job has become almost impossible. Jean Brodie may have been the Hitler of a Scottish girls’ school, but Rowland and Chris are simply inane, and Nina is busy looking out for number one. A silhouette only works as a portrait when its outlines are sharp-edged.
In the case of The Finishing School, the result is a comedy that has no purchase; it merely devolves into stock clichés, including bedroom farce, complete with French maids and a strapping, highly sexed gardener. Even the misdirected creativity of many Sparkian rogues, which may at least remind us of what could happen if true direction were found, is missing here.
A few critics have somewhat harshly suggested that the elderly Muriel Spark is losing her powers, but perhaps the problem lies deeper than that. The amoral triviality of the postmodern world represented by College Sunrise may be putting satirists out of business.
Gregory Wolfe directs the MFA program in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University and is the editor of the journal Image