Dame Muriel Spark, who died recently after a fifty-year career as a novelist, published her last book in 2004, when she was in her late eighties. Its title was The Finishing School.
Like much of Spark's work, The Finishing School is short: 155 pages (themselves short), and by my calculation the book is well under 40,000 words. This I regard, by the way, as a virtue; I have argued in the past that most novels are too long.
The Finishing School describes a small, exclusive school for the teenaged children of very wealthy parents. It is run by Rowland, a man not yet thirty. Rowland has literary ambitions, and is writing a novel. Or trying to; it is not going at all well. Chris, a seventeen-year-old pupil at the school, is also writing a novel. His is going extremely well, and publishers are showing a marked interest in the output of one so young, so good-looking, and so talented.
The bulk of the novel describes how Rowland becomes increasingly jealous of Chris, to the point where it is feared that he may even be violent towards him. Chris, for his part, seems to feed off his teacher's jealousy.
And, er, that's about it, really. I'm not going to tell you how the story ends, but the ending contrives to be both funny and sad, which is a pretty neat trick, and it constitutes a fitting conclusion to a long and distinguished career. Along the way, The Finishing School may well provide some harmless amusement for anyone who has ever written a novel (or tried to), and anyone who reads novels on a regular basis. The comments and asides about writers, publishers, and 'literary experts' will doubtless ring a few bells and raise a few smiles.
There are only two other things to be said.
The first is relatively trivial.
The punctuation of this novel is decidedly odd, in places, as is the use of viewpoint, and it seems to me that one of two things probably occurred. Dame Muriel may, perhaps, have become a little careless as she grew older, and she may have lost the edge of her concentration, and possibly eyesight.
There is another possibility, however, which is that Dame Muriel realised that she was dealing with some pretty thin material, and decided that she needed to find some way to keep readers awake; so she threw in some punctuational and technical oddities to that end.
A similar thing happens, you may have noticed, in drama. Or perhaps you haven't noticed, unless you write scripts. But what often happens is that a writer writes a line which has a natural inflection to it. As in: Character A: Mary was late for school today. Character B: After what she drank last night, she would be!
You and I, speaking Character B's line, would say: She WOULD be. But not today's actors. Oh no. Today the actor would say (as I heard one do last night): She would BE.
God knows why they do this, but it happens all the time. Perhaps the actors and the directors of today have so little faith in writers that they feel obliged to hold the audience's attention with these weird inflections. But the next time you watch a TV drama, just count the number of instances. It's so commonplace that it's as if some rule book somewhere says that it's compulsory.
And perhaps, as I say, Dame Muriel adopted a similar device in her last novel. Putting commas where you least expect them; changing from one character's viewpoint to another, in the middle of a paragraph. She had certainly been around long enough, and had written enough novels, to be well aware of what she was up to.
The other point which has to be made is a rather sad one. But this blog is, after all, dedicated to telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about books and publishing, however painful that truth may sometimes be.
And the plain fact of the matter is this: If this book had not had the name of Dame Muriel Spark attached to it, it would never have seen the light of day outside of Lulu.com.
Suppose this book had been submitted to an agent or publisher by Freda Farnsbarns, an unpublished writer from Huddersfield -- what would have been the response? Well, for one thing it would have been regarded as too short, too slight, and, if anyone ever read more than four or five pages, slightly amateurish.
Dame Muriel has her own peculiar style in this book, as mentioned above, and it is easy to mistake it for a lack of technique and a failure to appreciate the finer points of viewpoint; not to mention punctuation.
So. With Dame Muriel on the cover of the book, it gets lots of plaudits. With Freda Farnsbarns on the front page of the typescript, no sale.
Now that isn't fair, is it? Of course it's not. But then, if anyone ever told you that life is fair, you were being grievously misled.