Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Muriel Spark: The Finishing School

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.


Elberry said...

Top o' the mornin' to you, GOB. Your post amuses me as i'm an unpublished writer from shitty Huddersfield, and my short stories have been rejected for over three years with comments like "original idea, but uneven tone" or "interesting premise but not fully worked out"; which is a bit like criticising a sonnet for only having fourteen lines, or 'Ulysses' for not having quotation marks and standard chapters.

If you've not already read it, you might like Terence Blacker's 'Kill Your Darlings', which is about a washed-up writer who steals a dead student's work. It also effectively satirizes the hideous world of literary celebrity, and made me want to kill: so good stuff all round.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Grumpy. I had problems with the book as well (http://www.book-blog.blogspot.com/2004_12_01_book-blog_archive.html#110450719684169699). This is actually the first/only book of hers I've read, so it wasn't an auspicious introduction.

Anonymous said...

Anybody wishing to understand Muriel Spark would be recommended to read her autobiography "Curriculum Vitae" published by Constable in 1992 (Last January I purchased all hardback copies which Constable cleared, one long tail "bin end" which was a winner ! ) Still in print with Penguin (p/b) : hardback copies can be found in most secondhand bookshops.

Anonymous said...

whatever the drawbacks are, I liked the book on the whole. the last book from Iris Murdoch , for exampmle, was of a much bigger disappointment, a disaster where one could easily see the coming Alzheimer's...

Anonymous said...

I have just read The Finishing School and am surprised to find someone with very similar opinions.

I completely agree-- the viewpoint was very odd-- it seemed as though the author did not have experience in third person omniscient. But puzzling enough, Muriel Spark has written over twenty novels. Surely enough, as you said, she knew what she was doing.
Also I found the sentence construction to be quite awkward. Spark inserted prepositions to a fro , as a result, creating unnatural sentences. Again, Spark, somehow, must have meant for it to be this way. Or is this her normal writing style? (This novel is the first I've read by her).

Despite my complaints, I am quite intrigued by Spark and am looking forward to reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, etc.