The Finishing School
by Muriel Spark
Doubleday, 181 pp., $16.95
A reader picking up Muriel Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, at the time of its publication in 1957, might have noticed that the author was thirty-nine years old, and have thought that he was encountering the work of a late developer. It is not an impression that would have survived the reading of the book’s first paragraphs:
On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother’s voice below.
“I’ll have a large wholemeal. I’ve got my grandson stopping for a week, who’s on the B.B.C. That’s my daughter’s boy, Lady Manders. He won’t eat white bread, one of his fads.”
Laurence shouted from the window, “Grandmother, I adore white bread and I have no fads.”
The reader immediately has a headful of questions—and part of what remains so fresh about The Comforters is that these questions all turn out to be centrally relevant to the book. Who is this batty old lady? Is she batty? Why is she so quick to let everyone know about her daughter’s title? Does she just want to boast, or does she have some other reason for wanting to appear respectable? Why is Laurence so jumpy, and so eager to seem normal? How are we to judge who is crazy and who isn’t? And then the most pressing question of all: To whom belongs this extraordinarily confident, assured, omniscient narrative voice?
It is part of the book’s genius that this issue is the one on which the whole structure of The Comforters turns. Spark was early identified as a Catholic convert, and energetically praised right from the start by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh (who generously wrote that he preferred The Comforters to his own The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold). As a result of that, however, she has been misidentified as a figure from the time when, to quote Adrian Mitchell’s “Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry,” writers were leaving “the Communist Church to join the Catholic Party.” But Spark could more accurately be seen as a sort of proto-postmodernist, a writer with a sharp and lasting interest in the arbitrariness of fictional conventions; a writer whose eager adoption of the conventions of the novel have always been accompanied by a wish to toy with, subvert, parody, and undermine them.
Spark’s attitude to plot exemplifies this approach. Her stories always pose a set of questions. In the course of the novel most of them are resolved—a classic example being the central plot question of her great Memento Mori, from 1959: we finally learn the identity of the voice who rings old people and says to them, “Remember you must die.” But once we have the answer—in this case, Death—the larger sense of mystery and strangeness in the book always remains, and we are left with a lingering feeling that the question we’ve had answered somehow misses a larger point. Spark …