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 satisfies our hunger for plot, and at the same time shows us the shortcoming of such things as plots—the extent of the human stuff that they ignore, and the troubling persistence of the questions they leave unasked.
The great flaw in postmodernism, however, has always been that the writer’s enthusiasm to expose the fictionality of a fiction tends to be paralleled by the reader’s consequent freedom not to care what happens in the book. Spark’s way around this has always been to stress the realness of the real. This is not to say that she is a realist; but realism is one of the things she can do. This is the opening of The Girls of Slender Means, from 1963:
Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.
Has any novelist ever been as consistently good at openings as Muriel Spark? There is no denying that this is the real London of 1945—the sense of the depressed, half-ruined city is almost physically palpable. Her London is as much the real London as her Edinburgh in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the real Edinburgh (complete with the “amazingly terrible” smell in the 1930s High Street). But there are also hints that this all-too-real scene is a mental stage as much as it is a physical one. All metaphors have, to some extent, an anti-realistic effect: here the comparison with a giant mouth, while striking, begins to suggest that, behind the real ruined London, there is a prompting imagination at work; then there are those castles, which make us think of fairy tales, and then the stage sets, which make us think of theater, and then we are finally led toward an encounter with the fount of all imagination, “the mind’s eye.” It is as if Spark wants to parallel the emphasis on reality with a reminder that this is all a fiction, a writer’s story being recreated in the mind of a reader in the act of reading.
Why does she bother to do this? After all, we know the fiction is a fiction; we aren’t stupid. (Or rather, we may well be stupid, but we do at least know that.) The need to gesture at the fictionality of her fictions is, I would suggest, rooted in Spark’s Catholicism, and particularly in her wish not to compete with God. This is where her identification with the older generation of Catholic writers comes together with what some of her admirers take to be postmodernism. In Spark’s fiction, we are never allowed to forget that the author, and indeed the reader, is subordinate to the final Author; our fictions must not ever seem to compete with His. Spark does not arrogate to herself the same rights as the atheist Flaubert, who thought the novelist should be like God, “everywhere present, nowhere visible,” or the atheist Joyce, who thought that the novelist should again be like God, “indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Spark is thoroughly present everywhere in her books. She intrudes into the story, prompts and nudges and judges and jokes, as a way of signaling the provisionality, the human limitedness, of any particular fiction.
This is not just a theoretical issue for Spark, but something that is woven into the texts of all her books. The twenty novels she has written over forty-seven years have a wide range of geography and subject, from 1930s Edinburgh (Jean Brodie) to 1990s Paris (Aiding and Abetting), from demonological fantasists in South London (The Ballad of Peckham Rye) to a parody of Watergate and President Nixon’s impeachment (The Abbess of Crewe). Within this range, there is a considerable continuity of tone, a remarkable consistency of quality, and a few favorite plot devices. Her books usually take place in a closed world, a school or convent or (as in The Girls of Slender Means) a hostel. There always is a central figure who is in the grip of a delusion, and is in some way trying to play God, whether it be Brodie with her schoolgirls or the Abbess with her nuns. The central character is usually not the only person to be deluded: many, or even most of the ancillary characters tend to be, to some degree, in the grip of fantasy or misapprehension. Any one of her books could take as its epigraph T.S. Eliot’s line “humankind cannot bear too much reality”—though we should add the qualification that in Spark’s world, it’s by no means clear that humankind can bear any reality, ever.
So Spark’s books take place in a world that is recognizably the real one we all share, and at the same time they have a sense that reality is stretched thin. “One has the impression,” Frank Kermode has written, “that for Spark there somehow exists, in advance of composition, a novel, or more usually a novella, which can be scanned as it were in a satellite’s view of it, from above.” It is sometimes as if when Spark sits down to write she has beside her elbow a long, boring, detailed novel telling the story she is about to tell, and that she is writing a kind of freestyle version of the same story. She is free to hop backward and forward in time (one Spark trademark being the sudden disruptive glimpse long into the character’s future), to break the reality frame of the book whenever she feels like it, to make jokes and jump-cuts and above all to leave out anything she does not feel interests her; no writer has ever taken more to heart Elmore Leonard’s advice to “leave out the boring bits.” This sense of a work behind the work gives her books their paradoxical feeling of substantial insubstantiality, of artistic willfulness coexisting with a deeper internal logic.
The Finishing School brings us Spark’s latest beginning, and her newest reminder that fiction is fiction. This time, Spark opens her book by reflecting on the subject of beginnings, with her patented blend of realness and not-quite-realness:
“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, ‘The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”
The man setting the scene, as Spark sets her scene, is Rowland Mahler, the twenty-nine-year-old coproprietor of a nine-pupil school whose unique selling point is that it moves around from year to year—not least, Spark implies, because of the opportunities this gives to skip out on unpaid bills. At present, College Sunrise is based in Ouchy, part of Lausanne. For Rowland, the school is mainly an opportunity for him to get on with his novel; the only class that really interests him is the creative writing class with which the novel begins. Rowland’s partner in owning and running the school is his wife, the efficient and sane Nina:
To conserve his literary strength, as he put it, he left nearly all the office work to Nina, who spoke good French and was dealing with the bureaucratic side of the school and with the parents, employing a kind of impressive carelessness. She tended to crush any demands for full explanations on the part of the parents. This attitude, strangely enough, generally made them feel they were getting good money’s worth.
Spark’s novels often have a character who, while not being anything as banal as a hero or heroine, is nonetheless the author’s favorite. Here, you feel, that character is Nina, who is attracted to academics, and whose fondest wish for Rowland is that he might eventually become head of an Oxford or Cambridge college. “She had wanted him to call himself Dr. Mahler, but he had sensed that the title would interfere with his main ambition: to write a wonderful novel.” Nina particularly loves to teach her charges etiquette or, as she calls it, comme il faut: how to eat a plover’s egg; why you must realize your husband is a crook if he takes you to Ascot; and what to do if you seek a career in international diplomacy:
“In case you are thinking of getting a job at the United Nations,” Nina told them, “I have picked up a bit of information which may be useful, even vital to you. A senior member of the U.N. Secretariat passed it on to me especially for you young people. First, if you, as a U.N. employee, are chased by an elephant stand still and wave a white handkerchief. This confuses the elephant’s legs. Second, if chased by a large python, run away in a zigzag movement, as a python can’t coordinate its head with its tale. If you have no time to run away, sit down with your back to a tree and spread your legs. The python will hesitate, not knowing which leg to begin with. Get out your knife and cut its head off.”
“Suppose there isn’t a tree to lean against?” Lionel said.
“I’ve thought of that,” said Nina, “but I haven’t come up with an answer.”
Spark, it is clear, is having fun in The Finishing School. The novel has something of the quality that Edward Said was interested in when he wrote about lateness in art. “Late” works are the pieces an artist produces toward the end of an oeuvre: they combine an absolute control and mastery with a kind of sketchiness, a speedy glossing-over of the aspects with which the artist can no longer be bothered. The human comedy is in this short book more purely comic than it often has been for Spark. She doesn’t spare her characters any more than she ever does, but here the exposures and stupidities are at the lighter end of her palette.
It is somehow characteristic of Spark that she began her career by writing about central characters who were older than her—notably the one-foot-in-the-grave senior citizens of Memento Mori—and has now, at the age of eighty-six, written a book in which most of the characters are still in their teens. She has always loved the super-swift, devastating character sketch—think of Mary Macgregor in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “famous for being stupid and always to blame”—and she has great fun with the none-too-bright privileged children of College Sunrise. We meet filthy-rich Pallas Kapelas, “tall and swarthy and striking,” whose father is “widely believed” to be a spy; Opal, whose father has suddenly run out of money and who wants to be a priest; Mary, “a blue-frocked, blue-eyed, fair Englishwoman in the making,” whose ambition is “to open a village shop and sell ceramics and transparent scarves”; and gossipy Tilly, “known and registered at the school as Princess Tilly, but no one knew where she was Princess of.” Near-illiterate Tilly wants to be a journalist. She is “writing a thesis on the massacre of the Nepalese royal family in recent years. She had met one of their remote cousins at the Plaza Hotel in New York. This gave her confidence to describe the already well-documented scene, as if she herself had been there.”
One of the school’s pupils stands out from the others. This is Chris Wiley, a red-haired, self-possessed seventeen-year-old who is writing a novel about that very Sparkian subject, Mary Queen of Scots. Chris has a theory about the exhaustively revisited topic of whether or not Mary was involved in the murder of her husband Lord Darnley; he intends to propose that Darnley was murdered as an act of revenge for his murder of Mary’s secretary and friend, the musician David Rizzio. “Chris didn’t trouble to believe this theory one way or another, but he felt it would make a good story. It was to be an excitingly written novel, in addition to its originality. It was to be popular.” In the crushing flatness of that last sentence, we can tell just how bad Spark thinks Chris’s book is likely to be.
A Spark novel isn’t a Spark novel without a central character in the grip of delusions. Rowland, who is failing to make progress with his own writing, comes to be obsessed with Chris’s book. Rowland is essentially a comic character, but his envy of Chris is not comic, and it is on this subject that The Finishing School strikes its darkest notes:
What is jealousy? Jealousy is to say, what you have got is mine, it is mine, it is mine? Not quite. It is to say, I hate you because you have got what I have not got and desire. I want to be me, myself, but in your position, with your opportunities, your fascination, your looks, your abilities, your spiritual good.
Chris, like any of us, would have been astonished if he had known that Rowland, through jealousy, had thought with some tormented satisfaction of Chris dying in his sleep.
This is the point where The Finishing School touches on Spark’s great theme of man’s presumptuousness. Rowland is entitled to want to write his own book, but not to want Chris not to write his; for Spark, it is God who allocates talent and success and good fortune. “Envy of Another’s Spiritual Good,” she tells us, “was the sin from which Rowland suffered. ‘Suffered’ is the right word, as it often is in cases where the perpetrators are in the clutches of their own distortions.”
Under the influence of these feelings, Rowland begins to go insane. He can’t stop thinking about Chris, and is possessed by the feeling that the younger man’s book is being written at the expense of his own. When Rowland’s father dies, he flies home for the funeral, and manages to forget his envy for a few days—but then he returns to the school, and to his obsession. “The nearer he got to Geneva, the closer came Chris. No longer a boy student, he was now a meaning, an explanation in himself.” The background matter of Mary Queen of Scots, and the murders committed around her—“the causes of these homicides were jealousy, uncontrollable jealousy,” Spark has a historian tell us—makes us feel that The Finishing School is moving toward a dark, violent ending.
That sense, however, is balanced by the comedy of the book, which has great fun with the fact that “every publisher wants a novel by a red-haired youth of seventeen with a smattering of history and a good opinion of himself.” Spark has clearly noticed the increasing preoccupation in publishing with youth, looks, first books, and hype, and has great fun with it. “The book itself,” a publisher tells Chris, “is actually a lot of shit.” We believe him, and we note that this makes no difference to “the eventual flamboyant literary success of Chris himself, if not entirely of his book”—a distinction in which Spark gives a perfect summary of what often happens these days when the hugely touted first novel appears.
The comedy and fun of this is, in Sparkworld, no guarantee that the novel will not lurch toward darkness. Is Rowland going to kill Chris? He certainly broods about it enough. (“‘I could kill him,’ thought Rowland. ‘But would that be enough?’”) Dame Muriel, however, hardly ever takes us where we think we are going to go, and likes to leave us with our questions answered, and yet not feeling that her fictional stage has been left over-tidy. The denouement, or punchline, of The Finishing School is so good that I can’t resist passing it on, though with a warning that anyone who reads books for their plots should stop right here. Nina begins to have an affair; it is obvious that her marriage to Rowland is over. He abandons his novel and announces, unpromisingly, that he is going to write a book about the school instead. The last twist comes in one of those sweeping final passages that Spark so loves, in which she distributes to her characters their final fates:
Rowland was to continue to run College Sunrise with some success.
After another year at Ouchy he moved to Ravenna where the school specialized in the study of mosaics. From there he moved to Istanbul where he met with many problems too complicated to narrate here. His book, The School Observed, was published satisfactorily, as was Chris’s first novel, highly praised for its fine, youthful disregard of dry historical facts.
Chris proceeded to establish himself as a readable novelist and meanwhile joined Rowland at College Sunrise as soon as he was of age. After a year they engaged themselves in a Same-Sex Affirmation Ceremony, attended by friends and Chris’s family.
Not happily ever after, necessarily; but as close as it gets in Sparkworld.