domingo, 13 de octubre de 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)
by Muriel Spark
Scotland, 1961

Considering the ridiculous # of times I've put off hooking up w/reputed brainy vixen Muriel Spark despite the enthusiastically proffered introductions of high class book pimps like Frances of Nonsuch Book and Séamus of Vapour Trails, I guess I only have myself to blame for this long-overdue admission: man, am I smitten...in terms more properly suited to this quick-reading but thorny morality tale set in 1930s Edinburgh at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, what I'm trying to get at is that I found The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to be a superb, surprisingly complex novella that actually manages to live up to its massive hype with a spare, low-key style and an unpredictability that feels organic rather than forced--and even though Spark's authorial voice was every bit as recognizably distinctive as advertised ("flattening their scorn beneath the chariot wheels of her superiority," on page 56, will have to serve as the soundbite du jour), I so enjoyed the rest of her prose while immersed in it that I was variously reminded of Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten for its unconventional but intensely felt characterization, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse for a deft but devastating fast-forwarding storytelling technique that's used on occasion throughout the work, and Marguerite Duras' Moderato cantabile for the novelist's complete command of her material amid a stripped-down economy of scale...of course, perhaps the easiest way for me to xmit my newfound appreciation for some of the more aesthetically fetching aspects of Spark's contempo classic is to contrast her high degree of difficulty portrayal of the title character, a charismatic and influential teacher who will suffer a betrayal less for her "experimental" pedagogy or for being an open admirer of some of the fascist changes taking place in 1930s Germany, Italy, and Spain and more from the personal animus of a couple of moral fascists including one from within her inner circle, with the light touch evident in this miniaturized portrait of one of Brodie's impressionable young students: "Eunice Gardiner discovered the Industrial Revolution, its rights and wrongs, to such an extent that the history teacher, a vegetarian communist, had high hopes of her which were dashed within a few months when Eunice reverted to reading novels based on the life of Mary Queen of Scots" (87-88).  Intellectually speaking, a hot date.

Muriel Spark (1918-2006)

16 comentarios:

  1. Brodie was the first novel I read this year, the first Spark novel I ever read. It's an amazing performance, indeed a "high degree of difficulty." The bright shining and ultimately pathetic egomania of Miss Brodie is a thing to behold. I had absolutely no idea this book would be as brilliant as it is. I just read A Far Cry From Kensington, which is also good, though perhaps not in the same league as Brodie. A lot of readers of Far Cry seem to miss the underlying ideas about religious fanaticism, the way some readers miss the argument in Brodie about Calvinism. Sometime soon I'll read Memento Mori, about which I know very little. I admit that I avoided Spark for so long because I labored under the misapprehension that she wrote light domestic fiction. Your comparison with Woolf seems pretty solid, though.

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    1. Scott, I wish I'd taken the time to touch on the Calvinism themes in the novel--had a great quote lined up for it and everything. In any event, loved so much about your comment: Brodie's "bright shining and ultimately pathetic egomania" is a particularly great description, of course, not least because the character managed to remain sympathetic to me until after the book was over even though many of her flaws were on display throughout. Also, I too had wrongly suspected that Spark was just a sharp-tongued purveyor of "light domestic fiction" despite many insightful blog posts to the contrary. And even though I thought I'd enjoy this book, I was still surprised to find out just how great it was. Looking forward to a reread at some point + more Spark in general.

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    1. Miguel, I'd say that's a wise move--thought the novel was plenty great on multiple levels.

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  3. Sorry, meta comment: I so love reading your posts! It's such a pleasure to read reviews by someone with writing skills. yay for you!

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    1. Jill, thanks so much for your continuing kindness! It's of course easier to get pumped up for a great book like this than some of the duds that also make it across my path, but I appreciate your enthusiasm nonetheless. :D

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  4. I so agree with you and with the "yay" of the comment above. :)
    I'm all for condensed novels and this is a wonderful example of just that. No superfluous words in this small book.

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    1. Caroline, thanks to you for agreeing with both Jill and, uh, me on Spark. "Flattery will get you everywhere," as they say! Interesting to hear what you say about small books here. Although I still like the big fat ones. of course, some of the most satisfying works I've read in the past few years were the "condensed" ones by people like Duras, Kleist, Onetti, and Tabucchi. Maybe something about the lack of "superfluous words" makes the works more powerful somehow? Cheers!

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  5. An enduring character, Ms. Brodie. I read this pre-blog days, 2008. But I later posted something in LT (here).

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    1. Rise, the next time I read this novel I need to figure out how Spark managed to create a character that could be so egomaniacal, wrongheaded, and yet often sympathetic all at the same time. Did Brodie's frequent charisma just disguise all her faults? Thanks for sharing your LT write-up--enjoyed it!

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    2. I wonder if it has something to do with Spark's ruthlessness. The book is a machine that closes in on its characters: it is not a merciful machine, and Spark never sounds like the kind of author who would say in an interview, "The characters seem so real to me, and so sweet, that I cry when I hurt them. I want them to do well!" Fate is coming down on Ms Jean Brodie, and not even egomania is going to be able to get her out of it. Charm can't win against fate. So she's a woman up against a powerful enemy. Perhaps it's possible to feel sympathy for her in the way that we might feel sympathy for Macbeth or Richard III. We know what they don't know, ie, that they're doomed.

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    3. Pykk, belated thanks for these truly insightful comments--I think you nailed the explanation(s) I was searching for, the bits about fate vs. Brodie, the book as a ruthless machine, and why we feel sympathy for the sort of company Miss Jean Brodie keeps character-wise being particularly helpful. Is Spark just as "ruthless" in her more amusing books? I look forward to figuring that one out for myself. Cheers!

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  6. Richard, just found this post now. Chaos reigns and I am not keeping up with either my posting or blogreading. Thanks for the flattery, as you say yourself, it's always welcome.
    I'm also glad that my recommendation for a starter Spark was a success - I'm not always so successful at matching books and readers - but I find it hard to imagine how not to enjoy Spark, she is so knowing, playful and succinct. And there is so much joy in a perfectly formed sentence.

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    1. Séamus, apologies to you as well for the tardiness of my reply--still recovering from an otherwise awesome vacation I took to see my folks and brother earlier this month, so I can commiserate with you about "chaos reigning" in terms of blog stuff and whatnot. Anyway, thanks again for the Sparks rec: I look forward to checking out one of her "lighter" works next as a change of pace, but this novel will be sure to make my best of the year list as well. Just outstanding stuff. Cheers!

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  7. Nice review of a book I've been hearing about for years but have somehow avoided reading! Must be time to remedy that, and make an intellectual hot date :-)

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  8. Andrew, thanks and welcome to the blog. Naturally, I hope you have as hot a first date with Spark as I did!

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