viernes, 21 de febrero de 2014

The Girls of Slender Means

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/The Girls of Slender Means/The Driver's Seat/The Only Problem (Everyman's Library, 2004)
by Muriel Spark
Scotland, 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 a 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.
(The Girls of Slender Means, 129)

As I hope you can tell from all that rich descriptive detail packed into the opening paragraph of Muriel Spark's autobiographical novella, The Girls of Slender Means is a sly, eminently quotable, and carefully written affair that was a pleasure to read despite also seeming a little workmanlike in spirit when compared with the godlike The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Fortunately for all concerned, we don't punish people for releasing the book version of Give 'Em Enough Rope after they've already gifted us with The Clash.  In any event, much of Spark's focus in this love letter to postwar disillusion has to do with a group of young women of modest means rooming at the May of Teck Club in London at the close of World War II (just as Spark herself did at the Helena Club in 1944-45).  How will their wartime lives, along with those of the non-May of Teck Club men and women who enter their lives, change once the war has finally ended and adulthood beckons?  Spark gives one answer, an arch one, while describing the night when virtually all of London took to the streets to celebrate the victory against Germany: "Many liaisons, some permanent, were formed in the night, and numerous infants of experimental variety, delightful in hue of skin and racial structure, were born to the world in the due cycle of nine months after" (137).  And she gives another answer, a harrowing one, near the end of the novel, while describing two tragedies that befall May of Teck Club members and their friends and an unrelated act of random violence witnessed among the crowds taking to the streets to mark VJ night.  In between, art and romantic love and religion are held up to the light for scrutiny in a way that makes me wonder whether I might be holding The Girls of Slender Means to an impossibly high standard; at the very least, it's hard not to admire a writer of faith who can slam an insensitive country clergyman as being "this shepherd of the best prime mutton" (231) or a writer of any sort who can smack down the healing powers of young love with such a coldblooded dig as follows: "Joanna pressed down her feelings for the second curate and worked them off in tennis and the war effort" (141).  Muriel Spark, a writer with ice in her veins.

10 comentarios:

  1. Great commentary on this book. I really need to get to reading Muriel Spark but I will likely read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

    Your Clash allusion is priceless.

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    1. Yeah, Richard's mention of the Clash is the best thing about my morning. Brodie is a masterpiece, a jewel, so so good. Nothing else I've read from Spark so far has equalled that book. It's all been good, but, as Richard might tell you, "Tommy Gun" just isn't "White Man in Hammersmith Palais."

      Slender Means looks good, too. I'll have to pick it up.

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    2. Thanks, Brian--good to see all the early Clash love here today! As far as Spark goes, what Scott has to say about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is all true and a surefire reason why starting with that book shouldn't be second guessed. You won't regret it.

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    3. Scott, I suspect that my experience with this novel was very similar to yours with the non-The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Spark titles based on your "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" vs. "Tommy Gun" comparison. In any event, that was exactly the sort of thing I was thinking of!

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  2. Funny, when I read this post's title I thought, "Ah, is it time to write about 2666 again?" The 'girls with slender means' could well describe the murdered women of Santa Teresa.

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    1. Miguel, I almost wrote a "related" 2666 post recently but then backed off because I'm lazy and because I'm behind schedule in my readalong reading anyway. Agree that the economic aspects of the crimes almost make them more intrinsically horrible somehow--as if they could be any more intrinsically horrible.

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  3. Glad to see you like this Richard. As you know I am something of a committed Sparkian and am now searching for her Sandinista, although I don't think she could sprawl even if she tried. This is close to the top of my Spark pile but there are so many good ones - Memento Mori, Loitering With Intent &on. You have me checking my shelves for my annual dose and I see I have Not to Disturb which I haven't read yet..

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    1. Séamus, good luck hunting for Spark's Sandinista! LOL. I imagine you'd have to create your own triple LP by assembling six Spark novellas or some such. Anyway, I'm glad to be reminded that she has "so many good ones" among her back catalogue; I can't for myself imagine encountering anything else as brilliant or as inspired as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but I'll keep on chasing that first high while remembering that many other Spark fans are on record as having other favorite titles by her. That gives me hope, esp. as I've only read two books by her so far. Cheers!

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    2. Read Not to Disturb - short and very strange.

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    3. Thanks for the rec. That was almost the first Spark I read a year or two back, but I turned it back into the library despite its length probably because I was trying to read too many other books at the time. Hope you plan on reviewing it.

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