These are three short and early novels by the Scottish writer Muriel Spark. I am rereading the latter two.
This novel begins with a phone call to an older Dame at a retirement home. The caller tells the woman “You must remember that you will die” and this mysterious and potentially scary call becomes the the central plot to the novel, and opens up to a darkly funny story as the call repeats over and over again. As the call repeats, and the receiver of the call and her various compatriots and cohabitants of the community try to figure out if these calls are threats, reminders, prodding, advice, or some other unknown purpose. And the more they happen, the less severe they seem.
The novel doesn’t simply deal with these calls, but spirals outward to include multiple spaces of intrigue.
This novel is interesting because it’s an early novel for Muriel Spark and she would come to write many many more, but she’s not a young person writing about old age, so much as a middle age person writing about old age, in an otherwise young career. So it’s not the kind of naive musing on age that feels more annoying than precocious, but it’s also not the kind of wistful musings of an older writer. So, for me, it’s neither The Poor House Fair by a very young John Updike nor is it something like Gilead or Our Souls at Night. So maybe this is where the comedy comes in, the mind of arrogance of middle age of probably knowing better but committing the sin of chauvinism nonetheless. This criticism may or may not be true about Spark, but does certainly account for the actions of the middle age characters in the novel.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Again, this is a reread. The first time I read this I was peppered with prejudgment from this being on many lists, being a new teacher, and having seen the movie. And so I was annoyed or not particularly interested, and so it was a pretty blah kind of read for me. Now, older, more experienced, and less salty about it, I really liked it and found it hilarious, touching, shocking in some key ways, and really causing to think about being a teacher.
So the story here is Miss Jean Brodie a middle school (essentially) teacher of girls fills them colorful ideas about the world both opening them up to some thoughtful insight, but completely ill-preparing them for the world. It’s a lot like Dead Poet’s Society, but it doesn’t champion the bad teaching of Robin Williams character, who maybe inspires his students, but also puts them in danger as well. Miss Jean Brodie does want her students to think…to be lead out as she explains the etymology of the word education…but she also wants them to think the way she thinks, to think she’s wonderful, to maybe perhaps see the appeal and good of Fascism, and to explore sexuality, vulgarity, and other topics that maybe the world won’t really be able to protect them if they choose those for their expertise.
While Miss Jean Brodie is assuredly in her prime, her prime involves not creating education experiences that foster her students’ difference. It’s a romp, but you’d be pissed if your kids where in the Brodie set.
The Girls of Slender Means
Reading about wartime, especially WWII and especially during the Blitz, I am always shocked and surprised by how resilient it seems those who lived through these times were. In part, what else are you going to do in extraordinary times, and of course, many people didn’t live or weren’t resilient. But the stories that come out of it, especially the kind of stiff upper lip/stoic kinds of acceptance are some of the more engaging stories, even if they’re as much myth as truth.
Another side of these stories are the blissfully in denial. This novel is about the blissfully in denial girl who might not have a lot of money (but are flush in rationing coupons) who refuse and who bravely plow forth and don’t change their lifestyles in any way.
This is an interesting and hilarious novel that challenging in its tone (very sardonic but oddly lighthearted) and also a novel that flits in and out of the narrative for a little more than 100 pages dipping in out of perspectives from around the world of the novel. The resulting novel has the lightest touch at times, but really seems to create a world.