My University held a two-day conference to mark Muriel Spark’s centenary in early February, and it seemed rude not to buy a book whilst I was volunteering. I have read quite a few of Spark’s books to date, but The Finishing School is one of those outstanding which I have had my eye on for quite a while. I was intrigued enough, in fact, to begin reading it right away.
According to a few of the lecturers and general Spark fans whom I spoke to at the conference, The Finishing School is her weakest book. Ali Smith, however, deems it ‘one of her funniest novels… Spark at her sharpest, her purest and her most merciful’. The Smith quote held weight for me, as she is one of my favourite authors (this will come as no surprise to anyone who follows my reviews, I’m sure!).
The Finishing School, first published in 2004, comes in at just over 120 pages in its newest Canongate edition, and is easy enough to read in a single afternoon or evening. It is Spark’s final novel, published 45 years after Memento Mori, and 43 after her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It certainly marks a departure; whilst there are definitely similarities to be found between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Finishing School, particularly with regard to its school setting and imparting of an education of sorts from rather a tyrannical teacher, it is neither as searching, nor as acerbic as the former. The story here is not quite as tense psychologically as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie either.
The Finishing School, named College Sunrise, is located in Ouchy, on the edge of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Here, a ‘would-be’ novelist, Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina Parker, run a finishing school ‘of questionable reputation to keep the funds flowing’. After having failed to make a profit in Brussels, where the school was opened several years beforehand, Rowland ‘moved the school to Vienna, increased the fees, wrote to the parents that he and Nina were making an exciting experiment: College Sunrise was to be a mobile school which would move somewhere new every year.’
One student named Chris, just seventeen years of age, shows remarkable promise in the field of literature, and is working on his first novel about Mary Queen of Scots, with interest from a host of publishers. In the school, in consequence, ‘jealousy and tensions run high’. No one person’s relationship with Chris is as fraught as that between himself and Rowland, whose criticism Chris relies on, but who is markedly jealous that he is getting somewhere with his writing. Nina, whose opinion is given at points later in the novella, believes that Rowland’s jealousy of Chris is what is prohibiting him from producing a coherent novel of his own.
Spark gives an insight into the workings of Rowland’s mind and frustration within his own writing. This manifests itself into a seething hatred of Chris’ work, which he can see is very good: ‘Rowland was frightened; he felt again that stab of jealous envy, envious jealousy that he had already experienced, on touching and reading Chris’s typescript.’ Of his writing process, Spark goes on to say: ‘All the students of Sunrise knew that he struggled with a novel. They often volunteered to give him ideas for it, which he accepted politely enough. They begged him to read it aloud to them, but the truth was, the book was not yet in any readable condition. It consisted of paragraphs here and there on his computer, changing from day to day. He was in a muddle, which was not to say that he would not eventually get out of it, as in fact he as to do by writing a different sort of book.’
The Finishing School uses a structure of rather short chapters, which works well. Much is included about the craft of writing, the price of education, and relationships between particular characters; there are extramarital affairs, crises of self, and friendships which will not be shaken by anything. The style here, as ever with Spark’s work, is amusing in places – in fact, the humour here is noticeably biting in places – and peopled with interesting character constructs. I did find it engaging, and whilst it is not my favourite Spark book, it is fascinating to see how her writing style has evolved since the beginning of her career. My only qualm with The Finishing School, which made me give it a three- rather than a four-star rating, is that the ending is quite peculiar; I do not feel as though it was quite satisfactory, as it feels rather hasty and cobbled together. Regardless, this is certainly a novella worth seeking out.
Sylvia Brownrigg’s fourth book, The Delivery Room, was my choice for the Serbia portion of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I was intrigued by the storyline, which revolves around the Serbian conflict, and was eager to read it due to the reviews which promised lyrical prose, something which I adore within fiction. Michael Chabon, for example, writes, ‘In Sylvia Brownrigg’s hands, grief and longing are as sensuous a part of life as a fine meal or the touch of a lover.’
The Delivery Room, heralded a ‘compelling, complex, and always deeply human’ novel, begins in 1998, in the ‘safe haven’ of Mira’s north London flat. She works as a therapist with a host of very different clients from one of the rooms, which her husband has dubbed ‘the Delivery Room’. Mira herself is Serbian; the book’s blurb states that she must exist ‘in a time when Serbs have become the pariahs of the West, when Milosevic’s Yugoslav army is continuing its bloody struggle in Kosovo, testing NATO’s resolve.’
In terms of the characters who people Brownrigg’s novel, the reader gets a feel for them immediately. Mira’s husband Peter, for instance, ‘opened his eyes, and there she was before him: confessor, magician, wife. His beloved Mira. Gatherer of stories.’ Vastly different viewpoints about many issues are explored here, all using the lens of Mira’s quite diverse psychology patients. In this manner, Brownrigg opens up her novel to encompass more than one viewpoint on the war in Serbia and its aftermath. Mira’s story, as one might expect, is by far the most compelling, perhaps because she seems to relate everything with more authority than some of the secondary characters have.
Brownrigg’s sense of observance, and the attention to detail throughout The Delivery Room, are sharp and focused. There are some startling pieces of comparative prose here which illustrate Brownrigg’s world and character descriptions wonderfully; for instance, ‘a voice so thick he wanted to stroke it’, ‘a pale planet of a face that floated for a moment there by the night-dark door’, and ‘there was something he concealed from her, a tumour of information’. Serbia herself is used as a character within the novel; she looms over and pervades all. Mira, for instance, spends time ‘Watching from a distance as her former country worried itself into separate bloodied pieces, and parts and limbs…’.
The Delivery Room is well informed about this particular period of Yugoslav history, and the ripples which it leaves in the West. Brownrigg’s writing is measured and intelligent, and sometimes quite powerful. The author’s use of language in this multilayered novel is often packed with meaning. Whilst there is rather a lot going on here at times, Brownrigg does not let this detract from the poignancy of the war’s effects, both upon those caught up in it, and its observers. Many themes run through The Delivery Room, but by far the most pervading is grief. In Mira’s particular case, Brownrigg demonstrates the importance of family, no matter how many miles and conflicts may separate them.
Due to the sheer amount of characters we are introduced to here, and whom the author has clearly made quite an effort to make distinct from one another, The Delivery Room sadly does not always feel like an entirely focused novel; rather, it tends to become a little meandering and repetitive at times. Regardless, the story does come together well in the end, and if you are interested in this period of history, it is certainly worth a read.
Death of a Prima Donna by Brina Svit (Slovenia) ****
I have read very little Slovenian literature in my time, and decided to choose an intriguing tome for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I really enjoyed both the central idea and the structure of Brina Svit’s Death of a Prima Donna, and felt that everything about it – and particularly with regard to the use of a non-linear narrative – worked well. Engaging and cleverly structured, the novel kept me guessing throughout. It is a perceptive and quite intimate book, and one which I would highly recommend.
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) ****
I very much enjoyed Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love when I read it a few years ago, but for some reason, I hadn’t picked up any of her other work since. I remedied this for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge by choosing The Hired Man for my Croatian stop. From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andric (Bosnia-Herzegovina) ****
I had high hopes for Ivo Andric’s The Bridge Over the Drina. I loved the central idea, of a bridge being the entire focal point of the novel, and great swathes of Bosnian history unfolding around it. In terms of its chronologically organised and largely fictionalised history, in fact, it is a sweeping tour-de-force, rich in cultural detail, involved with politics and social conditions, and filled with memorable characters. Andric beautifully evokes his homeland, and whilst I certainly preferred some of the separate stories over others, I still very much enjoyed reading the novel in its entirety.
I expected that Mathias Malzieu’s novel of magical realism, The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, would be both quirky and charming, and full of whimsy. It is described as ‘a dark and tender fairytale spiced with devilish humour.’ I have had the novel on my to-read list for years, and was very excited when my slim hardback copy arrived. However, my overwhelming feeling about the novel is one of disappointment.
The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has been translated from its original French by Sarah Ardizzone, and opens in Edinburgh in 1874. A baby named Jack is born to a very young mother, and is found to have a frozen heart. He is given an operation, in which the unconventional Dr Madeleine ‘surgically implants a cuckoo clock into his chest.’ The novel’s first sentences set the initial tone, although they do give a feeling of fairytale and wonder, which is not carried through the entire book: ‘Firstly: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart. Secondly: master your anger. Thirdly: never, ever fall in love. For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.’
The novel is narrated by Jack, and follows his infatuation with an Andalusian girl made of fire: ‘Almost without realising it, I’m falling in love. Except I do realise it too. Inside my clock, it’s the hottest day on earth.’ Dr Madeleine, who becomes his guardian after his mother abandons him, worries that love will be a dangerous experience, and that his heart will be quite unable to take the strain. She tells him: ‘Your cuckoo-clock heart will explode. I was the one who grafted that clock on to you, and I have a perfect understanding of its limits. It might survive the intensity of pleasure, and beyond. But it is not robust enough to endure the torment of love.’ Jack’s narrative voice rarely feels authentic when he is supposed to be a child, and there is little change within it as he reaches adulthood. There is next to no character development within the novel, which is a real shame.
The initial descriptions which Malzieu gives of Edinburgh are highly sensuous: ‘Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed. Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice. The old river, normally so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.’ Other descriptions too verge upon the breathtaking: ‘… the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies. The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts, yawning at the moon…’. Whilst the descriptions of both place and people are by turns lively and inventive, it did not seem to me as though the rest of Malzieu’s writing quite stood up. It is when the narrative moves from Scotland to Spain that such descriptions start to suffer; they become relatively few and far between, and feel a little repetitive in what they pinpoint and express.
On initially viewing the dustjacket’s design and reading the blurb, I would have thought that The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be a suitable book for a child to read. It seems not, however; there are several marked references to sex, and some quite coarse language at times too. One of the fundamental flaws of the novel for me was that it did not appear to know exactly what it wanted to be, and there was too much going on at some points, and not enough at others. It felt inconsistent, and did not hold my interest once its initial few chapters had passed. I had qualms with the modern feel of the dialogue, which did not fit with the chosen time period at all; the historical detail was also rather patchy, and there are a few clumsy mistakes to be found for the eagle-eyed reader.
There are certainly some interesting ideas at play here, and I particularly admired the inclusion of Georges Melies, a real-life figure whose playful short films I love. It did not quite come together in my opinion, however, and felt markedly peculiar. It was difficult to immerse myself within the story, and it certainly loses momentum at points due to its inconsistent pacing. The fairytale elements which are emphasised within the book’s blurb are relatively non-existent. The translation was fluid, but regardless, I ended up disliking more about the novel than I liked. The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is what I imagine literary steampunk would be like; of marked interest to the right reader, but not really of appeal to this one.
Snapshots from another fantastic holiday. Featuring trips to Bayern Munich, the Olympic Park in Munich, and Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg, alongside beautiful scenery.
‘Suffragette Suffragette’ by Everything Everything | ‘Better Open the Door’ by Motion City Soundtrack
Academic blog: http://womenbetweenthelines.wordpress.com
I am beginning this instalment of The Book Trail with a Mary Stewart novel, which I very much enjoyed reading during January. As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ tool on Goodreads to collate this list, and have copied over the blurb for each title.
1. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart
‘When Vanessa March arrived in Vienna she knew all about the white Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. But she never expected to get involved with them or, indeed, with suspected murder.‘
2. While Still We Live by Helen MacInnes
‘It began very innocently. A holiday visit to Poland. But before enojoying the sights and sounds of this fascinating new place, happiness took a violent turn and became a nightmare of terror…when suddenly you’re mistaken for a Nazi spy, and to save your life, you have to prove you are innocent.‘
3. Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson
‘Vivacious, young Hester Christie tries to run her home like clockwork, as would befit the wife of British Army officer, Tim Christie. However hard Mrs Tim strives for seamless living amidst the other army wives, she is always moving flat-out to remember groceries, rule lively children, side-step village gossip and placate her husband with bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade. Left alone for months at a time whilst her husband is with his regiment, Mrs Tim resolves to keep a diary of events large and small in her family life. Once pen is set to paper no affairs of the head or heart are overlooked.When a move to a new regiment in Scotland uproots the Christie family, Mrs Tim is hurled into a whole new drama of dilemmas; from settling in with a new set whilst her husband is away, to disentangling a dear friend from an unsuitable match. Against the wild landscape of surging rivers, sheer rocks and rolling mists, who should stride into Mrs Tim’s life one day but the dashing Major Morley, hellbent on pursuit of our charming heroine. And Hester will soon find that life holds unexpected crossroads…‘
4. Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell
‘Middle-aged Catherine Middleton, married to an obtuse but endearing older man, is the still center of a swirl of two generations of gentry on the brink of WW II. The activities of youngsters and contemporaries go on around her and it is only gradually that one sees how, without conscious manipulation, nothing happens without her. The characters are subtly and humorously drawn–keep an eye on the hypochondriac and self-absorbed Miss Starter who displays a shrewd gift for defining the essentials and deflating the fatuous. At the end, youngsters and oldsters are properly sorted out and paired off, mostly as expected, after several false starts. Alistair, the older man who sets off after the ‘ing nue’ is nudged back into place with Catherine’s sister-in-law (his contemporary). She, in turn, sees ‘her young man’ off to seek his dream, leaving her bereft of the companions of her mind and heart — duty and honor intact, with the notion of ‘self-fulfillment at all costs’ decades away.‘
5. Fireflies by Shiva Naipaul
‘Fireflies tells the story of Trinidad’s most venerated Hindu family, the Khojas. Rigidly orthodox, presiding over acres of ill-kept sugarcane and hoards of jewellery enthusiastically guarded by old Mrs. Khoja, they seem to have triumphed more by default than by anything else. Only ‘Baby’ Khoja, who is parcelled off into an arranged marriage with a bus driver, proves an exception to this rule. She is the heroine, and her story the single gleaming thread in Shiva Naipaul’s ferociously comic and profoundly sad first novel.‘
6. The Polyglots by William Gerhardie
‘The Polyglots is the story of an eccentric Belgian family living in the Far East in the uncertain years after World War I and the Russian Revolution. The tale is recounted by their dryly conceited young English relative, Captain Georges Hamlet Alexander Diabologh, who comes to stay with them during a military mission. Teeming with bizarre characters—depressives, obsessives, paranoiacs, hypochondriacs, and sex maniacs—Gerhardie paints a brilliantly absurd world where the comic and the tragic are profoundly and irrevocably entwined.‘
7. Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
‘Beneath the unassuming surface of a progressive women’s college lurks a world of intellectual pride and pomposity awaiting devastation by the pens of two brilliant and appalling wits. Randall Jarrell’s classic novel was originally published to overwhelming critical acclaim in 1954, forging a new standard for campus satire—and instantly yielding comparisons to Dorothy Parker’s razor-sharp barbs. Like his fictional nemesis, Jarrell cuts through the earnest conversations at Benton College—mischievously, but with mischief nowhere more wicked than when crusading against the vitriolic heroine herself.‘
8. Topper Takes a Trip by Thorne Smith
‘Cosmo Topper, the mild-mannered bank manager who was persuaded to take a walk on the wild side by the ghosts of George and Marion Kerby in Topper, finds himself reunited with his dyspeptic wife for an extended vacation on the Riviera. But he doesn’t have long to enjoy the peace and quiet before the irrepressible Kerbys materialize once again and start causing fracases, confusing the citizenry, alarming the gendarmes, getting naked, and turning every occasion into revelry or melee. Soon Marion decides that Topper as a ghost would be even more laughs than Topper in the flesh. And all she needs to arrange is one simple little murder.‘
Have you read any of these books? Which have piqued your interest?
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