Thursday, 10 January 2013

#6: Scotland

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark (Scotland, 1961)
★ ★
"These years are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognise the years of one's prime, always remember that." 
    - Miss Jean Brodie
Every now and then, I come across a book that - while by no means poorly written, or overly long, or even particularly bad - I am very glad I will never have to read or even think about again.

I realise this may not make the most engaging opening to a book review, but I've often felt that if a reviewer convinces you not to waste your time on something they already have, they've done their job. Martyrs to the cause of entertainment, or something like that. 

Muriel Spark doesn't need defending, in any case. Rated by the Times as #8 in the 50 greatest British writers since 1945 (above Lewis and Burgess but below Tolkien and V. S. Naipaul) and twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she was awarded a DBE for services to literature in 1993.

I haven't read any other Spark, but I'm led to understand (by the above list, and many others) that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is her finest work. I'm not looking to defame it, or to argue that it shouldn't hold this status - but I admit, I'm struggling to understand why it does.

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life."
- Miss Brodie

To anyone planning on reading Miss Brodie, I have one suggestion: harden yourself, in advance, to repetition. Various characters, over the course of less than 200 pages, will talk about the importance of "being in one's prime" - nod your way through it sagely, in the interest of retaining your sanity. No human being outside of childhood - most of the characters in this story do start off as children, and inexplicably remain so throughout their teens - parrots speech in the way Miss Brodie's pupils do. Spark's art is in using certain words and concepts so frequently, and with such gravity, that you become convinced that they must have a deeper meaning.

I've always found this kind of tactic rather irritating. I don't claim to understand the metaphorical content of every story I read, nor do I blame the author if something goes over my head. But I remain very suspicious of writers who seem at pains to emphasize that motif lies ahead, or please give way for oncoming symbolism. Missing the point is frustrating, but if I have my face rubbed in it and still don't get it, I start to wonder if there really is a point to it at all.

“The word 'education' comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.”
- Miss Brodie

This sort of play with language - an often artful blending of classical and modern, with the occasionally gentle innuendo thrown in - is fun, but tires quickly. By the end of the book, I felt that I knew a whole lot about a fictional woman who was of no specific interest to me. Brodie suffers from what I can't help thinking of as Mary Poppins syndrome - John Keating in Dead Poets Society has a similar affliction - the radical, free-thinking role model who Surprisingly, TV Tropes was unable to help me here: Brodie lies somewhere between the Trickster Mentor and the Cool Teacher.

In fairness, she is a far more interesting creation than either of these (and, I might add, I have a definite soft spot for Keating). She is frighteningly unflappable, at times exhibiting a lack of empathy that borders on the psychopathic. Treated as a character study in isolation, I could probably garner more enthusiasm for this book. It's just a shame the character is so damn annoying.

Was this a good novel to read for Scotland, ah, well... no. No, I feel I could do better than this, not least because this novel really isn't about Scotland (I won't stand for argument on this point... there are a few passages about Edinburgh, some of the most engaging of the whole novel, but the focus is overwhelmingly upon a privileged handful who could really be from anywhere at all). It is set there, and so meets my minimal criteria, but should I ever do a Rushlight re-read, Scotland will have itself a new novel.

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