Long past the prime of Miss Spark


Muriel Spark

Viking, 12.99

IN JAPAN, great artists get proclaimed as Living National Treasures, and you are presumably meant to bow low to them if they pass you in the street. Scotland has not quite caught up with the Japanese example yet, though we drew a step closer with the naming of Edwin Morgan as Makar earlier this month. Morgan was the only conceivable candidate to be Scotland’s poet laureate, but if we were to seek a living national treasure in prose, two names would instantly arise: Robin Jenkins and Muriel Spark.

Both are old (Spark is 86, Jenkins 92), both had a major breakthrough in their early 40s - Jenkins with The Cone Gatherers and Spark with The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie - and both went on to produce outstanding books during the ensuing decades. Yet when one considers the veneration accorded them, one cannot help suspecting it to be due at least in part to their having outlived any competition.

Jenkins’ recent novel Childish Things was a gem, and Spark’s lasting reputation is beyond question. But pardon me if I fail to bow before her latest production.

The only really positive thing I can say about The Finishing School is that I enjoyed its first page, and was never bored during the remaining 154, since I was propelled by the conviction that something interesting would surely happen eventually. I was wrong.

The title will lure Jean Brodie fans, but the school this time is a private establishment in Switzerland where, according to proprietor Rowland Mahler, "parents dump their teen-age children after their schooldays and before their universities or their marriages or careers". The students, as another character puts it, get "polished off".

This sounds like an unsubtle hint of fun to come, but in fact the only darkness in the tale is the relationship between Rowland - a would-be novelist who teaches creative writing - and pupil Chris, whose own novel attracts instant attention from publishers and movie producers. One of Rowland’s lessons provides the book with its opening; a discussion of scene-setting that simultaneously sets the scene, lacing it with an irony that unfortunately soon becomes leaden and heavy-handed as the book drifts forwards, quickly losing its way. Rowland’s wife Nina gives lessons in etiquette; "never wash your hands in the air as did a late Cardinal of my acquaintance," she advises. Such pleasing nonsense constitutes one of the book’s two jokes; the other concerns a student whose ambition is to "open a village shop and sell ceramics and transparent scarves". This quip, however, raises less of a smile each time it is repeated.

Nina and Rowland speak with the weary wisdom of middle age, yet turn out to be in their 20s, barely older than their students. When not delivering her brainless etiquette lessons, Nina somehow manages to offer meteorology; and in conversation, she shows a self-awareness totally at odds with her monologues on Ascot and the perils of "drug-fancying".

The alleged tension between Rowland and Chris is equally implausible, merely consisting of constant reminders to us of how "obsessed" Rowland is with his pupil - a fact everyone inexplicably attributes to repressed homosexuality, or to Rowland being "plainly psychotic".

So much for characterisation, or lack thereof. Regarding setting, we get people sitting on the terrace "sipping drinks in the lovely evening air with the sun slanting over the western mountains", but it could just as well be Mount Fuji they are looking at, rather than the Swiss Alps. Geography is supplied by nomenclature - a cook called Clestine, a trip to the Chteau de Chillon. The real action takes place within the claustrophobic world of a school that would be improbable anywhere. When it comes to plot, we are promised much, but get essentially none. The "polished off" line sums up the overall method of arousing expectation, then confounding it. Will there be a murder? No. Will the enigmatic young female violinist turn out to be significant? No. Is Chris’s plan to write about Mary, Queen of Scots, going to lead us anywhere? You can guess the answer. Spark must have left her fireworks out in the rain before setting off this box of squibs.

All of which would be reason enough to give The Finishing School a D-minus in Rowland’s creative writing class. And yet there is more, so much more. What, for example, would Jean Brodie have made of the punctuation? Spark’s writing is a staple of the school curriculum, but kids could be given The Finishing School as an exercise in fault finding. A typical example is: "At dinner the next day, Tilly with her genius for making unsettling remarks, asked Chris how he was getting on." This next could have come from Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: "She had long fingers with a lot of rings on both hands, and a few chains hanging from her neck and some bracelets." Or weirdest of all: "had fallen out with her family on grounds of imputed, activities." Grammar, too, gets a mauling. "Rowland was unable to eat, or even of going through the motions." And the writing itself is often risibly drab: "light-bulbs had been obtained which allowed for many varieties of illumination, from dim to dark to glowing to bright" - or simply clumsy: "the school fees were very high and the students were entitled to something like what their parents paid for".

Finally we have vocabulary. Leaving aside "bejezebelled around her neck" (presumably meaning "bejewelled"), we learn in this book that the thing you put in a cash dispenser is a "money-card", you make calls on a "portable phone", and write on a "p.c.". Being out of touch is the prerogative of old age - trying to appear au fait is a risk not worth taking.

Seventeen-year-old Chris apparently likes "punk music, Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, Coltrane". The only excuse for such a superannuated assortment would be to say it proves what a warped mind he has. Rowland reflects on the way authors can write what they want these days, safe in the knowledge that an editor will put everything right. Why could someone not have done the same service for Dame Muriel? Did all the many pairs of eyes that must have looked at this sorry text before publication belong to people too busy prostrating themselves in deference to the living treasure who wrote it?

This book is an embarrassment. "It will be gone through with a tooth-comb", Chris says in it. Someone should have pointed out that the crucial adjective is "fine" - a word that most certainly does not apply to The Finishing School. It is not a comb it needs, but a pair of scissors and a red pen.

Andrew Crumey is Scotland on Sunday’s literary editor

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