Muriel Spark’s twenty-second and final novel The Finishing School, first published in 2004 when the author was 86, is a comic and satirical swansong. A book that makes the reader ask questions about endings and beginnings, it begins with a conversation about how to write fiction, and allows the reader to carry on a conversation that occurs in all of Spark’s work about reality and imagination. That conversation began with her very first novel The Comforters and ends with this one. She never writes novels where she pretends that she does not know that she is writing a novel; The Finishing School takes its place amongst her oeuvre with ease, part of the family of Spark Family Robinson. Spark wrote in her spiral notebooks, “A family truth is not like any other truth.” Amongst other things, The Finishing School expands the tradition in Spark where schools and teachers stand in for family. A novel’s truth is also not like any other truth.
‘You begin,’ he said, ‘by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.’ . . . ‘So,’ he said, ‘you must just write, when you set your scene, “the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.” Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, “The other side of the lake was just visible.”’
Right away, we are in typically Spark territory: the funny, fertile land of double mirrors. We’re never far away from knowing that the novelist controls what can be seen and what’s obscured. A little later, we hear: ‘The sky bulged, pregnant with water. The lake had been invisible under the mist for days.’ No longer a description, then. This is the truth. The truth is hidden in what seems real. The tension between what is real in fiction and what is real in real life is a subject that fascinates Spark. Some characters can be too close to real life to be able to be fictionally alive. Some real people miss out on the imaginative riches a fictional character might enjoy.
As one of Spark’s favourite writers Georges Simenon maintained: “We are all potentially characters in a novel – with the difference that characters in a novel really get to live their lives to the full.” Or as Dougal says in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, “All human beings who breathe are a bit unnatural . . . If you try to be too natural, see where it gets you.”
College Sunrise is the finishing school in question, a rather bad one at that. But Spark must have believed this would be her last book, and naming it The Finishing School is her parting joke with the reader. After this, she implies, she’s finished. What’s fascinating about this book is the way that it holds up a mirror to the other books, and somehow joins together a host of preoccupations and obsessions over the writing years. It makes the connections: betrayal and love, jealousy and selfishness, education and art, Catholicism and murder, the past and the present, the private and the public. She’s fascinated by the different writerly affectations. The writer’s retreat for instance. When the writer retreats from The Public Image are they still in The Driver’s Seat? When The Ballad of Peckham Rye meets The Girls of Slender Means, The Only Problem is A Far Cry from Kensington. When The Bachelors, Loitering with Intent greet The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at The Mandelbaum Gate, The Takeover is troubling. It is all in the end Reality and Dreams.
All the way through this short and wildly funny novel, readers might
ask themselves what else it is that Spark wants to teach us, wants us to see. Or, equally, what’s she hiding from us this time? In this great comedy, what is it that she wants us to take seriously? Maybe it’s the notion that fiction is both deadly serious and not serious at all, that to be a writer you are very possibly a sage and a fool. Maybe making things up is as silly as it is profound. - JACKIE KAY
The Finishing School - Chapter One
‘You begin,’ he said, ‘by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.’ Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you must just write, when you set your scene, “the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.” Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, “The other side of the lake was just visible.” But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, “The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.” That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.’
College Sunrise had begun in Brussels, a finishing school for both sexes and mixed nationalities. It was founded by Rowland Mahler, assisted by his wife, Nina Parker.
The school had flourished on ten pupils aged sixteen and upwards, but in spite of this flourishing, mainly by reputation, Rowland had barely been able to square the books at the end of the first year. So he 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.
They had moved, leaving commendably few debts behind, from Vienna to Lausanne the next year. At present they had nine students at College Sunrise at Ouchy on the lake. Rowland had just taken the very popular class, attended by five of the students, on creative writing. Rowland was now twenty-nine, Nina twenty-six. Rowland himself hoped to be a published novelist one day. To conserve his literary strength, as he put it, he left nearly all the office work to Nina who spoke good French and was dealing with the bureaucratic side of the school and with the parents, employing a kind of impressive carelessness. She tended to crush any demands for full explanations on the part of the parents. This attitude, strangely enough, generally made them feel they were getting good money’s worth. And she had always obtained a tentative licence to run the school, which could be stretched to last over the months before they would move on again.
It was early July, but not summery. The sky bulged, pregnant with water. The lake had been invisible under the mist for some days.
Rowland looked out of the wide window of the room where he taught, and saw three of the pupils who had just attended his class, leaving the house, disappearing into the mist. Those three were Chris Wiley, Lionel Haas and Pansy Leghorn (known as Leg).
Chris: Seventeen, a student at College Sunrise at his own request. ‘I can do university later.’ And now? ‘I want to write my novel. It struck me that College Sunrise was ideal for that.’ Rowland remembered that first interview with red-haired Chris with his mother and uncle. There was no father visible. They seemed to be well-off and perfectly persuaded to Chris’s point of view. Rowland took him on. He had always, so far, taken everyone on who applied for entrance to College Sunrise, the result of which policy helped to give the school an experimental and tolerant tone.
But we come back to Chris as he and his two friends were watched from the window by Rowland: of all the pupils Chris caused Rowland the most disquiet. He was writing a novel, yes. Rowland, too, was writing a novel, and he wasn’t going to say how good he thought Chris was. A faint twinge of that jealousy which was to mastermind Rowland’s coming months, growing in intensity small hour by hour, seized Rowland as he looked. What was Chris talking about to the two others? Was he discussing the lesson he had just left? Rowland wanted greatly to enter Chris’s mind. He was ostensibly a close warm friend of Chris – and in a way it was a true friendship – Where did Chris get his talent? He was self-assured. ‘You know, Chris,’ Rowland had said, ‘I don’t think you’re on the right lines. You might scrap it and start again.’
‘When it’s finished,’ said Chris, ‘I could scrap it and start again. Not before I’ve finished the novel, though.’
‘Why?’ said Rowland.
‘I want to see what I write.’
Nina, Rowland’s wife and colleague, sat at a big round table in the general living room of College Sunrise. Round the table were five other girls, Opal, Mary, Lisa, Joan and Pallas.
‘Where’s Tilly?’ said Nina.
‘She’s gone into the town,’ said Opal. Tilly was known and registered at the school as Princess Tilly, but no one knew where she was Princess of. She seldom turned up for lessons, so Nina did not pursue the matter further. The subject was Etiquette or as Nina put it, ‘Comme il faut.’
‘When you finish at College Sunrise you should be really and truly finished,’ Nina told the girls. ‘Like the finish on a rare piece of furniture. Your jumped-up parents (may God preserve their bank accounts) will want to see something for their money. Listen: when you eat asparagus in England, as everyone knows, you take it in your fingers, but the secret of exquisite manners with regard to asparagus is to eat it held in your left hand. Got it?’
‘My parents are not jumped-up,’ said Pallas. ‘My father, Mr Kapelas, is of an old family of merchants. But my mother is ignorant. She wears expensive clothes, though.’
‘Do they hang well on her?’ said Mary, a blue-frocked, blue-eyed, fair English woman in the making. Her ambition was to open a village shop and sell ceramics and transparent scarves. ‘Everything,’ said Mary, ‘depends on the hang. You see women with lovely clothes, but they don’t hang right on them.’
‘You are so right,’ said Nina, which made Mary adore the teacher even more. Hardly anyone ever told Mary she was so right about anything.
‘Well now,’ said Nina, ‘if you are offered a plover’s egg as a snack, that, too, is taken with the left hand. I read about this in a manners’ book, perhaps it was a joke; anyway, I can see that if you want your right hand to be free to shake someone else’s hand, your left hand should hold the plover’s egg, preferably, I suppose, between the folds of a tiny paper napkin. This is what your parents are paying for you to know, remember.’
‘What’s a plover?’ said Pallas.
‘Oh just a bird, there are lots of different species.’
‘I like seagulls,’ Pallas said.
‘Do they make you homesick?’ said Nina.
‘Yes. All the sea things make me nostalgic for Greece.’
Opal said, ‘We were to have gone to Greece for next spring if the crash hadn’t happened in our family.’ The crash was a bankruptcy which had left Opal’s parents in ruin and distress, with which they were at present trying to cope. Opal’s father would perhaps go to prison, so steeply had the family affairs crashed. Nina and Rowland had immediately offered to keep Opal on at the school without paying any fees for her lessons or her keep, a gesture which was greatly approved by the school at large.
‘At large . . .’ It was not in any sense a large school. College Sunrise could not in any way compete with the famous schools and finishing establishments recommended by Gabbitas, Thring and Wingate in shiny coloured brochures. Indeed, College Sunrise was almost unknown in the more distinctive educational circles, and in cases where it was known, it was frequently dismissed as being rather shady. The fact that it moved house from time to time, that it seldom offered a tennis court and that its various swimming pools looked greasy, were the subject of gossip when the subject arose, but it was known that there had so far been no sexual scandals and that it was an advanced sort of school, bohemian, artistic, tolerant. What they smoked or sniffed was little different from the drug-taking habits of any other school, whether it be housed in Lausanne or in a street in Wakefield.
With a total of eight paying students Nina and Rowland could just manage to cope and make a small profit. They employed a maid and a cook, a French teacher who was also Rowland’s secretary, and a good-looking gardener and odd-job boy. Both Nina and Rowland aimed principally at affording Rowland the time and space and other opportunities to complete his novel, while passing their lives pleasantly. They in fact loved the school.
But the whole point of the enterprise was decidedly Rowland’s novel. Nina believed in it, and in Rowland as a novelist, as much as he did himself.
Chris, as he walked with his two companions was thinking of the letter Rowland had sent to his uncle recommending specially the creative writing class at College Sunrise: ‘This year’s literary seminar pulls no punches investigating ideas of power and literature.’ Chris was fascinated by this announcement. It would not leave his mind. He had heard it before – where did it come from? Suddenly, as he was gazing into the impenetrable sheet of mist on the lake, a ray of light swung across his memory: it was the phrase used to advertise an English literary festival. In his extraordinary mind Chris remembered the brochure precisely. He felt affectionate towards Rowland, almost protective. His own sense of security was so strong as to be unnoticeable. He knew himself. He felt his talent. It was all a question of time and exercise. Because he was himself unusual, Chris perceived everyone else to be so. He could not think of people as masses except when the question of organising society arose, and that, thought Chris, should be a far simpler affair than the organisers made out. Left to themselves, people would arrange themselves in harmony. So he should be left alone to pursue . . . well, anything. It was a good theory. In the meantime he found his tutor, Rowland, greatly amusing. Rowland had read the two opening chapters of the novel Chris was determined to write during his terms at College Sunrise. On his second reading: ‘But this is quite good,’ Rowland had whispered, as if speechless with amazement. Chris remembered every slightest phrase of that reaction. Rowland had read it over. ‘Are you sure,’ he said then, ‘that you want to go on with this, or would you rather . . .’
‘Rather what?’ Rowland did not continue that line of thought. ‘The dialogue,’ he said, ‘how did you know about dialogue?’
‘Oh, I’ve always read a lot.’
‘Oh, you read a lot, I see. For an historical novel you have to . . . And what, how . . . Do you intend to finish it?’
‘What is the story? How does it develop? Historical novels – they have to develop. How . . . ?’
‘No idea, Rowland. I can’t foresee the future. All I know is the story will happen.’
‘And you find our creative writing classes a help, of course . . .’
‘They’re beside the point, in fact, but quite useful in many other respects.’
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.
*The Finishing School by Muriel Spark is published by Polygon, £9.99