The following is a conversation with Asher Gelzer-Govatos about novelist and Catholic convert, Muriel Spark, particularly focusing on the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Asher is a friend of mine and all-round witty fellow. He is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he lives with his family. His writing on film and other culture has appeared at many outlets, including The A.V. Club, Books & Culture, and Paste. He’s famous for the Dad Joke, and you can subject yourself to a full stream of his terrible puns by following him on Twitter and signing up for his weekly newsletter.
Michael: So, I’m currently deeply and hopelessly trapped in a frantic reading of all the works of Muriel Spark. This is your fault because of the confidence with which you recommended her writing to me. Now I can’t stop. Do you force all your friends to join her fan club? When did you first discover her writings and what hooked you about her work?
Asher: I’m a recent Sparkian convert myself, so I suppose I do go about it with the zeal of newness. I first picked up her work last summer, after slow but steady Twitter urging from John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture. I went with one of the few things my public library at the time had, her novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and absolutely loved it. I wanted more and more, so I kept reading – at this point I’ve read maybe 8 or 9 of her novels. Since we’re talking about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie here, I’ll point out that, though it’s her most famous work, I’d put it in the middle of the pack of the novels of hers I’ve read so far, which still means it’s much better than most books – just not quite as great as her absolute best (of hers I’ve read so far, the cream of the crop have been The Girls of Slender Means, The Only Problem, and Memento Mori).
There are many things to like about Spark. On a purely practical level, her novels are so short – usually maxing out around 150 pages – that they can be picked up and enjoyed without the commitment required by (to pick a novelist I love that you seem to hate for no good reason) a Thomas Pynchon novel. At the same time, Spark packs as much into those 150 pages as most writers do into many, many more. She reminds me quite a bit of Flannery O’Connor in her precision, her ruthless dissection of the human condition, and her biting wit, though she’s a bit more consistently funny than O’Connor (though I find O’Connor hilarious, which you will presumably count as a sign of my twisted nature). Or, to stick with examples from her British contemporaries, she’s almost as funny as P.G. Wodehouse and just as profound as Graham Greene.
Spark is noted for her experimentation with form. For instance, in Jean Brodie, she jumps back and forth in the timeline frequently. My question, though, is if this is actually a fairly conventional (and by that I intend to mean “well-written”) plot and narrative structure? A lot of the chronological jumps are used for comic effect or foreshadowing. For instance, Sandy with the untrustworthy pig eyes is later revealed to be the betrayer of Jean Brodie. Or Mary who is famous for being stupid is scared of the bunsen burners in science class and is quickly revealed to have died in a hotel fire. By the way, your wife seems to think that Mary who is famous for being stupid running around back and forth in a hotel hallway like a hamster and burning to death is funny. That’s, like, really dark.
Ok, I just have to quote this full sentence (since you’ve already spoiled the surprise), because I think it’s one of the most perfect sentences ever committed to paper. The utter nonchalance with which Spark delivers such bad news is just, well, see for yourself. And since you brought it up, my lovely wife is absolutely correct: the repeated cuts to Mary frantically pacing as the hotel burns down are beyond hilarious. I’m including a few sentences before the main one for context:
‘Speech is silver but silence is golden. Mary, are you listening? What was I saying?’
Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, ‘Golden’.
The time jumps in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie are jarring, but they also fit naturally into what Spark wants to accomplish. In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of four of Spark’s novels (which includes Jean Brodie), Frank Kermode likens Spark’s structure to that of a map, where all points lie visible to the eye simultaneously. I think this is a great image, as it captures Spark’s position of authority above her characters, which she (occasionally) shares with her readers. Here’s another image that works: Spark acts in her novels like a detective at the end of a mystery novel, relaying the big reveal. The detective remains in full control of all the details, and he or she doles them out as desired, reserving some pieces, presenting others up front. Control is vital in Spark’s work, and she jealously refuses to relinquish it.
In The Prime of Jean Brodie, Spark repeats these descriptions of her characters almost like a mantra. Jean Brodie is in her prime. Sandy has pig eyes. Mary is famous for being stupid. Rose is famous for sex. To me it only gets funnier. As an author, she’s at the height of her powers like a comedian who gets a callback working so well he has the whole room in the palm of his hand, simply by saying a word everyone is laughing.
The obvious point of reference here is ancient epic, where heroes tend to have a few epithets attached to them that the narrator cycles through every time their name comes up (e.g. “Hector, the breaker of horses”). What I love about this association is its utter incompatibility with the action of Jean Brodie, which is not even mock-epic; it’s just mundane. But Spark realizes the comic potential in so rigorously and narrowly defining her characters – you are absolutely right that the callback effect makes the descriptions funnier and funnier over the course of the book.
I think there’s something else to these epithets, though. To me, they do a large amount of work to make the book feel like it comes from the perspective (in parts, at least) of a child. Children tend to think in these concretized ways; we have a couple we are very close to, a husband and wife, who our 3 year old always calls by their combined name, even when she’s only talking about one of them. There’s something childlike in the repetition that takes place on a narrative level. By the way, that’s something Spark also captures remarkably in the way her young characters talk about sex. It really feels like they are discovering it from the outside in, as all children do, as something foreign and alien and scary and amusing.
I don’t have much to say about this except that I really like the scene when Jean Brodie leads her impressionable young set past the principal’s office and pauses to mock the Safety First poster hanging on the wall. She says, “Safety is not first, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness come first.” This is so true and could be the motto for any Catholic martyr ever. I urge someone to translate it into Latin and appropriate it for a family crest.
Indeed. For all her flaws, Jean Brodie has some remarkable insights into life. Her general method of education, to tell stories rather than drill facts, aligns fairly well with my own ideas about education, at least at the earlier grades. Or rather, I think you need a balance (which is what she of course lacks); her methods feel like a breath of fresh air in the stodgy environs of her traditional school, but she herself seems to recognize that this is not the only thing her children might need, since she refuses to go teach at a more experimental school (or maybe she just likes being the only “special” teacher).
I wonder to what extent the book is a commentary on fascism. As a political ideology is seems enervating at first. A specific people are considered special, the leader is charismatic, and there are certain peripheral gains (the trains run on time and whatnot). Same with the Brodie set. They truly are ahead of the curve culturally speaking. Soon enough, though, fascism and Brodie reveal their dark side. Jean Brodie in her prime thoughtlessly sends off one of her girls as a martyr to the Spanish civil war – a Scottish prep-school girl of maybe 16! Another, Rose who is famous for sex, is meant to be sacrificed in a love affair with the art teacher to satisfy Jean Brodie’s voyeuristic ego; another, Mary who is famous for being stupid, is scapegoated and eventually burned up in a fire. Brodie is essentially Mussolini in a flower-print dress. Her ego is out of control. When Sandy with the pig eyes becomes a nun, Jean Brody asks, “Do you think she has done this to annoy me?” I think we do the novel a disservice, though, in situating it too closely in the context of fascism. It seems to be even more broadly speaking a meditation on the tendency to elevate the ego and personal opinion to the level of absolute Truth.
On the surface I definitely think the book lends itself to a certain allegorical reading of the allures and dangers of fascism, though of course on a small scale and in a farcical mode (cf. Roderick Spode, ridiculous would-be British dictator, in the stories of P.G. Wodehouse). At the same time, as you pick up on, there’s something else going on. Because Miss Brodie’s attraction to fascism comes largely at the level of aesthetics, it’s in a sense a (relatively) harmless attraction, something picked up and abandoned as desired. On this reread I was struck by something Sandy says at the end of the book, where she claims that Miss Brodie was largely an innocent person, despite the deleterious effect she seems to have had on all the girls under her tutelage. Sandy also says she met a good deal of people in the Catholic Church who had Fascist sympathies, and were a good deal nastier about it than Miss Brodie.
That’s one of Spark’s strengths, of course, as a novelist, that she does not set up easy characterizations. I think it’s true that Brodie can be all at once the following: a grand inspiration, a horrible influence, a harmlessly deluded old maid, and a partisan of one of the most destructive political ideologies ever conceived. These aren’t contradictions to Spark, at least not in a real sense. The human spirit contains multitudes.
Miss Brodie’s ultimate failure comes exactly where you pinpoint it, in her reliance on personal charisma. Spark wants to show how far that can go (quite far) but also its limits. Brodie can inspire all sorts of things in her students, but ultimately she fails to send them where she wants them. Jenny escapes earliest, by leaving the school, but they all eventually break out of that orbit and go on to their own things. Rose never does sleep with the art teacher, and becomes hopelessly bourgeois in her morals. Sandy breaks out most spectacularly by becoming a nun. Crucially, Miss Brodie is not just disappointed by this decision; she finds it incomprehensible, precisely because she cannot see beyond her narrowly circumscribed field of vision. I like to describe the book to people as a sort of antidote to the groan-worthy subgenre of the inspirational teacher story, of which Dead Poet’s Society is the most famous recent example. This works on multiple levels: Brodie thinks she is a powerful force for good, but she’s actually a corrosive influence, but also an impotent one.
Jean Brodie is not actually unique: Spark says there were, “legions of her kind in the 1930’s”. In Sparkian literature on the whole, it seems as though the harder people fight to stand out, the more they blend in. At the most, you might become “famous” for a tiny piece of who you are, and often your fame is entirely misconstrued. To take another example, in her extremely disturbing novel The Driver’s Seat, Lise, the protagonist, isn’t even able to dictate how the most important event of her life will play out. The more she fights to be different the more control she loses.
This is the point where I’m contractually obligated, as a literature graduate student, to say something about the alienated condition of modern society. In all seriousness, though, you are absolutely right. Spark seems fascinated by characters who want to break the mold, but find themselves either misinterpreted or ignored. Lise in The Driver’s Seat is an excellent example, as is Harvey Gotham in The Only Problem. My favorite, though, might be Patrick Seaton, the spiritualist medium in Spark’s novel The Bachelors. He’s a more explicitly evil character than Brodie, but he shares with her the desire to be recognized, and the same tendency to puff himself up in unseemly ways.
Spark mentions that Jean Brodie attends every church in town by turn except for the Catholic Church. This seems odd at first because the Catholic Church is a creator of great art, especially the Italian art like Giotto that she loves so much. A lot of what she teaches the children seems so Catholic. They seem like such a good match. When I think about it, though, it isn’t so odd at all that the two would be at odds because the Catholic Church only succeeds in creating Beauty because she intertwines it with Truth and Goodness, and Truth and Goodness is precisely what Jean Brodie, in her prime, claims to have an individual monopoly upon. They have no reality beyond her high-toned and strongly held opinions.
You have absolutely nailed this. Brodie could never submit herself to the church, even though, as the narrator notes, “It could have embraced, even while it disciplined, her soaring and diving spirit”. In her own mind she is too unique to willingly embrace a religion that she sees as superstitious and centered on conformity. What she misses about Catholicism, that many people miss (even many Catholics) is that human freedom becomes most heightened when tied to discipline. The discipline of the church frees Sandy to write her great psychological treatise, but Miss Brodie, “freed” of any outside strictures, ultimately flails around, never producing anything of worth. Spark, like many Catholic novelists, has a novelist’s appreciation of the church – she herself claimed that it was her conversion than enabled her to write.
Spark writes with supreme detachment, which I love, and I can’t help but think that her style provides a subtle insight into her own views on the limits of the ego, namely that it ought to be formally bounded and structured into some greater whole. For her, of course, as a Catholic convert the Church helps shape us to these boundaries, and they are present even in her writing style. Her novels are slim, polished, and while they are experimental they are at the same time formal. Joseph Bottom writes,
Language and structure are everything for Spark because they have to be. In the world long after Vatican II, we can forget both the enormous wave of famous converts in the 1940s and 1950s and the extent to which Catholicism appealed to those converts precisely because what it offered was a structure and a language with which to express what they, in Spark’s words, “had always felt and known and believed” about the world. Personal faith in the truth of that structure and language was somehow simultaneously too obvious for Muriel Spark to bother putting in a novel and too hidden to be reached by literature.
I think this is actually one of the keys, more broadly speaking, of good religiously inflected fiction in the modern age. It has to walk a thin tightrope, avoiding the pitfalls of, on the one hand, failing to take religion seriously, and on the other, making religious claims explicit and didactic. Spark is great at taking religion seriously, even taking it for granted, without ever becoming preachy. Indeed, her Catholic characters are frequently just as bad and screwed up as her most passionate atheists. The difference is that they cling to a different vision of what the world is, and what it might be. Spark realizes that this makes them in a sense incomprehensible to the secular reader, and so she plays this up without making them into saints. Instead, she makes them alien. That’s what draws the reader to those characters – the difference they evoke.
Conversion is an interesting theme in Sparkian literature – what makes people change their lives? For Sandy with the pig eyes, it isn’t the inspiring pedagogy of Jean Brodie at all but a somewhat morally ambiguous experience that seemingly has nothing to do with spirituality or religion. Or, in The Girls of Slender Means, the conversion of Nicholas is occasioned by a house fire, or more specifically, Selina’s crass obsession with retrieving her fancy dress from the fire. In what way does a dress lead to priesthood and martyrdom? For Spark, conversion is unexplainable, triggered by a random event or the sort of event that is unexpected. As a convert myself, I tend to fluster-mumble when people ask me to explain why I converted. I really have no idea. I just did. This isn’t to say that the Catholic Church doesn’t fit me like a glove and hasn’t changed my life drastically for the better; it’s just that I can’t say why or how. This seems to be the case with Sandy with the pig eyes who converts and becomes a nun or Nicholas who dies for the faith after spending most of his youth sleeping with ladies of slender means on the roofs of London houses. Every piece of the ordinary is hiding something amazing. It takes a woman like Muriel Spark to grab our attention and force us to look closely.
Here’s where we come back to the image of the map. The most important things that happen to us, if we are to understand them at all in this life, can perhaps only be understood when we fit them into the bigger picture of our lives. Things that seem monumental at the time end up having little to no long term impact, while the smallest blips can end up changing everything. This makes me think of The Confessions of St. Augustine. What makes his memoir so enthralling, and what sets it apart from most modern memoirs, is his relentless examination of the components of his life that led him up to the moment of his conversion. He tears them apart, and, thanks to hindsight, puts them together again into a sort of map that has lead him to his present moment. Despite the dramatic nature of Augustine’s conversion as he renders it, that moment hardly stands alone outside of time, instead it acts as a culmination of a natural, long and winding road. Those of us without such dramatic turning points (and I count myself with you in that number) can take comfort that that is hardly the point. Maybe we don’t even know where the crossing over happens; perhaps one minute we are not Catholic and the next moment we are, but we hardly realize it until much later, if ever. You’re right, though, that one of Spark’s greatest services to us as readers is to help us examine these moments as we encounter them in her books. The gift of seeing is no small present.