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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 128 p + ix p introduction by Candia McWilliam.

Spark is another important Scots writer with whom the 2014 challenge has given me the impetus to catch up. My only familiarity with her work up to now has been a BBC TV adaptation of The Girls of Slender Means, plus the TV and film versions of this title, all from way back. Candia McWilliam’s introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition describes Spark as “the greatest living Scots writer of prose.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie cover

I must say I found reading this to be an odd experience. There was just something about the writing style that didn’t sit well with me. Three times in the first few pages and intermittently thereafter we are told that Rose Stanley is famous for sex (or sex appeal), we are also frequently told that Monica Douglas is good at Mathematics. Yet we are never shown these traits, either via dialogue or in any other way, we simply have to take the narration’s word for it. Frequently, too, mention is made of things that will happen later than the immediate moment of the text as the narrative slips forwards from events in the 1930s to post war and backwards again.

Now; foreshadowing is fine, essential even, but this is not foreshadowing, it is relating. McWilliam sees this “proleptic1 use of time” as a strength. I found it irritating. (In this respect The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has something in common with the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.) It is as if the novel is a life recalled. Yet the narrative adopts multiple third person viewpoints, its events are not seen from one character’s perspective; or, rather, some events in it could not have been observed by a single narrator.

Miss Jean Brodie herself, teacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls, is egregiously self-centred, demagogue rather than pedagogue, neglecting the wider needs of her pupils to indulge in reminiscences of her fallen fiancé, her tastes in art and her leanings towards the fascisti, brooking no contradiction: Leonardo is not the greatest Italian painter; that is Giotto, “he is my favourite.” Her contention, in a later conversation with Sandy Stranger, that she loved art teacher Teddy Lloyd, married to someone else, is not, however, borne out by her actions, which, some descriptions of her interactions with her pupils apart, are always given us at one remove. Her famous catch-phrases, “la crème de la crème,” “I am in my prime,” are there to be sure, but after the first third or so the book concerns itself more with her chosen girls (known as the Brodie Set,) particularly Sandy. At the end I felt, perhaps due to the shadows cast by the TV and film versions I have seen, Brodie was actually more of an absence than a presence. The nature of the final betrayal of Miss Brodie was also problematic for me. No doubt she was a dangerous woman (not least, dangerous to men) but there were plenty of people in Britain in 1938 – even in 1940! – who would not have held Miss Brodie’s political attractions against her.

Yes there are human truths here, Teddy’s inability to paint a portrait without it becoming a representation of Jean rings very true, young minds can be susceptible to influence, but the artifice of the writing made it very hard for me to suspend my disbelief. To judge whether or not Spark is “the greatest living Scots writer of prose” I’ll need to look out for The Girls of Slender Means or others of her novels as, on this evidence, I’d have to say not. (Or am I merely saying that Leonardo is not my favourite?)

1I am not convinced Spark’s use of time in the book is anticipatory.

Ian McEwan

There’s a interesting post over on Christopher Priest’s blog about Ian McEwan‘s writing.

Reading between the lines it seems that the acclaim McEwan received at the start of his career is related to the fact that he seemed to be a promise of a wonderful future – and that among not many candidates – and that few have troubled to revise their opinion since.

What is more problematic are the inspirations for his published pieces. Originality may be difficult to achieve and all sorts of things – conscious and unconscious – bleed into any work of fiction but there certainly seem to be question marks over the decisions that go into McEwan’s writing.

Now, I’ve not read much McEwan (and what I have read did not enthuse me much.) Though I have one of his books on the tbr pile – it’s been there ten years or more – I’m now not too minded to alter that fact.

Review, the Guardian, Saturday, 16/8/14

I usually read all the stuff about fiction in the Guardian’s Saturday Review as well as some of the non-fiction reviews.

Last week’s contained three items of particular interest to me.

The cover piece, Steven Pinker’s An Anti-stickler’s Manifesto was about ten “grammar rules” he thinks it’s okay to break sometimes. He says that some of them aren’t actually rules at all and others aren’t rules in English. You may be surprised to read that by and large I agree with him. But I do believe it is important to know what the rules are. This is in order that when you break them it is for a purpose.

Then there was an article about Martin Amis. In this Amis was quoted as saying, “Prose is foremost, and ‘if the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form.'” Secondary interests? Psychological insight is a secondary interest? Story is a secondary interest? Characterisation is a secondary interest? Is this last not what certain purveyors of genre (no names, no pack drill) are pilloried for not providing?

The final piece was an interview with George R R Martin, in London for the Science Fiction Worldcon after first appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

On Writing

(Aside:- I wrote this some time ago. No slurs on any author whose books I have read recently need be inferred.)

It is often said that a bad workman blames his tools. The implication is that when used correctly the tools will not result in a shoddy job. That may or may not be true but even a good workman cannot produce a fine product using tools that are inadequate – or perhaps blunt.

A writer’s tool is language: words, especially their meanings, and how they fit together to convey information. This applies whether that information is factual or used to create a story. Like a practitioner of any craft the writer must know his or her tools and how to use them. The best writing is almost invisible, nothing breaks the seamless appearance of the prose; it flows, each word or phrase is perfectly chosen. It cannot be a case of throwing words at each other and hoping they cohere. The odd strange word, new to the reader, isn’t a barrier, context may supply the meaning and in any event there is always the dictionary. Using a completely new word is more problematic – even if in Science Fiction it’s almost obligatory. Provided, though, its use is consistent the reader may sail gaily on, unperturbed.

However, since reading is in effect a dialogue between writer and reader not all texts mean the same to everyone. With fiction, this interdependency is crucial. Clumsy use of language creates a barrier between the story and its reception, wrenches the reader out of suspension of disbelief and interrupts the creative act in which reading consists. The trust a reader must have in the author is destroyed. Any sense of believing what is being read, that the story is in some sense a representation of the world (or in SF, a future/altered world) that the reader should care, disappears.

In the writer’s case the tools are entirely innocent. (Yes, words may change in meaning over time but in the instant they are written – and possibly for decades after – that consideration does not apply.) The orders in which they are placed, the ways they are set down, the structures they might create, are, though, entirely the writer’s responsibility. In other words a writer has a duty of care towards any reader. This is especially so if that reader has been expected to buy – or has already bought – the writer’s musings.

An intimate knowledge of how language works, of what the rules are – so that when the writer breaks them it is for a good, a necessary, purpose – is essential for written communication to be effective.

Misuse of the tools, failure to understand the nuts and bolts of language – the parts of speech, why spelling is important, what words mean, of how they fit together – interrupts that dialogue between writer and reader, erects a barrier which leads to frustration and even anger. At least in this reader.

Because, sadly, that duty of care is not always exercised.

Stir It Up

Ian Sales has been stirring it up again with the latest post over on his blog.

The thrust of his argument is that there is such a thing as good and bad writing and hence good and bad books.

It has engendered some argument.

Personally I tend to side with Ian here. If I do not have some standards by which to judge a book there would be pretty little point in me reviewing it for Interzone, for example.

Narration: 1st vs 3rd person

In Saturday’€™s Guardian Margaret Drabble made a comment that she gave up first person narration after three novels because she came to think it a lazy form.

This is (or was) apparently a general view among the literati, that third person narration was more literary, more legitimate, that first person was less worthy, but it’€™s not one I ever shared.

I declare an interest here. Most (if not all) of my published works have been in the first person.

I do make one claim to distinction, though. I am one of the very few people to have written a piece of fiction in the first person plural. That story was This Is The Road, in the anthology New Worlds 3, Gollancz, 1993 – nominated for the BSFA award 1994 – which was also published in translation as “Le Chemin D’Eternité,” in Cyberdreams 7. The only other instance I recall of the use of “we” in a narrative sense was in one of Primo Levi‘s books (for shame, I forget which) about his experiences in the concentration camps.

Granted, third person gives insight into the inner life of all the characters and enables us to know them in the round but all we are told is vouchsafed to us by the author, who by definition knows everything about the character. That can present a problem, for it means that the author has to choose not so much what to tell us but instead what to leave out, or else overburden us with information.

Consider now the first person narrative. Except for the viewpoint character, everything we as readers know about all the other characters in the book is not what is known to the author – who is still omniscient I need hardly add – but merely what is known to the narrator. Everything the reader needs to learn has to be revealed by the narrator’s interactions with, or observations of, the other characters and cannot be told to us directly. To my mind, far from being lazy, that is a much harder act to bring off successfully than merely entering a character’€™s head whenever convenient. This difficulty is perhaps heightened when the chosen first person narrator is unreliable.

In this regard, I would submit that the use of multiple viewpoints each of whom is a first person narrator, while providing a more complex narrative, is a form of cheating.

From her last sentence (see above link) Drabble seems to have altered her view. “It’s the straight true line that’s hard.”

Welcome (back) to the club.

Authorial Tricks

I’ve not posted much about the philosophy or mechanics of writing, only implied things in the course of my reviews of the books I have read in the past eleven months.

There have of course been the Linguistic Annoyances posts but these have been mainly about general misuses of English and not particularly writerly.

Now, though, I have read a first sentence which demands comment.

To begin: there is foreshadowing (essentially the dropping of clues) – a necessary element if you’re to be fair to the reader. Some writers eschew this subtlety in favour of more or less telling you what’s going to happen (not good in my opinion.) Then there is just cheating.

One of a book’s first paragraphs that I well remember is from Robert Silverberg’s Kingdoms of The Wall. I quote:-
“This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, who has been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall, who has seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, who has grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and death. These are the things I experienced, this is what I learned, this is what I must teach you for the sake of your souls. Listen and remember.”

This paragraph does several things. It lays out – in its first twenty five words! – the SF discontinuity from our world, it introduces a degree of jeopardy, it promises adventure and revelations, it offers redemption to its world’s putative readership and, by extension, to us. If you’re intrigued, get yourself a copy and read it. (Read any Silverberg from his mature period, you won’t be disappointed.)

However, the paragraph doesn’t foreshadow as such, it tells. It is close to, if not over, the border of cheating. Yet somehow we know the author is in full command of his story and we are in safe hands.

Now consider:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

An author must gain our attention, of course, but isn’t this a little extreme?

Yes, this might make you want to read on to find out why and how Colonel Buendía (presumably the main character) faced the firing squad, and the relevance of the ice. Yes, the author is definitely in full command and clearly knows what he is doing. But!

It’s cheating. The writer hasn’t yet earned the right for us to continue. He hasn’t engaged us with the character or his situation. It doesn’t matter even if the whole novel concerns the character’s reminiscences in the moments before the order to fire, the enticement is artificial, a shortcut to the involvement with the character that it is the writer’s job to engender over pages of close encounter. In a way we are being short changed here. As we also were with the Silverberg extract, since the narrator addresses us at one remove.

And there is another danger with this sort of thing. I quoted the second extract to the good lady and she remarked she wouldn’t bother with continuing to read a book that started in such a way. There would be little point, because the tension has gone.

Even if, which I suspect in this case, we are being deliberately misdirected (especially if we are being misdirected?) it is still a cheat.

The second quote is of course the opening to one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century. One I am finally in the course of reading.

It has been said that ordinary writers may plagiarise, but great ones steal. Perhaps great ones cheat as well.

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