Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Muriel Spark, 1961

If all you know of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is 1968 film with Maggie Smith, you have a treat in store. With few writers I know is style more divorced from plot, and the reason I’ve read this book a dozen times is almost entirely stylistic. Throughout her long career Spark was a stylistic experimenter and innovator: such an approach carries risk, and in all honesty I find most of her work from The Mandelbaum Gate onwards unreadable. But her earlier novels, The Comforters, The Girls of Slender Means, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and most of all The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, have a minimalist sinewy elegance enough to excuse any subsequent folies des grandeurs.

Superficially Jean Brodie is a very simple novel: a coming of age story (with strong autobiographical elements) told in only 100 pages or so. There are no tricks or hidden revelations. Miss Brodie is a progressive school teacher in a distinctly unprogressive girls’ school: she mingles feminism with support for Fascism—in 1930s Edinburgh, an uncomfortable mixture. Spark realises Brodie on the page with élan and superbly captures her magnificent eccentricity. Her teaching career comes to an end when she is ‘betrayed’ to the school authorities by Sandy, one of her protégées and the novel’s protagonist. A lesser writer would have created an artful narrative tension from concealing the identity of the betrayer from the reader: Spark casually throws the information away as an aside. She is constantly playing chronological games, telling us what becomes of the characters almost from the outset. One girl, the lacklustre Mary Macgregor, is destined to die in a fire, “running hither and thither”, as Spark repeatedly tells us, without any kind of authorial commentary. Her dialogue eschews all tags except “said”, the first writer I ever noticed doing this. For such a spare writer anything more would be overdone.

Structurally Spark pushes the omniscient narrator to extremes. Although Sandy is the nominal protagonist, the authorial voice is the main character, telling us things none of the cast could know, and retailing everything with a deadpan dryness with could score the skin of the unwary. Adverbs are rarely deployed, and when they are, it’s to surprising and telling effect. For instance, one of the girls “was accosted by a man joyfully exposing himself beside the Water of Leith”: a phrase of characteristic composure opened up by the unexpectedness of the adverb. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should never over-use adverbs.

Spark can do all the basics so well the reader hardly notices them. The characters of Jean Brodie and her young disciples are drawn with precise economy, the historical sketch of 1930s Edinburgh vivid, and the themes of the novel—betrayal, loyalty, the social position of women, coming of age—are handled so expertly that the novel would be remarkable without its stylistic brilliance. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has the chilly perfection of an ice-crystal: not to everyone’s taste, but of its type an unequalled glory.

How has it influenced me?

Muriel Spark was the first writer to give me a sense that style could be an end in itself. With writers like Austen and Vance I had always had the sense of the style supporting the plot, but Jean Brodie gives us a style which is self-sustaining and has a vitality independent of the story. It’s not something I’ve ever wanted to copy, but as an illustration of what narrative tone can do, it’s hugely instructive. Compare and contrast LA Confidential¸ featuring later on our list. Even the later works, which I enjoyed much less, are instructive in showing how delicate an experiment stylistic innovation is: get it even slightly wrong and freshness is replaced by inaccessibility.

The minimalism of Spark’s style has always impressed me as well. She’s not the only writer to show how much can be done with how little, but few do it better.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

How you tell your story is more important than the story itself
What the omniscient authorial voice loses in immediacy it can gain in perspective
Do you really need that adverb?
If your story only needs to be a hundred pages long, don’t pad it out to two hundred
Even if you are a brilliant prose stylist (and you probably aren’t, whatever you may think…) don’t neglect the basics: character, theme, pacing
Flash-forwards are very, very risky.
Be cautious about using them.


David Isaak said...

Good points, and some of the most intelligent commentary I've ever heard on this book. A lot of people rate this as a "small" story, and it might be, but it's a major novel.

Tim Stretton said...

I think Spark is very much a writer's writer. Right from the beginning she is playing games with form, and in the early novels she doesn't sacrifice accessibility to do it.

"Jean Brodie", with the slim understated self-restraint of a genteel Edinburgh spinster, is a very easy book to under-rate.

David Isaak said...

I have four novels by Spark ("Brodie" is one) on my shelf. I just measured. All four together take up a total of 1 1/4 inches of shelf space.

Tim Stretton said...

Books that length struggle to find a publisher these days, so this kind of sinewy masterpiece is a dying art-form.

I used to feel cheated as a reader by short novels by favourite writers. These days I'm more likely to be irked by books that are (unnecessarily) too long.

Every story has its perfect length--and sometimes this will be 50,000 words. The advice these days in such cases is "add a sub-plot"...