I’m running out of steam somewhat, I confess, as the end of Muriel Spark Reading Week approaches. That is partly because of general lassitude related to a dietary mishap, and partly because The Finishing School isn’t in quite the same league as the other Sparks I’ve read in the past few days. It’s still perfectly enjoyable, and I feel obliged to post about it here out of loyalty to the Project, even if what I write will inevitably be a bit half-arsed.
The Finishing School is Spark’s final novel, published in 2004. The titular establishment is the itinerant College Sunrise, currently based in Ouchy, Switzerland, a finishing school of sorts where the indolent rich children of Europe waste time at their parents’ expense while pondering what they might do with their lives. The title is a pun, because the focus is on two characters who are currently writing books – star pupil Chris, seventeen, who has nearly completed a historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, and has youth-bewitched publishers snapping at his heels like malnourished piranhas; and teacher Rowland, who frequently claims to be finishing his own novel, but has in fact barely started it, paralysed as he is into writer’s block by his jealousy of Chris.
The central plot of Rowland’s obsession with Chris – which consumes his mind to such an extent that he barely notices he has become a cuckold, and fails to care about it when he does – is an engaging and exciting one. Just how far will his jealousy provoke him? you wonder. As Chris becomes aware of Rowland’s feelings, he eggs him on, claiming that the knowledge of Rowland’s mental derangement inspires him to write, and they establish a kind of mutual open antagonism with sexual undertones. Other characters wonder aloud whether Rowland is in fact gay and in love with Chris. The eventual destiny of these two characters made me laugh out loud.
It recalled The Driver’s Seat in one respect, that of complicity in one’s own harm. Chris and Rowland’s games of one-upmanship always have a sinister, murderous undertone, and the reader half-expects one if not both of them to be killed by the end. Certainly Rowland’s behaviour suggests that he is ready to die as long as he can take Chris down with him. He frequently fantasises about Chris’s death.
And yet, in spite of all this excitement, the novel feels somehow less than the sum of its parts. Apart from the shenanigans involving Rowland and Chris, there is not a great deal to stimulate the interest. The other characters do not spring off the page as perhaps they should (or as one might expect, given Spark’s past record). The book ends with a series of short paragraphs relating what happens to each character in the future – the academic staff, the support staff and the pupils – and to be brutally honest I struggled to remember who they all were, and to work out whether their fates were appropriate or not, and, I regret, to find it in myself to care. I couldn’t see much to this book beyond the superficial reading as a psychological thriller – but taken at that level it is a pleasure.
And, Muriel Spark being Muriel Spark, you can still open a page at random and see something like this:
‘The two visitors, young aunt and somewhat older nephew, walked sedately up the path.’ He took out ‘sedately’ and put in ‘carelessly’. Then he took that out and put in ‘casually’. Then he wrote, ‘She still had a slight limp.’
Ali Smith’s Guardian review, written at the time of publication, is infinitely more perceptive and interesting than what I’ve written. You may read it here.
I offer my thanks to the people behind Muriel Spark Reading Week. It has been a great joy to be part of it, and I look forward to following up recommendations from elsewhere once a decent interval has elapsed. Now I am going to revisit an old favourite, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Happy reading, one and all!