The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I have to say, I was expecting to find that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was the original idea for Dead Poets Society. After all, iconoclast teacher shapes students to be exceptional certainly sounds like that. I thought was going to find that Muriel Spark had anticipated Dead Poet Society by twenty years, and that it was a story of young women not young men. However, though there are a number of similarities and there may have been an influence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is more complicated than that.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for A.L. Kennedy and 3rd for Alexander McCall Smith.)

After all, Miss Brodie is not pursued by students eagerly coming towards the world, ending up then dramatically shaping who they become as people. Rather, she seeks them out…intending to cultivate a select few into the “crème de la crème.” She’s unconventional and individualistic, but she’s also somewhat blindly opinionated and has highly subjective views of what is cultivated or not, far from perfect. She’s also a bit ridiculous in endlessly talking about how she’s working “in her prime” (the phrase “her prime” must be referred to hundreds of times within the space of this relatively short novel, both by Miss Brodie and the girls) to lead these young women out of themselves:

Miss Brodie stood in her brown dress like a gladiator with raised arm and eyes flashing like a sword. “Hail Caesar!” she cried again, turning radiantly to the window light, as if Caesar sat there. “Who opened the window?” said Miss Brodie dropping her arm.

Nobody answered.

“Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide,” said Miss Brodie. “Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things. We ought to be doing history at the moment according to the time-table. Get our your history books and prop them up in your hands. I shall tell you a little more about Italy. I met a young poet by a fountain. Here is a picture of Dante meeting Beatrice—it is pronounced Beatrichay in Italian which makes the name beautiful—on the Ponte Vecchio. He fell in love with her at that moment. Mary, sit up and don’t slouch. It was a sublime moment in a sublime love. By whom was the picture painted?”

Nobody knew.

“It was painted by Rossetti. Who was Rossetti, Jenny?”

“A painter,” said Jenny.

Miss Brodie looked suspicious.

“And a genius,” said Sandy, to come to Jenny’s rescue.

“A friend of—?” said Miss Brodie.

“Swineburne,” said a girl.

Miss Brodie smiled. “You have not forgotten,” she said, looking round the class. “Holidays or no holidays. Keep your history books propped up in case we have any further intruders.” She looked disapprovingly towards the door and lifted her fine dark Roman head with dignity. She had often told the girls that her dead High had admired her head for its Roman appearance.

She’s also a fascist.

She molds her girls as she wants them, even trying to get one of them to become the lover of the art teacher, whom she herself loves but cannot have because he is married. The school wants her out and relentlessly tries to force her retirement, but she skillfully avoids this until one of her own students deliberately betrays her…simply to overcome Miss Brodie, to put a stop to her seemingly unstoppable influence.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a wonderful novel for both the characters and the interpersonal complexity. You have to love how vivid and differentiated each of these people are. More than that though, you have to adore how they interact across time. It’s certainly not all good, but it is rich and complex. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a marvelous book, and unsettling in many unexpected ways.

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Closely Watched Trains by Bhoumil Hrabal

I talk so much on here about books I was familiar with but hadn’t ever gotten around to reading, or books I’d heard of but didn’t know what they were about. Rarer on here are the books I’d never heard of. That’s one of the best things about this blog, running into something good that was totally outside anything I normally might have ready. That brings us this week to Closely Watched Trains by Bhoumil Hrabal.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for A. L. Kennedy)

Milos Hrma is a young man tending German trains in German occupied WWII Czechoslovakia. He is endlessly exposed to the war and the occupiers of his country, turning to fantasy to try to cope. His first sexual encounter is awkwardly bungled and he attempts suicide fearing that he is impotent.

I kneeled down and began to gather them up, and Mrs Lánská began picking them up, too, and while we were at it I told her why I’d slashed my wrists that time, because I wilted in Uncle Noneman’s studio, the studio with the notice saying: FINISHED IN FIVE MINUTES, because I was finished even before I began. And the station-master’s wife was silent now, holding the gander by the beak.

In a burst of glory he proves to himself that he is definitely a man and sacrifices himself to blow up a German ammunition train. That’s Closely Watched Trains, a tragically glorious coming of age where human sexual obsessions are inseparably interwoven with the best of human heroism in the face of oppression.

However, I’d be remiss if I just painted the book as sex, brutality, and heroism. There are only a small number of pages, but there’s more packed in there than that. There is as much sex as humor, humor sometimes bound up in the sex and/or the brutality.

Not to make a long story of it, they were on night duty together, and Dispatcher Hubička bowled Virginia over, and then turned up her skirt and printed all our station stamps, one after another, all over our telegraphist’s backside. Even the datestamp he stuck on here there!

*****

‘Now, Miss Virginia Svatá, pay particular attention how you answer,’ said Councillor Zednicek, getting up from his seat. ‘Before Dispatcher Hubička laid you down on the telegraph table, didn’t he place some constraint upon you? Didn’t he utter threats? Thrust you down by force?

‘Good gracious, no, why should he? I did it myself. I lay down myself … suddenly felt I wanted to lie down there, without anyone making me … and wait and see what would happen … ‘ said Virginia, laughing.

Comedy. Comedy, sex, tragedy, horror, heroism, dreams—the multifaceted nature of what it is to be who we are. All the things we are at once that can’t be separated no matter how much we’d like to think they can be.

Looking at the whole, Closely Watched Trains is some quite powerful prose. It’s tragic that I’d never even heard of it before. The sentences are dense, but purposefully so given the setting and subject. It’s a brutal situation, but impossibly intermingled with wit, lust, bravery, and humor. The result is that Closely Watched Trains is fast, moving, and intensely feeling.

The forward to my edition of the book discusses that some think Closely Watched Trains is watered down Hrabal, that he compromised his previous writing course in the face of the totalitarian regime in order to have it published. In that case, I really should check out some of Hrabal’s less ‘acceptable’ works. Those have got to be dynamite.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

I feel that I should begin any review of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by indicating that there is very little inside regarding the actual life of Tristram Shandy. At least percentage-wise, the vast majority of the book relates to happenings outside of Tristram Shandy’s direct life, though bearing some relationship to it. In fact, Tristram Shandy isn’t even born until a few hundred pages in. There is a bit more about his opinions, but still. Mind you, this isn’t a problem. However, I just thought that should be clear at the start.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Paul Auster, 2nd for Peter Carey, 1st for Percival Everett, 5th for A. L. Kennedy, 9th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for David Lodge, 2nd for Thomas Mallon, 7th for Jonathan Raban, 8th for Louise D. Rubin Jr., and 4th for George Saunders.)

I can at least confirm that Tristram Shandy is the narrator of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Beyond that, things get hazy.

As I mentioned, he starts out the book addressing his birth…something that does not actually occur for several hundred pages. In between that and the beginning is digression after digression, sometimes returning to the main action as a digression from a digression. His Uncle’s penchant for modeling battles, his father’s quirky approach to things based on ancient learning, direct examples of ancient learning, and so on; the digressions run the gamut. The main unifying force in all of this is Sterne’s wit, and he is witty.

Of course, we should not really be surprised. He addresses the digressions (on more than one occasion) himself. Since trying to provide an example of the digression structure would be too lengthy for this review, I’ll give you some of Shandy’s thoughts on his digressions direct:

For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master- stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader,–not for want of penetration in him,—but because ’tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression;—and it is this: That tho’ my digressions are all fair, as you observe,—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great-Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.

I was just going, for example, to have given you the great out-lines of my uncle Toby’s most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came a-cross us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this, you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby’s character went on gently all the time;— not the great contours of it,—that was impossible,—but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touch’d in, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you was before.

By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.

This, Sir, is a very different story from that of the earth’s moving round her axis, in her diurnal rotation, with her progress in her elliptick orbit which brings about the year, and constitutes that variety and vicissitude of seasons we enjoy;— though I own it suggested the thought,—as I believe the greatest of our boasted improvements and discoveries have come from some such trifling hints.

Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine;——they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them;— one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;—–he steps forth like a bridegroom,—bids All hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.

All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in this matter, is truely pitiable: For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock-still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—-then there is an end of his digression.

——This is vile work.—For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going;—and, what’s more, it shall be kept a-going these forty years, if it pleases the fountain of health to bless me so long with life and good spirits.

I realize that the digression I just provided is a long one, but that’s just in keeping with the spirit of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was a bit difficult to read. I admit that. However, I was downright astounded that it was written in the 1760’s. The characters and settings fit and all, but the structure is like nothing else I’ve seen from that time. I wouldn’t bat much of an eye at this and might even expect it modernly, but I’m floored that Sterne attempted this back then…even more that he got away with it.

I didn’t find The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to be the most enjoyable read, but it’s a landmark in terms of the development of the novel. It’s certainly well worth the look for anyone willing to sit through it all.