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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William Kennedy Reading

Kim took last week to talk about attending the Stephen King reading in Omaha recently and I thought I should take this week to do something similar. Although, I don’t think I really have a comparable reading to talk about. I’ve been to more than I can count over the years, but though I’ve heard some great writers read (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Etgar Keret, and so on), I don’t think I’ve ever had one that was as personally significant to me as Stephen King’s reading was to Kim, for whatever reason. So, I thought I’d reminisce about the first reading I ever went to: William Kennedy.

By now, I’ve read a few books by Kennedy (Legs, Roscoe, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Ironweed), but at the time I’d only read Ironweed. I still haven’t read everything by him. The reading was for Roscoe, in 2002 or so, which didn’t end up being one of my more favorite Kennedy books. I was actually there, and had read Ironweed, due to my obsession with Hunter Thompson at that time period. Thomson knew Kennedy, thought very highly of his prose, and had mentioned him in some pieces I’d read. So, I picked up Ironweed, and went to the Roscoe reading.

It was in the basement of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, back when they used to be in Pioneer Square. It was a good reading, I liked Kennedy even more after attending (though Ironweed had cemented that enough even if I wasn’t as big on Roscoe). Mainly I was struck by how mild and calm Kennedy seemed with respect to Thompson. I know writers don’t necessarily get into writers who are like them personally, but this was night and day compared to what I imagined of Thompson (who I never did get to see in person). That’s one of the big things I remember.

After all, this was fourteen years ago now.

The other thing I remember is some hipster-looking guy in a beret asking what was clearly a question meant to show off and give the guy a chance to talk rather than actually engage with the author. I hear these from time to time, and they irritate me. If it’s about trying to show off to the group and the importance of having a chance to talk rather than engaging the author/their work/literature/life in some way, as I saw this person’s question dealing with Aristotle and the better angels of our being and such, then my view is that it’s better you don’t ask it because you don’t really have a question, Kennedy seemed to feel similarly, because he didn’t seem sure what the hipster had asked and seemed to suddenly feel that the guy might be dangerous in some way, though he tried to answer. He seemed as put off by the guy’s grandstanding as I did, though maybe that was just me.

Anyway, this wasn’t an experience as significant as Kim’s with Stephen King, but I wanted to share a reading experience of my own. Though I may not have had one that was quite as important to me, I put big stock in these kind of events and go as often as possible. I simply view it as part of reading and writing.

 

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.