Summer has definitely arrived here in southeastern Michigan. Sitting on my back porch this morning is akin to taking a Swedish sauna, without the benefit of snow and ice to thrash about in afterward. And so, bitterly disappointed, I’ve taken my bookstack inside for the day, and encamped on the sofa with coffee, laptops, and dogs. Welcome to The Sunday Salon.
I have such fond memories of reading outdoors. As a youngster, I spent many a summer afternoon lounging in my lawn chair with a stack of books nestled in the grass beside me, while the other children in the neighborhood splashed in pools or rode their bikes in endless loops around the subdivision. I’m sure they thought me quite strange, but they were always kind and never teased. For a few summers, my friend Raine joined me in my summer reading quests, appearing on my doorstep each day with a paper grocery sack carrying her reading material. She introduced me to Agatha Christie mysteries and Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. At age 12, Raine had taken the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Course, and she would devour three or four books in one afternoon, while I read furiously in a futile effort to keep up.
The weather has allowed some outside reading this week, and in one afternoon I completed The Finishing School, a novella (for the Novella Challege) by Muriel Spark. It was quite satisfying to be able to take in an entire novel in one sitting…as Ian McEwan remarked about On Chesil Beach(in his interview recorded on the audiobook) a novella allows the reader to have a complete experience all at once, rather like seeing a play film.
The Finishing School, which turned out be Spark’s final novel, is set at College Sunrise, a rather vague institution administered quite loosely by Rowland and Nina Mahler, a young couple in their late 20’s who have established the school as a means of supporting themselves while Rowland writes a novel. Chris Wiley, a 17 year old literary prodigy, has enrolled in Rowland’s creative writing class, his own novel-in-progress having already caught the attention of not a few publishers and agents. Rowland becomes consumed with jealousy, crazed with it actually, and the more jealous he becomes of Chris’ progress, the more stunted he becomes in his own, not only in his novel, but also in terms of dealing with his life.
If only, thought Rowland, I could know what Chris is composing, there alone in his room from which he emerges with that sly and cheerful smile. People would read that book if it ever came to light, imbecile as it might be…Chris might, might certainly, might almost surely, succeed in some way. Rowland had an urge to tip a bucket of green pain over Chris’s red hair. Green paint, and it all running over his face, and obliterating his book. Or perhaps to wreck the computer with the whole work in it. Switch it off, wreck, terminate it.
Nina now perceived that Rowland’s jealousy was an obsession. It was a real sickness, and Rowland would be paralyzed as a writer and perhaps as a teacher unless he could get over it.
Spark’s trademark wit is clearly in play throughout this novel, which is populated by a cast of odd and quirky characters. The rather omniscient voice of Spark herself is also heard, at one point delineating the entire theme in one brief pronouncement. Jealously, she tells us, ”unlike some sins of the flesh, gives no one any pleasure. It is a miserable emotion for the jealous one with equally miserable effects on others.”
All in all, an amusing afternoon’s entertainment, whether read indoors or out.
And I see that afternoon is creeping upon me. The rest of my reading today will take me further and deeper into Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and The Good, my first Murdoch novel since college (why ever have I waited so long?) This is a complex and fascinating tale which starts out with the apparent suicide of a government official, but leads us into the murky waters of several human relationships, odd “magic” rituals, as well as blackmail and possibly murder. TJ, a new blog friend and lover of all things Iris, has piqued my interest in this novelist, and I’m quickly catching on to her appeal. This novel, published in 1968, has a certain je ne sais quoi – something about the writing style of that time which I can’t describe, but which seems part and parcel of that era, a feeling of smoking cigarettes and drinking gin and tonic. If any of you more learned literary scholars know what I mean, perhaps you can define it for me.
At any rate, good stuff, and I’m anxious to get back to it (minus the cigarettes and GT’s…)