Wednesday, October 27, 2004

I'm focusing today on Muriel Spark. I find it curious that I've never read one of her books, not even The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. (But the movie was good!) I think I've been influenced by a comment my mother made years and years ago that she didn't like her books. When she said it, her mouth turned down as if she'd just swallowed something sour. In those days we tended to have similar impressions of authors, so I dismissed Spark out of hand.

Although today I've found I like many authors that my mother didn't, I still haven't sampled any of Spark's stories or books. Over the past several weeks, I've come across a number of reviews of The Finishing School, her latest, which is more of a novella than a novel. I have it with me and it looks as though it could be consumed in an evening. Of it, Carolyn See in The Washington Post writes, "Muriel Spark is like the fabled butterfly in the Amazon jungle who flicks a beautiful wing and provokes a storm on the other side of the world. She's less a queen of special effects than an empress of literary sleight of hand. When she writes -- as she does here -- of a louche and off-the-cuff "finishing school" and mentions, in passing, that "its various swimming pools looked greasy," we instantly get it. Half a sentence, and we get it." (Please note: To reach the Washington Post and New York Times reviews, google "Finishing School Spark Washington Post." If I post the link, it won't take you there, unfortunately.)

I've been impressed that the reviews have all been very good and I wonder why. Most books inspire a mix of positive and negative reviews, even those that later prove to be classics. So, I wonder, why is everyone favorable toward this one? Is it admiration for the fact that at eighty-six years of age, she can still write a decent book? Most fiction writers retire their pens before their eightieth year. I've always assumed it's because they're coping with difficult health problems, or they have an inkling they're not as sharp as they used to be, no pun intended. And I've wondered if good writers, the really good ones, stop because they know they cannot write as well as they used to and don't want to end their careers on a downward slope. Something tells me that Muriel Spark does not worry about such things. It'll be fascinating to see what she does next. I'm off to read the book!

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