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The Finishing School
Muriel Spark
181 pages
Grade: B-

Thursday, November 18, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Books: The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

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By John Ziebell

There's a small cadre of writers who, literary merit aside, evoke a strong secondary reaction when I read them: They make me really, really glad that I'm not British. Ford Madox Ford is first on the list. Among contemporary authors, Anita Brookner's limpid, elegant prose reflects her limpid, insufferable characters flawlessly enough to make one's skin crawl. Muriel Spark's satirical attacks on English intelligentsia have a surgical detachment; she wields irony like a scalpel rather than a hatchet, although being from Scotland, a convert to Catholicism and an expatriate for decades, her vision is prickly enough in its implications.

Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina, run the finishing school, Sunrise College, a nomadic institution located for the current academic term near the Swiss city of Ouchy. It's an overpriced hostel of sorts where rich kids are sent to spend the year before they enter real universities, an establishment "almost unknown in the more distinctive educational circles, and in cases where it was known, frequently dismissed as being rather shady."

Rowland, nearing 30, is an aspiring but uninspired novelist whose specialty is teaching creative writing. Nina runs the school to support his habit; she's an intellectual groupie who still dreams of being married to a successful academic. Nina teaches etiquette, or, as she more appropriately labels the class, "Comme il faut," covering topics like how to eat plover's eggs, what underwear to choose for the racing season at Ascot and how to succeed with people: "It is hypocrisy," Nina lectures her charges, "that makes the world go round."

Their select--read few--students include the spoiled spawn of the Eurotrash second string: alleged royalty, an indicted Greek shipping mogul and a bankrupt London tycoon. They are MTV kids with a more global perspective but convincingly universal problems, like Mary, who is apparently unable to write "in any language, including her own," Spark notes with deadpan precision. "She would start a letter Dear Dad, but never got as far as Dad, being unsure whether to put Dere, Dear, Deer or maybe Dier or Dior. It puzzled her so much that she became almost ill..."

A Swiss estate, the lakeside view, a nonexistent curriculum...of course, any novelistic idyll this banal needs to be thrown desperately out of synch. Spark does it with the arrival of Chris, a 17-year-old prodigy who enrolls at Sunrise to work on his novel, yet another fictional take on Mary, Queen of Scots. Because of his age, publishers are already sniffing around Chris's work in progress, thought promising despite its wild disregard for historical or logical accuracy. From the moment Rowland reads the first pages, he and Chris are instantly polarized, like magnets simultaneously repelling and attracting each other.

Rowland becomes so quickly and so fanatically fascinated with the boy that he reveals his only real attribute--obsession. His previously muddled character resolves itself instantly, as if a narrative light switch has been thrown on. And Chris is there to feed it. Spark's creepy codependency festers admirably, and when we reach the near-homicide involving an electric space heater and an occupied bathtub, it's become impossible to delineate sides--but for those who get this far, disbelief has long since been suspended.

The Finishing School is a fairly slender novel, and Spark does not shrink from moving it along with starkly expository passages. This might violate the "show, don't tell" mantra of creative writing classes, but is hard to hold against her. Most of the students are as thin on the page as they would be in real life, and it's hard to imagine their actions illustrating any greater degree of insight; the school staff and supporting characters, presented in brief but resonant sketches, are as developed as they need to be. Only Nina--an actual character, rather than a life support system for a quirk, failing or obsession--could stand greater attention, but in fairness, her story does not truly start until this one ends.

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