Monday, May 11, 2009

The Finishing School

When I first moved to Dublin in 1990 I was unemployed. This was something I wasn't used to, having worked, more or less, since I was 10 (down a coal mine) no, usually in my father's shop, the local supermarket and all those jobs you have to do by the time you are 18. While living in Naas, Co Kildare, after fleeing from a particularly wipe-it-from-my memory job I met a girl, Carmel, who seemed to read all the time. As a child I used to read all the time, as a teenager my bedside companion was usually Smash Hits! or Sky magazine, I spent too much time thinking how would I meet a gay guy, just one, please! Well, Ms Carmel, got me reading again. I read Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, when they weren't American it would some of the Irish or British modern classics. The writer i liked the most, then, was Muriel Spark.
Muriel Spark was born in 1918 and died this year at the grand old age of 88. Dame Muriel didn't stop writing fine books until two years ago and The Finishing School is as good as any of her previous books I read. Her father was Jewish and her mother Anglican and this mix of parentage would weave through the words of her wry, sharp, novels of which there were many. She worked in Intelligence during World War 2 and then went off to write a few poems, I have never read her poems but I'm glad she had a story in her in 1957 when she wrote The Comforters, her first novel. Her most famous book would be The Prime of Ms Jean Brodie, but it's famous due to Maggie Smith's protrayal of the inspiring teacher. A Far Cry from Kensington, The Abbess of Crewe and Memento Mori will look just as good on your bookshelves. The Finishing School brings a lot of Spark's character traits together and sticks them in a never boring but elitist finishing school in the Swiss mountains. The school, is run by I've-got-a-good book-in-me Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina. Rowland discovers, among his gaggle of aspiring students one student's book based on the life of Mary Queen of Scots which he feels will be the most acclaimed book of recent times. Chris is 17 and is cocksure. Rowland, over 150 pages goes from being understandably envious to deep rooted jealously, obsession, the whole Spark back catalogue of emotions. Nina, hovers around fretting, a bit, Chris, meanwhile doesn't give a shit, well, at first. What's great about a Muriel Spark novella is not only it's assured sharp, black humour is that the secondary characters all stand alone and add to the plot, never overshadowing. This story is just about Rowland and Chris. This book was nominated in the international IMPAC Dublin literary award for 2006, which was won by Colm Toibin, now €100,000 richer! The books are initially chosen by readers in libraries all over the isle of Ireland and it is a great award as it's what the people are reading.
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