I’m devouring novels for my MA in Creative Writing. I’ve been on a heady journey from a post-War US college to the foggy streets of 1950s Dublin, from Trinidadian streets to harsh South African farmland, from genteel Edinburgh to tempestuous Malaya. I’m going to do some microblogs about the novels I’ve been reading, starting with …
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
‘This is nineteen thirty six. The age of chivalry is past…’
So says Jean Brodie, progressive schoolmistress of Edinburgh, trapped between the romance of a Renaissance past and a brave new Continental future. The novel dramatizes a dilemma: when you foster independent thought, how are you to cope when those minds independently begin to disagree with you?
‘You will get used to our ways. What religions are you?’
Not even Maggie Smith’s note perfect rendering of the on-screen Brodie can overshadow the powerful eccentric charge of the book. I quote it endlessly. Brodie is no heroine but the novel in its cruel way makes you yearn to turn her into one.
‘It is seven years, thought Sandy, since I betrayed this tiresome woman …’
The style is classic Spark: droll, precise, bathetic. Fay Weldon adopted a similar style for the duration of her career proving its endless, wondrous durability.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (1953)
‘In the beginning Pnin was greatly embarrassed by the ease with which first names were bandied about in America…’
Pnin is a towering comic creation. Pnin himself does not tower, he is ham-fisted, wonkily self-translated, a klutz. But under the blissfully comic veneer of the character lies the sadness inherent in exile literature. Pnin’s Russia is far away and perhaps no longer existent. When he is among exiled countrymen he flourishes, his language asserts itself, it’s a joy to witness.
‘Now a secret must be imparted. Professor Pnin was on the wrong train…’
The narration is a lesson in control, the narrator attempts to coerce the reader into a mockery of Pnin but the writing gives you the space to resist, and you do. The narrator too relents eventually. An evening spent witnessing a drunk colleague unkindly aping Pnin leaves him with ‘the mental counterpart of a bad taste in the mouth.’
Sometimes the writing is so lyrical that it’s a sorrow when the line ends:
‘There are some beloved women whose eyes, by a chance blend of brilliancy and shape, affect us not directly, not at the moment of shy perception, but in a delayed and cumulative burst of light when the heartless person is absent, and the magic agony abides, and its lenses and lamps are installed in the dark…’
It is also a campus novel, and a good one. Pnin’s University department is to be phased out, the coming of Cold War hostilities places a Russian professor in something of a new and unsettling light. The image of Pnin driving away from the town and off the page, befuddled and alone, is a unique modern tragedy. If you love John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces, you might find its spiritual parent in this novel.
The Millstone by Margaret Drabble (1965)
‘The thought of marrying Roger was pleasantly exciting and most unattractive…’
The fact this is an ‘issues’ novel alone can explain its presence in the repackaged ‘Penguin Decades’ series. Thin writing can’t evoke the sympathy sufficient to bear the narrator Rosamund, who charts a largely sexless and uncommitted single life, followed by her pregnancy and the birth of her child as a single academic living in her wealthy and absent parents’ flat in mid-sixties London.
‘I felt ashamed of an emotion as irrational as dislike…’
If you’re not sure what kind of feminist you are, read the novel. If you find yourself shouting a great deal, you’re probably a socialist feminist. The novel is not completely without merit. Lydia, the protagonist’s best friend and lodger, breathes fiery energy into the passages in which she appears. Her life runs parallel to Rosamund’s but free of the sour mixture of self-pity and self-importance that makes the latter more or less unbearable and appears to function little in the story.
‘I could not rid myself of the notion that if Octavia were to die, this would be a vengeance upon my sin…’
Even Elaine Showalter’s introduction seems unsure of the novel’s merits. Given that ‘A Taste Of Honey’ had played twice in London in the years prior to this novel's publication it seems as if working class versions of these stories are of only prurient and not literary interest if Drabble’s work is to be considered innovative (Drabble’s version conflates the gay man and the black man from Delaney’s play into one white gay man who fathers Rosamund’s child). Some time capsules are best left in the ground where they can be better built upon. Two short years after The Millstone saw the light of day, Fay Weldon (her second mention in this blog, I realise) publishes The Fat Woman’s Joke, rendering Drabble’s type of novel mercifully unnecessary for the foreseeable future.