Each new novel by Muriel Spark, now aged 86, is a minor miracle. Like much of her late work, The Finishing School looks back but also suggests many new directions. Spark's 22nd novel is set in a cosmopolitan school for "both sexes and mixed nationalities", College Sunrise. Founded by Nina Parker and Rowland Mahler, a husband and wife in their 20s, the college moves around Europe in order to stay solvent and charge high fees.
Currently in Switzerland, it has a class of nine students taught by Nina and Rowland and guest academic "Seraphim". Nina teaches a hilariously offbeat class where women learn that one should wear "warm underwear" at Ascot. Rowland teaches creative-writing classes, where he speaks of the "ruthless, cold detachment" of the artist.
His advice is undermined by his "insane jealousy" of one student, Chris Wiley. A breathtakingly self-assured 17-year-old, Chris is writing an historical novel based on the lethal jealousies of Mary, Queen of Scots. His prodigious talents have been already noted by London publishers, much to Rowland's intense irritation - as he has yet to finish his own, long-promised novel.
There is an obvious connection between The Finishing School and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). But as soon as this comparison is made, it is clear that half a century of writing fiction has mellowed Spark. Whereas the mythomaniacal Jean Brodie has to be stopped by her pupil Sandy, Rowland and Chris are equally attractive and, in an amusing dénouement, finally complement each other.
Chris belongs in a long line of heterodox Sparkian redheads, going back to Louisa Jebb in The Comforters (1957), and Dougal Douglas, the mischievous Scottish trickster at the heart of The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960). Rowland, with authorial approval, assuages his jealous rage by entering a monastery to be becalmed by "white-robed monks". But his response to this trademark Sparkian solution to "bad nerves" is to complain of being "thoroughly bored" and to steal Chris's scooter, so that he can return to the school.
Only the death of his father gives Rowland any respite from his "obsessive jealousy". After this realisation, the "finishing" school begins to take on a more sombre meaning, in pointed contrast with the quirky young lovers who occupy its grounds. Yet both Rowland and Chris need the intense emotion their rivalry generates to finish their books. It is Nina, who thought that Rowland could write a "good novel if he was free of jealousy", who is proved mistaken. Even Nina's lover, Israel Brown, misdiagnoses Rowland's jealousy as a purely "spiritual problem".
While the novel tends to move in and out of focus, Spark has lost none of her narrative cunning nor her dextrous language. She remains utterly preoccupied with human singularity. As the bizarrely green-dominated fashion show at College Sunrise attests, Rowland's passions provide the best of educations.
Bryan Cheyette is professor of 20th-century literature at Southampton University
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