Monday, May 22, 2006


While I'm still in the midst of Muriel Spark's "The Finishing School" (somewhere in chapter 15) a few thoughts. While Harold Bloom's meditations on jealousy are not my single favorite aspect of his criticism (despite the centrality of "Cymbeline" and "The Winter's Tale" to my thinking, I can't quite pretend to consider, at least at this date, the theme of sexual jealousy as pertinent to my own life or my creative preoccupations, and as for "Othello" it is perhaps best, for better or for worse, to treat it almost as High Literature's equivalent of a snuff film-- and even Bloom, for all that Iagolatry, doesn't seem quite ready to cede "Othello" full partnership in aesthetic untouchability with "Hamlet", "Lear", and "Macbeth"), I can't approach "The Finishing School" without intermingling his musings on jealousy with those of literary "contamination", since Spark's novel concerns a kind of anxiety of-- not influence, since the competing authors in question have hardly seen each other's work-- but some surrogate form of literary anxiety and agonistics, since the two authors DO have each other's presence, and that seems quite enough to turn our protagonist Rowland, and indeed, the envied Chris as well, quite mad.
I don't know what, if any, opinion dear old bad old Harold has expressed of Spark (she didn't make the countdown at the close of "The Western Canon") but, as a more normative version of some of the impulses Flannery O'Connor represents, she surely is worth his comment, and I will certainly push her forward as destined for inclusion. Indeed, at this moment I feel quite convinced that if I were indeed to ever write a novel, it would be because of the impetus provided by "The Finishing School" and would even be writen in its equivocal shadow. I cannot feel that it is as rich a work as "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", yet I am utterly in its grip and, were it not for the Family's demands for four hours of godless television entertainment this evening, I would be painfully finishing it off as we speak.
Certainly it's painful, not only because of the carefully wrought suspense and the ever-present possibility that the narrative will, if not exactly "jump the rails" in any merely postmodern sense, at least pull off a considerable shocker of an ending (and anyone lightly familiar with Spark's output knows just how quickly those upturned narratives can drop themselves in your lap); but painful as well to be kept from the exhilarating, hair-picking labor of going back through the book at freeranging liberty to pick up on clues, meanings, hints, ambiguities (it's always possible that much of what happens after the last page has already been told to you somewhere back on page 32 or somesuch) and also to savor the delirious comedy of some of Spark's highflying satirical sallies, especially here those "comme il faut" discourses of Nina's which touch Carrollian heights of sublime absurdity.
Since Rowland is too preoccupied with other forms of jealousy, I can't help but admit that I've taken up a bit of sexual jealousy on his behalf (despite the fact that Chris' suggestion of a life-fate for Rowland and his marriage is monstrous and horrific) where Nina is concerned. Just what is that woman's game? Is she a half-baked fetishist of professorial tweed? As Spark must realize, when we read the novel we proceed from horror at Rowland's outrages, the injustice of his Salieri-like escapades and frustrations, and come to identify with this new patron saint of mediocrity-- if indeed a mediocrity is what he is? . . . The more he seems like Wile E. Coyote, the more the reader identifies with his desire to burst Chris' bubbles, the more one feels Chris' Blessing has been unjustly bestowed, the more even one begins to wonder, perhaps to suspect, to hope even with paranoid wishfulness, that Chris is a facade, a fake. And, this being a Spark novel, everyone, almost everyone has their schemes, and Chris the born novelist is a born schemer too, which means that the reader, like Rowland, may ultimately find herself well stocked with reasons to hate him.
But I'm feeling a healthy hate for Nina too, as I say. Self-protective and always looking out for herself, her future, she combines an improbable mixture of abject deference to "scholars" and an equally robust desire, intensely sexual in part but something more, for scholars with some apparently lunatic notions of education and social forms. The key, it would seem, is in her penchant for vague and utterly false name-dropping: a senior official at the UN told me; as was said to me by a late Cardinal, etc. Nina is sick with social-climbing, a particular subset of her own where education is central: conducting her "classrooms" is a form of social hobnobbing for herself, the wifely portion of the life she fantasizes about as the wife of the master of a college of Oxford or Cambridge. The vagueness of this consuming desire of hers makes it all the more of a squeal; when she takes up with Israel, she informs her husband that (to paraphrase, alas!): 'I think he studies art, or history. Maybe philosophy . . . ' Well, something anyway, that's what matters! But what can you expect from a girl who married out of a Rilke thesis?
Now, Rowland is no Othello, even if Chris wants him to be one (and this has to do, I think, with Chris conspiring to out-Iago his Iago by becoming HIS Iago) and even by Othello-standards, he has no cause due to his attempted Celestine indiscretions (an attempt to become the Othello of Iago's imaginings to Chris' Iago, or perhaps to put it more directly, Rowland's attempt at pulling an Iachimo). Sexual jealousy over his wife, though perhaps once an option in his regular life, is certainly an impossibility with his all-consuming Chris-envy. But Nina clearly, at least before, wanted Rowland's sexual jealousy and had her own anxieties over the proximity of the female students, as well as her in loco parentibus concern to keep the girls from getting knocked up by the household staff. Her fears over her husband's literary performance, her fear of his literary impotence, comes out instead in uncontrollable bursts of paranoia about potentially amorous inclinations towards his students. Hence, I feel, the constant airing of questions over Rowland's own sexual orientation. That is the expected line of questioning today, as it was even in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" with Sandy's own (potentially self-incriminating) ruminations, but it's also a way for Nina to get a handle on things: if Rowland is merely in love or in lust with Chris, then maybe he can still write his own novel. Whereas, if this insanity is really literary in inspiration, then her husband must indeed be creatively impotent, and thus must be dumped at the earliest opportunity.
This is all unformed speculation, of course, and not even with the book fully read or in front of me. I doubt I'll survive another read like this this year, though I'm planning on devouring the Everyman Library anthology with "The Girls of Slender Means" and "The Driver's Seat". "The Finishing School" is a sweet open sore in my consciousness, and I'll be picking away merrily at it for the rest of my life. So please, consider it a Great Read.

To pass comment on the goings-on on that despised boob tube: What was the deal with that "Will & Grace" series finale? As someone who only watched the show in passing, I could appreciate it as a well-written sitcom, for what that counts, and undoubtedly a worthwile time-killer if television is how you choose to kill your time. Whether it promoted social understanding is another matter entirely: promoting the centrality of a "fag/faghag" relationship above all other couplings in life, sexual, erotic, or companionable for either the gay man or the straight woman in question seems to have been a perplexing dramatic problem for the show, for a long time. The real question has to do with love vs. friendship, and Life itself is hard on the proposition that friendship can enjoy permanent precedence over love, especially on American television where every beloved TV character needs to Have A Baby at some point! So first the Will & Grace parenting attempt had to falter beneath the wheels of heterosexual inevitability (Grace's marriage to Leo) and then, finally, reproduction had to take place in the "normative" (in the pejorative sense of the word!) context of Stable Monogamous Relationships, both Marriages in fact, even if one was between two gay men (and no, readers of "The Nation", though "Will & Grace" may have blessed us once with a true Jewish marriage, it did not give us a gay ceremony). So sexually disinterested mating finally crumbled underneath the temptations for sexual, and societally sanctioned, nesting, and "Will & Grace" wound itself up by discarding the show's defining relationship as a passing youthful discretion.
But what's really weird is that, as if to pat every American who thought, or hoped, that "Will & Grace" was some sort of latter-day "Three's Company" about a guy posing as gay so he could boink the dickens out of that hot redhead, the show presents us with a meet-cute between Will's son and Grace's daughter who proceed to happily-ever-after Marriage. Say what?! Now, let's be honest: I strongly suspect that even many gay viewers may have felt that, given the show's dramatic dynamics, Grace really shoulda got Will liquored up and blindfolded and given him a taste of the other side of buttered bread. "Believe the tale, not the teller," as D. H. Lawrence would say. Why the hell did those two need each other so bad if there wasn't some underlying sexual tension? But if we're gonna explore that, let's do so honestly, because there is no denying in hell that getting their children of each's sex into bed with each other is Subtext! I mean, this would be richly poetic in one of Thomas Mann's multigenerational epics, but c'mon! "Yes, America, Will and Grace really wanted to get straight with each other, and it's only those dirty gay sitcom writers who have made heterosexuality the Love That Dare Not Utter Its Name!" The decent thing to do would be to have left the two in peace, together without their (at least in Leo's case) highly dubious mates (and if Vince isn't a dubious mate for life, Will certainly is), or else to have shown them old and divorced and lonely. What is this 'our star-crossed kids have picked up the forlorn banner of heterosexual love' crap? NBC and the "Will & Grace" creators have besmirched their credentials as honest celebrators of modern gay life by leaving a big cutesy heterosexist turd all over their legacy.
But don't let me forget to comment on the College Sunrise Fashion Show!!!

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