It's hell revisiting things that school has rubbed smooth. You know, books you had to read, plays you had to act in, essays you had to write. Not only do they seem, when you think about them, about as edgy as tapioca, they inevitably bring to mind the gray-skinned, watery-eyed, crunchy-haired teachers who harangued you about them, the five-page papers you had to write about them, the paperback books you wanted to crumble to pieces that held them. It's hard to believe that before they were anesthetized by the school district, these books were -- often -- art. They were shots across the bow of society by men and women who cared, about life. Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a prime case. Forget the movie. Forget the tests and the quizzes.
This is a tragedy about the passage of time and a comedy about the fact that people are helpless in the face of their delusions. But even more than the story, the way it's told is so bracing, so daring, so exhilarating, that it's worth revisiting just for the sheer charge of it. It's a short book, and every single word is charged. Sentences repeat back on themselves, images build up, ideas are dangled like baubles, they glint and then, just as abruptly, they are withdrawn. The kaleidoscopic telling of the tale, lurching backward and forward in time like a divine roller coaster, shows an author in superb control. Just as you're getting to know one of Brodie's girls, the narrator will shoot you forty years ahead and hint at the girl's untimely, but strangely apropos, demise. Then the storytelling leaps back to the middle ground, then to the beginning, around and around. You, the reader, are entranced. Everything resonates. These are real, flesh-and-blood people, but they are acting according to a gigantic plan, a plan they can't see but that they are victim of. Free will? When you look at time through this kind of prism, what is free will? Everything in the book seems tragically -- and comically -- ordained. Otherwise, why would the world have fallen into not one, but two futile wars? -- two imbecilic, defining actions that set up Brodie's rise, and her fall. The real magic here is how a story about a handful of Scottish girls in an obscure private school during the period between WWI and WWII could shed so much light on how we live today, now, in bloggo-Enronia. So forget the dusty, musty memories -- or steal your teen's copy -- but taste what written art is truly capable of. Reread it.
Oh, as a coda, since dipping into this, I've sampled some of Sparks's other writing -- novellas and short stories. They more than stand up. She is still with us, still writing away, with fury and comedy. And that, in my estimation, is the ultimate victory.
'Til next time...
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, professor, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in Chicago. So there.