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That Still-Bright Spark

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at carolynsee.com
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page C08

THE FINISHING SCHOOL

By Muriel Spark

Doubleday. 192 pp. $16.95

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Muriel Spark is like the fabled butterfly in the Amazon jungle who flicks a beautiful wing and provokes a storm on the other side of the world. She's less a queen of special effects than an empress of literary sleight of hand. When she writes -- as she does here -- of a louche and off-the-cuff "finishing school" and mentions, in passing, that "its various swimming pools looked greasy," we instantly get it. Half a sentence, and we get it. When she writes of a (perfectly sweet and pleasant) student who "spelt ceramics S-A-H-R-A-M-I-X," we get an entire sense of the academic standards of College Sunrise -- located, for just this year, on the shore of Lake Geneva.

The school is the brainchild of Rowland Mahler, a 29-year-old who sees this place as a way to earn a living while he writes his first novel, and his wife, Nina Parker, 26, who loves the arts, respects scholars and scholarship, and in the grand tradition of literary wives, doesn't mind doing most of the school's work while Rowland furrows his brow and waits for inspiration.

In truth, there isn't much real work to do. College Sunrise has a wonderful cook and gardener and a couple of competent maids. Most of the classes are taught by Nina, whose strong suit is etiquette, or, as she calls it, "comme il faut," which offers helpful rules to live by: When you eat asparagus with your fingers -- as one does in England -- be sure to do so with your left hand, to keep your right hand free in case anyone should give you something, and be careful who takes you to Ascot, because any man who can take four days off work for the races is bound to be a crook.

Rowland's specialty is creative writing, and this class -- as are they all -- is very popular. But Rowland's precarious pretensions to literature are threatened by a new student, Chris, a darling boy with bright red hair who wants to take a year at College Sunrise to write a novel of his own, before he goes on to university. But Chris is only 17! Worse than that, he goes immediately to work -- something that, so far, Rowland has not been able to do.

The days slide by, happily or not. The very few students -- only eight of them -- consider the place a lucky refuge: One is a princess from a collapsing country, another's father is on the brink of doing jail time, another's father will also end up a fugitive from justice. Chris's mother and uncle are having an affair and can't be bothered with him. But why should this make anyone sad? Albert, the gardener, is perfect for sleeping with the girl students; the beautiful French teacher is perfect for sleeping with either Rowland or Chris, and Nina, that sweet and lovely wife, has found a devoted admirer in the villa next door.

The only conflict -- and it becomes an increasingly bitter one -- is between Chris, the arrogant wunderkind (who is writing a wildly inaccurate historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots and the murder of Lord Darnley, and who is blithely unconcerned that everybody and his literary brother already have written on this subject), and Rowland (who seems to be able to write nothing at all but is cajoled by his wife into at least putting down a few notes about what he thinks and feels). But there's no question about it: The infuriating Chris is driving Rowland to a probable nervous breakdown, and even possible murder.

Meanwhile, life goes on, with good food, flirting and charming projects. The students, faculty and help all put on an elaborate fashion show with an actual catwalk, after which "refreshments were then ardently served." The butterfly in the jungle brushes her fabulous wings again. So much said, with only a lowly adverb.

Will the school be able to stay together? Will one of the prettiest students get pregnant? Will Nina decide to stay with her increasingly cracked husband? A publisher from London visits the school and rather rudely labels Chris's manuscript "a lot of [expletive]." Has all of Rowland's envy been for nothing? Or is another whole story going on just beneath the surface of daily events, a story that various people glimpse from time to time, but then that story vanishes, elusive until the very end?

"As we go through this evening and into tonight," a radio weather-lady remarks elegiacally in the last sentence of the novel. It's appropriate to remember that "The Finishing School" might be Muriel Spark's last. She's 87. But what grace and beauty she's still displaying during the golden days and starlit nights of her absolutely marvelous career.


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