It’s back to school time, kids. Who’s excited?
So I thought I would look at novels about teachers. Firstly, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller (2003). Narrated by Barbara, an older, unmarried teacher heading towards retirement, it tells the tale of another teacher, Sheba Hart’s, affair with a pupil. Sort of. Barbara purports to be doing so, but we don’t know what happened, because Barbara does not really know. Instead, what we have is an intense character study of Barbara, and her relentless campaign to work her way in Sheba’s life.
“I simply went on with my life – reading my books, preparing my meals, changing my sheets – quietly certain all the while that, sooner or later, she would wake up to my importance in her life.”
Sheba is open and naïve to Barbara’s machinations, making it easy for Barbara to engineer a friendship. Sheba’s horrible, destructive secret is the perfect leverage Barbara needs to wheedle her way into Sheba’s life further:
“For most people, honesty is such a unusual departure from their standard modus operandi – such an aberration in their workaday mendacity – that they feel obliged to alert you a moment of sincerity is coming on. ‘To be completely honest,’ they say, or ‘To tell you the truth,’ or ‘Can I be straight?’ Often they want to extract vows of discretion from you before going any further. ‘This is strictly between us, right?…You must promise not to tell anyone…’ Sheba does none of that. She tosses out intimate and unflattering truths about herself, all the time, without a second thought.”
Notes on a Scandal is a brilliant character study. Heller feels no need to make her protagonist likeable, but Barbara is so very believable in all her contradictions and complexity. She veers between sharply observant and utterly deluded, a compelling mix for a narrator.
“Any sexual arrangement existing outside the narrow channels of family newspaper convention is relegated to a great, sinister parenthesis of kinky ‘antics’.”
“As Sheba’s unofficial guardian, I have certain obligations that I cannot shirk”
She is a horrible snob who views almost everyone with utter disdain at best; a cynical cruelty at worst:
“St George’s is the holding pen for Archway’s pubescent proles – the children of the council estates who must fidget and scrap here for a minimum of five years until they can embrace their fates as plumbers and shop assistants.”
Yet, as Zoe Heller explains here, she has a sympathy for Barbara, for her loneliness and the desperation that evokes. She behaves despicably, but is motivated by a great sadness, and unarticulated sexual longing, which means it is hard to condemn her without reservation.
“I have sat on park benches and tubes and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground. About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.”
Notes on a Scandal was made into a film in 2006, starring Cate Blanchett as Sheba and Judi Dench as Barbara, directed by Richard Eyre. Playwright Patrick Marber wrote the screenplay and changed the ending, but it stayed true to the tone of the book and I thought it was an effective adaptation:
Secondly, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (1995) which was recommended to me by David Bowie. It follows a weekend in the life of Professor Grady Tripp: adulterous, permanently stoned and struggling to find an ending to a 2000 page novel he’s writing called Wonder Boys. As a young man he’d wanted to be a writer and has even been moderately successful:
“I’d read Kerouac the year before and had conceived the usual picture of myself as an outlaw-poet-pathfinder, a kind of Zen-masterly John C Fremont on amphetamines with a marbled dime-store pad of lined paper in the back pocket of my denim pants. I still see myself that way, I suppose, and I’m probably none the better for it.”
Understandable in an adolescent, this self-image easily becomes pathetic in middle-age, of which Grady is all too aware:
“Here I was, forty-one years old, having left behind dozens of houses, spent a lot of money on vanished possessions and momentary entertainments, fallen desperately in and abruptly out of love with at least seventeen women, lost my mother in infancy and my father to suicide, and everything about to change once more”
The change is due to Grady’s wife having left him and his mistress, Sara – the wife of his boss – being pregnant.
“For me the act of marriage has proven, like most other disastrous acts of my life, little more than a hedge against any future lack of good material.”
Things are about to change, but first Grady has to get through a weekend with a suicidal student James Leer, who wears a coat which “emitted an odour of bus stations so desolate that just standing next to him you could feel your luck changing for the worse” and his old friend and editor Crabtree, who is determined to sleep with James and wants to read Wonder Boys, which Grady has assured him is finished. What follows is a farce involving dead dogs, squashed snakes, stolen vintage jackets once worn by Marilyn Monroe, and car theft. It is a comic novel but I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny, more wryly amusing despite the broader elements. Grady has no illusions about himself but neither is he self-pitying, and as he blunders around trying to piece his life back together I did find myself rooting for him.
“Terry Crabtree gazed at me with such an air of cool and unconcerned appraisal he was no longer generally seeing me, his oldest friend, in whom all the outlandish promises of life and every chance for glory intimately and anciently adhered. He was seeing only the pot-addled author of a bloated, boneless, half-imaginary, two-thousand page kraken of a novel”
Chabon has a pithy turn of phrase which I greatly enjoyed:
“It wore an oddly crooked grin – almost as if a muscle in its cheek were paralysed – and a little black eye patch over its left eye. I liked that. I wondered if I had it in me to produce a baby with a piratical air.”
“She was a natural blonde, with delicate hands and feet, and in her youthful photographs one saw a girl with mocking eyes and a tragic smile, the course of whose life would conspire in time to transpose that pair of adjectives.”
But he doesn’t allow these to overwhelm the narrative in order to prove how clever and witty he is. All in all, an entertaining, well-observed read.
Wonder Boys was also adapted into a film, in 2000, starring Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp and the incomparable Frances McDormand as Sara. I saw it when it came out & to be honest it has much faded in my memory, but from this trailer it looks like a faithful adaptation:
So if we’ve learnt anything kids, I think it’s to stay well away from teachers. Happy studies!