‘We look to Scotland for all of our ideas of civilization.’ (Voltaire)

After bookish travels (sadly not actual travels) to Ireland and Wales in March, I thought I would start April with a visit to Scotland. As with actual travels, things did not go entirely plan…

Image from Wikimedia Commons

I have piles of Scottish authors in the TBR but my initial choices did not work out. The first novel I chose was excellent but brutal, so I just wanted to leave it behind at the end and not blog about it. My second choice I thought was safe; an established and accomplished author. Unfortunately I chose a novel she wrote at age 21, before she realised that sentences need a coherent structure. I got so sick of re-reading to try and work out which pronoun referred to which character that it was a rare DNF for me.

Given my reading pace is so slow at the moment, I then panicked and chose a novella and a short story to try and get something read. Thankfully these turned out to be enjoyable reads 😊

Firstly, Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark’s final novel, The Finishing School (2005). The titular institution is College Sunrise, on the shores of Lake Geneva, run by Rowland and Nina Mahler, although by Rowland in name only:

“To conserve his literary strength, as he put it, he left nearly all the office work to Nina who spoke good French and was dealing with the bureaucratic side of the school and with the parents, employing a kind of impressive carelessness.”

Feckless Rowland is thrown of kilter by the arrival of Chris Wiley at the school:

“His own sense of security was so strong as to be unnoticeable. He knew himself. He felt his talent. It was all a question of time and exercise. Because he was himself unusual, Chris perceived everyone else to be so.”

Chris is writing a novel about Mary Queen of Scots, unhindered by the actual facts of what happened. Although Rowland is tutor to the young artistic students, Chris keeps his writing progress secret, fully aware that this stokes Rowland’s obsession with him.

In this short novel, the other pupils and staff at the school are sketched in lightly but enjoyably, such as Mary: “her ambition was to open a village shop and sell ceramics and transparent scarves”.

Not a great deal happens, but the tension builds as Rowland becomes more fixated on Chris, and the two end up in a co-dependent relationship, as Chris observes:

“I need his jealousy. His intense jealousy. I can’t work without it.”

This being Spark, I couldn’t guess which way the novel would end as she mixes the very dark with a lightness of touch:

“ ‘Too much individualism,’ thought Rowland. ‘He is impeding me. I wish he could peacefully die in his sleep.’”

I wouldn’t say The Finishing School was Spark at the height of her powers – I found it a diverting read and an enjoyable one, but for me, Spark at her best is breath-taking, almost shocking. If you’re already a fan, there’s still much to enjoy here though. The askance view of human relationships, the morbid alongside the comic, the skewering of pretentious writers, and the arresting non-sequiturs.

Secondly, Until Such Times by Inverness-born writer Jessie Kesson (1985), which I had as part of the anthology Infinite Riches: Virago Modern Classics Short Stories (ed. Lynn Knight, 1993). It was a pretty good match for Spark although I didn’t plan it as such, with some darkly comic characterisation and a very unnerving ending.

The bairn is taken to live with her Grandmother and Aunt Edith:

“But you weren’t here to stay forever! Your Aunt Ailsa had promised you that. You was only here to stay… ‘Until Such Times’, Aunt Ailsa had said on the day she took you to Grandmother’s house…”

We join her with the house in a vague state of uproar trying to prepare for a visit from Aunt Millie and Cousin Alice. There is a suggestion that the visitors are respectable and admirable, whereas the bairn and Aunt Ailsa are somehow disreputable.

The narrative moves back and forth, showing the reader more than the bairn understands about her family situation and expertly drawing the dynamics between Grandmother, Aunt and child. The tension for a child living in a strict household and the manipulations and judgements of the Aunt (who is somehow unwell but never quite clear how; she is referred to by an old-fashioned term no longer used) was so well evoked.

At only 11 pages long, Kesson shows all that can be achieved in a short story: well-drawn characters, social commentary, narrative tension and a recognisable world. The final sentence was a perfect ending. I thought Until Such Times was really impressive and I’ll definitely look out for more of Kesson’s work.

To end, a Scottish treat for my mother, who is a big fan:

22 thoughts on “‘We look to Scotland for all of our ideas of civilization.’ (Voltaire)

  1. Am glad you were third (and fourth) time lucky and both Spark and Keeson worked out well.

    Both seem stories I think I will enjoy–Spark to see how the dynamics between Chris and Roland play out and Keeson as you mention for managing to get so much into a short tale which reminded me of the reaction I had to the first of the Dostoevsky stories in the collection I just finished.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So, not a book related comment, but rather one inspired by your music choice. When I was about 15, a new boy arrived at school, all the way from Scotland. We started dating, and days later, The Proclaimers broke into the Australian charts. I experienced a brief surge of default popularity 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  3. So glad you visited my home country, Madame B! I’ve not read this Spark, but really do feel I should revisit her – in fact, if I could find my copy of The Driving Seat, I would!! And thanks for the Proclaimers – I’m secretly partial to a few of their songs…. ;D

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Undoubtedly the best post title I’ve ever seen in nine years of blogging! 😉 I read Jessie Kesson’s best known novel, The White Bird Passes, a couple of years ago and thought it was great. It’s fictionalised autobiography, and would be quite harrowing if you didn’t know that she clearly survived her childhood since she went on to write books. Knowing that gave me the comfort to get through the tougher aspects. Beautifully written. May I also recommend The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison if you want to dip further into Scottish classics – another beautiful book, a delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within a small, rather isolated Highland society, with superb descriptions of the landscape. It seems to me it might be very much your type of thing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha – glad you approve FF!

      Thank you for the Jessie Kesson recommendation – I was so impressed with her short story so I’ll look out for The White Bird Passes. I looked at her wiki entry after I’d read it and was shocked at what a life she’d had.

      The Gowk Storm sounds wonderful – thank you for alerting me to it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Muriel Spark was so creative and imaginative that even one of her lesser novels is bound to be a worth a look. Based on your description, there’s more than enough to pique my interest. I shall add it to the list forthwith!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed this Spark – not at the height of her powers, as you say, but still intriguingly subversive and wry and just GOOD. Btw I’m thinking of doing novella a day in May – are you doing it this year?

    Liked by 1 person

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