David Bowie died on 11 January (and then Alan Rickman 3 days later – 2016 is rubbish so far). Although I have never been personally moved by a celebrity death, shocking and sad as they are, on Monday I found myself weeping in the middle of King’s Road (lesson: don’t look at the BBC News app in public). In common with his worldwide legions of fans, Bowie had a special place in my heart and it’s a horrible shock that our hero has gone.
Consoling myself through the internet, I discovered he had listed his 100 Must Read books, so I thought I would look at two in this post. Sarah over at Hard Book Habit also wrote about this list, do pop over and read her lovely post. One of my choices is also my first stop on Hard Book Habit’s Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, which you can read all about here.
Firstly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961), probably her most famous novel. Miss Brodie is a romantic teacher in a conservative girl’s school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. Eschewing the curriculum, she educates her girls in the ways of art, love… and fascism. Boasting “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Miss Brodie has a group of girls who form the ‘Brodie set’, and the novel, slipping back and forth in time, is told mainly from their points of view, despite a third person narrator.
“Miss Brodie had already selected her favourites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy.”
Miss Brodie repeatedly insists that she is in her prime; she is silly and vain, and the school are out to get her. But Spark does not judge her harshly, suggesting she is just in the wrong place at the wrong time:
“It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime…there were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.”
We learn quite early on that she is betrayed, and that it one of her set who betray her, forcing her into early retirement. Miss Brodie is a complex character: charismatic; aspirational for herself and others; entirely inappropriate towards her pupils and with truly hideous politics. She is an independent spirit who vastly underestimates her own vulnerability.
“It was then that Miss Brodie looked beautiful and fragile, just as dark heavy Edinburgh itself could suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets. In the same way Miss Brodie’s masterful features became clear and sweet to Sandy when viewed in the curious light of the woman’s folly”
Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie in the 1969 film
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel – 128 pages in my edition – which shows just how much a brilliant writer can say in a short space. Spark has created one of the legendary characters of modern fiction who truly stays with you: like her or loathe her, its almost impossible not to be drawn in, becoming one of the ‘Brodie set’.
Secondly, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set during the nineteenth century Risorgimento, whereby the different states of the Italian peninsula unified into a single state. Telling the story of the aristocratic Sicilian Salina family, particularly Fabrizio, the Prince, the novel has an elegiac quality as it documents the decline of the family and change of a way of life.
“Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.”
The Prince is surrounded by people, between political responsibilities and social engagements, yet he is an isolated figure, partly due to his “contempt for all his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism”.
But the Prince cannot resist the forces of all that surrounds him, and while the military action of the Risorgimento takes place only by report, he and his family are dragged towards modernisation, such as having his aristocratic gene pool diluted by the daughter of a clerical man who:
“moved through the forest of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs , without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed”
The domestic is resolutely tied with the political and historical, even during the intimacy of seduction:
“he felt as if by those kisses he were taking possession of Sicily once more, of the lovely faithless land which now, after a vain revolt, had surrendered to him again, as always to his family, its carnal delights and golden crops.”
Yet while the people are tied to the land and its history, a recurring theme is of human insignificance, of the transitory nature of humans and their constructs, of all around us falling away. This isn’t depressing, and indeed there is a subtle humour in The Leopard, but it is sad and there is a sense of existential crisis. This wider theme is distilled into the Prince’s relationship with his beloved stars:
“As always, seeing them revived him; they were distant, they were omnipotent and at the same time they were docile to his calculations; just the contrary to humans, always so near, so weak and yet so quarellsome”
The Leopard is a short novel but it took me a while to read it as it so densely written, not a word is wasted. Lampedusa’s use of imagery is strikingly beautiful and he is not afraid to tackle huge ideas.
“the real problem is how to go on living this life of the spirit in its most sublimated moments, those moments that are most like death”
To end, a memory from last summer. I accompanied my friend’s children – aged 4 and 7 – to an open-air showing of Labyrinth. There are contradictory reports about Bowie’s feelings towards this film, but for me it has a special place in my heart because it was the point at which, aged nine, I first fell in love with him.
Prior to the showing, there were many jokes about indoctrination and my brainwashing of children, but on arrival I found my flash cards on The Life and Times of David Bowie were not needed. There were a number of avid Labyrinth-watchers dressed up in oversized mullet wigs and inappropriately large codpieces, a la Jareth the Goblin King. The kids squealed with delight and ran around to greet them all, crying “David Bowie! David Bowie!” When my friend’s son arrived back where we were sitting, he flopped down, breathless with joy, and simply said “David Bowie.”
“I know just how you feel.” I told him.