The last decade has been a productive if uneven period for novelist Dame Muriel Spark, whose dynamic career in literature has now spanned over half a century. 'All The Stories of Muriel Spark' was published in 2001, 'The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark' in 2003, both 'All the Poems of Muriel Spark' and a four-novel Modern Library omnibus were published earlier this year, and an idiosyncratic selection of her older fiction is currently in print. 1996 saw the release of 'Reality and Dreams,' one of Spark's rare outright failures, and 'Aiding and Abetting' debuted in 2000. But 'Aiding and Abetting' was sketchy and insubstantial, and something of a failure as well.
Thus the good news is that 'The Finishing School' (2004), Spark's 22nd novel, is worthy of taking its place on a lower rung among her second tier works (1958's 'Robinson,' 1960's 'The Ballad of Peckham Rye,' 1968's 'The Public Image,' and 1973's 'The Hothouse By the East River,' among others).
Happily, 'The Finishing School' has a brisk tone which most resembles that of 'Territorial Rights' (1979) and the greatly underrated 'Symposium' (1990), and, like those novels, concerns itself largely with life among the wealthy and the privileged. The institution in question is Sunrise College, a mobile school in Switzerland that in any given semester has only a handful of students enrolled. Ironically, Sunrise College never seems entirely credible, and throughout feels exactly like what it is in fact: a convenient and mutable creative device for its author's use.
Nonetheless, 'The Finishing School' is a deft, if slight, meditation on creative frustration, envy, competition, and emotional displacement.
Rowland Mahler, who teaches creative writing and runs the school with his wife, Nina, is attempting to write his long-planned first novel. But Rowland discovers that one of his young students, seventeen year-old Chris Wiley, has almost completed his own first novel on the life of Mary Queen of Scots. Dazed and dazzled, as is everyone else, by Chris's charm, confidence, productivity, and talent, Rowland finds his own ability to write disappearing, and his lofty private image of himself as an author-to-be suffering painfully.
When plucky Chris finds a publisher with apparent ease, Rowland's thwarted creative drive switches gears, transforming into a malevolent obsession with his formerly prized pupil and friend.
'The Finishing School' glides effortlessly across its own clever and glossy surfaces, reflecting evidence of Spark's talent, but not her genius. Spark once defended her occasionally harsh treatment of her characters by asserting that "they're just words," something certainly true of all the characters here except Rowland and Chris, who tend towards the three dimensional without ever quite arriving there.
Over the decades, the author has stated on multiple occasions that her novels are primarily intended as "entertainment," and 'The Finishing School,' a novella which casts a very short shadow, does succeed at being that.