The lethally witty and morally penetrating new novel by one of the world's most admired writers
College Sunrise is a somewhat louche and vaguely disreputable finishing school located in Lausanne, Switzerland. Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina, run the school as a way to support themselves while he works, somewhat falteringly, on his novel. Into his creative writing class comes seventeen-year-old Chris Wiley, a literary prodigy whose historical novel-in-progress, on Mary Queen of Scots and the murder of her husband Lord Darnley, has already excited the interest of publishers. The inevitable result: keen envy, and a game of cat and mouse not free of sexual jealousy and attraction.
Nobody writing has a keener instinct than Muriel Spark for hypocrisy, self-delusion and moral ambiguity, or a more deliciously satirical eye. The Finishing School is certain to be another Spark landmark, an addition to one of the world's most lauded and entertaining bodies of work.
A swift, blithe comedy of sexual and creative jealousy plays out on the grounds of a dubious finishing school in Dame Spark's gem of a novel, her 22nd. College Sunrise, founded by would-be novelist Rowland Mahler and his practical wife, Nina Parker, is a mobile institution (currently situated in Lausanne) at which very little of use is taught. Rowland does preside over a popular creative writing class (with five students, it boasts more than half the school's enrollment), while Nina takes care of the office business and dispenses delicious advice in her informal etiquette seminars ("[I]f you, as a U.N. employee, are chased by an elephant stand still and wave a white handkerchief. This confuses the elephant's legs"). Trouble arrives in the form of redheaded, 18-year-old Chris Wiley, who has come to College Sunrise to work on his novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. Chris's authorial insouciance--he is supremely confident of his talents and rather dismissive of historical fact--infuriates Rowland, whose ego was inflated by minor early successes and who has a terrible case of writer's block. Rowland becomes obsessed with the novel and its creator, and their struggle--" 'I could kill him,' thought Rowland. 'But would that be enough?' "--forms the heart of the book, even as other players, sketched briefly but brilliantly (the "tall and lonely" Tilly, princess of an unknown and perhaps fictitious country; the sweet, stupid Mary Foot, who wants to own a "sahramix" [sic] shop) fall in and out of love and beds. Spark, who is 86, writes in a polished, rather old-fashioned tone (references to "punk music," laptops and other things of the modern world surprise), but this is a cool, delightful little book of bad deeds and good manners.
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Three Rivers Press
November 07, 2005
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Excerpt from The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
"You begin," he said, "by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can't see across the lake, it's too misty. You can't see the other side." Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents' money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. "So," he said, "you must just write, when you set your scene, 'the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.' Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, 'The other side of the lake was just visible.' But as you are setting the scene, don't make any emphasis as yet. It's too soon, for instance, for you to write, 'The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.' That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don't want to make a point as yet."
College Sunrise had begun in Brussels, a finishing school for both sexes and mixed nationalities. It was founded by Rowland Mahler, assisted by his wife, Nina Parker.
The school had flourished on ten pupils aged sixteen and upward, but in spite of this flourishing, mainly by reputation, Rowland had barely been able to square the books at the end of the first year. So he moved the school to Vienna, increased the fees, wrote to the parents that he and Nina were making an exciting experiment: College Sunrise was to be a mobile school which would move somewhere new every year.
They had moved, leaving commendably few debts behind, from Vienna to Lausanne the next year. At present they had nine students at College Sunrise at Ouchy on the lake. Rowland had just taken the very popular class, attended by five of the students, on Creative Writing. Rowland was now twenty-nine, Nina twenty-six. Rowland himself hoped to be a published novelist one day. 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. She tended to crush any demands for full explanations on the part of the parents. This attitude, strangely enough, generally made them feel they were getting good money's worth. And she had always obtained a tentative license to run the school, which could be stretched to last over the months before they would move on again.
It was early July, but not summery. The sky bulged, pregnant with water. The lake had been invisible under the mist for some days.
Rowland looked out of the wide window of the room where he taught, and saw three of the pupils who had just attended his class, leaving the house, disappearing into the mist. Those three were Chris Wiley, Lionel Haas and Pansy Leghorn (known as Leg).
Chris: Seventeen, a student at College Sunrise at his own request. "I can do university later." And now? "I want to write my novel. It struck me that College Sunrise was ideal for that." Rowland remembered that first interview with red-haired Chris with his mother and uncle. There was no father visible. They seemed to be well off and perfectly persuaded to Chris's point of view. Rowland took him on. He had always, so far, taken everyone on who applied for entrance to College Sunrise, the result of which policy helped to give the school an experimental and tolerant tone.
But we come back to Chris as he and his two friends were watched from the window by Rowland: of all the pupils Chris caused Rowland the most disquiet. He was writing a novel, yes. Rowland, too, was writing a novel, and he wasn't going to say how good he thought Chris was. A faint twinge of that jealousy which was to mastermind Rowland's coming months, growing in intensity small hour by hour, seized Rowland as he looked.