Of all the books I read this year, none stuck with me quite like Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I realize the greatness of this book is not, as they say, new news—my temperament is such that I often come late to long-beloved novels and unnecessarily evangelize them. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an economical marvel, a funny and sadistic little hundred-page narrative containing, somehow, the entire lives of seven women. Everyone knows this, and everyone knows Spark is a fabulous writer. But hopefully here I can praise Miss Brodie for something less obvious—for something it possesses that it sometimes feels to me so many books these days don’t—that is, the story it tells about itself.
All books are really two books: a first book, containing characters and a plot with problems and complications that make characters do things, and a second book, about that first book. Great books tell a great story, and they tell a great story about that story. They are legible and coherent regarding their own project, which is to say that they possess a moral intelligence, a frame that, however ambiguously or mysteriously, contains and comments on the events of the primary narrative.
Morality in fiction—or maybe better put, talking about morality in fiction—has been somewhat unfashionable for a long time, but nonetheless most great books possess a kind of morality. I’m not using “morality” to mean a lesson, but rather an articulable if complex framework of moral meaning that situates a novel’s events and characters. All novels are miniature, idealized versions of the world (even if the idealization is negative), and a novel’s moral intelligence is what allows the reader to understand how this idealization corresponds with the actual. It is what the book thinks about the book.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a masterpiece already in so many other ways, is finally a masterpiece on the level of moral interrogation. Jean Brodie is a controlling manipulator, a benevolent, fascist-idolizing despot in her little rogue state of loyal young women; Brodie and her girls are, in turn, controlled and manipulated by Spark’s despotic narration. The novel’s odd technique of jumping ahead to reveal character fates is instrumental here—by telling the reader what will happen to this or that girl, Spark closes off narrative possibility, boxes the girls into their destinies just as surely as Brodie’s tutelage boxes Sandy Stranger into a nun’s penitence booth. In doing so, Spark implicitly asks if this degree of control is good. Encoding this kind of intelligible moral inquiry into one’s work is, it seems to me, the highest order of writing.
In my increasingly common fogeyish moments, I do wonder if moral superstructure in novels is something increasingly uncommon. So many modern novels I read lack moral depth and seem uninterested in interrogating the story they tell. Is this a function of the first-person-ization of everything, a shift toward viewing narrative primarily as a means of projecting one’s personality? I don’t know. A widely praised novel I read this year felt representative: It was intelligent and stylish and voice-y, its plot and character mechanics were smooth and inevitable—it was a pleasure to read. But it conveyed no sense of its sense of itself, what it thought of its own story, and so it ultimately felt irresolute and unfinished. I realize that it’s asking a lot, for novels to be as good as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But that is what I want.
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