Field Notes: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sputnik Sweetheart


SYNOPSIS: Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel about an inimitable schoolteacher and the cadre of pre-teen girls she takes under her wing.

CONDITION: An ugly Penguin paperback. Bought used from the Untitled Bookshop late last year.

THOUGHTS: Knew I’d love it from the very first sentence, where a group of schoolgirls are talking to some hooligan boys from the neighbourhood, separated by “a protective fence of bicycle”. A fine sentence, and predictive, too: a variety of protective barriers will follow these girls for the rest of their lives, thanks to the philosophies they absorb as kids from their posh-but-renegade teacher.

A short novel, but one that knows exactly what it’s doing. This is the fewest possible number of pages needed to get across who this woman is. (Now I understand why James Wood devotes so much time to Miss Brodie in the character chapter in How Fiction Works.) She’s not explained away; she’s cryptic and unknowable, but grows more vivid and enticing with each understatement, every bit of gossip, every unconfirmed rumour.

More than anything, a delicious account of how the teacher-student relationship evolves over time. The best elementary school teachers aren’t necessarily the people you’d befriend as an adult. What seems heroic to a kid can become sad and stubborn once you’re grown. The power of Miss Brodie as a person fades with time, but her spectre looms eternal.

Not much to add to this book’s impeccable reputation. It’s wonderful. A tip of the hat is owed to eternal Spark enthusiast Maud Newton. Where does one go from here? Memento Mori?

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SYNOPSIS: Haruki Murakami’s 1999 novel (translated into English by Philip Gabriel in 2001) about a man’s unrequited crush on his best friend, and the mysterious older woman she, in turn, falls in love with.

CONDITION: Hardcover; library.

THOUGHTS: With his new 1,000-page opus coming in the fall, figured I should get reacquainted. It’s been a few years. Was reminded right away why I like Murakami on his own terms, but stay quiet whenever people start describing him as one of the greats. He has a few reliable tricks. He knows how to use and reorganize them. They’re great fun to watch. But his “deepness” is pretty limited—Murakami can disrupt dreams and reality, and sometimes conflate the two, but then what?

Sputnik, to its credit, deals mostly in humdrum reality. A man loves his best friend, an aloof and off-kilter female. She’s oblivious. But then she suddenly lusts after her new female boss, and the latter two take off around the world together. Chance and eerie coincidence abound. In parts reminded me of a better-executed Apocalypse for Beginners.

Falls into some of his usual third-act problems, as the supernatural takes over. (Beware any character who goes missing in a Murakami novel—they tend to stay gone, with only vague metaphysical smokescreens as justification.) The central relationship is well-painted, as is the introduction of the older woman. And those few reliable tricks? They’re pretty good. Suspect I’ll end up a Murakami completist, one of these days.

A wonderful description of one character’s dead mother, as told by her father: “She was good at remembering things… And she had nice handwriting.” This is how we think of other people, isn’t it? Essences be damned. It’s the curlicues that matter. Once a friend asked me what Kevin Barnes, the singer of the band Of Montreal, looked like; without thinking, I answered, “He has the same hairline as me.”

Sputnik seems to ultimately exist for two things: a Lost Highway-esque scene involving a broken ferris wheel, and the central idea that lovers are like competing satellites. If only all novels could say they had two good ideas in them.

  1. distantheartbeats said: With regards to Muriel, I want to read Miss Jean, but please don’t go near A Far Cry From Kensington for a while. It was such a mundane read.
  2. booksinthekitchen posted this