Thursday, August 30, 2012

Scottish and Italian Primes, Both Beautiful

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 

“The word 'education' comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.”  ― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I first encountered The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969 when I viewed the British drama film, based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark. Like many others I was mesmerized by Maggie Smith's Academy-Award winning performance as the imperious Miss Jean Brodie who lectured and directed her girls. The original novel by Muriel Spark had been turned into a play by Jay Presson Allen, which opened in London in 1966 with Vanessa Redgrave and on Broadway in 1968, with Zoe Caldwell in the title role, a performance for which she won a Tony Award. Allen adapted the play into the film, which was directed by Ronald Neame. In addition to Maggie Smith there was also a notable performance from Pamela Franklin as Sandy, for which she won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress. It is also remembered for the beautiful song by Rod McKuen, "Jean".
It was more than a decade before I actually got around to reading the original novel, and as is the case even with very good films the novel was considerably better. Muriel Spark explores the complex morally ambiguous lives of her characters through a medley of straight narrative and flash-forwards that propel the reader through the lives of Miss Brodie's girls. "Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she will be mine for life," says the elegant Miss Brodie, the 1930s Edinburgh schoolmistress who is devoting her "prime" to six hand-picked, 10-year-old students. She demonstrates an unorthodox devotion that values art above history and dwells upon her personal love life and travels. The author breaks into the novel to tell the reader, in brief paragraph-long omniscient interruptions just what will become of the girls in the future. Miss Brodie's attempt to inspire seems to lead to unintended consequences, but it is not clear exactly what her original intent was beyond, perhaps, merely dazzling these young girls. As a result a sort of melancholy emerges, but it is the vigor and beauty of Spark's prose make this a great novel. It not surprising that it was included on the best 100 lists of both Time Magazine and the Modern Library.


The Solitude of Prime Numbers
The Solitude of Prime Numbers 

Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. (p 111)

While all fiction emanates from the imagination it is rare that a work successfully mimics the language of dreams. The Solitude of Prime Numbers comes as close to doing so as any novel I have read in recent memory. The incidents of the characters' lives are blended together by the young author, Paolo Giordano, in a way that suggests their lives exist, fictionally, on the edge of reality. The main characters, Alice and Mattia, are in a state of continual wonder both of the world that surrounds them and the nature of their own being. Their lives and their search is made tragic by their solitude. The wonder of the novel is in the beautiful, even loving way that this is demonstrated.
As I read I kept trying to think of the right word to describe the events of the story. Were they quirky or odd or just strange? None of these words seemed to capture the feeling created by the author's prose which seemed almost poetic in the ethereal way the quotidian accidents of life were presented. It was only when I remembered the irrationality of my own dreams that I found the appropriate description for the story. The characters' lives are lived on a road strewn with obstacles that seem to be fundamental to their inner being. The substance of their solitude forever separates them from the quality of life that they deserve and most of us enjoy. That a story of two such lives would be compelling is a tribute to the author and his novel.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Harper Perennial, 1999 (1961)
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. Viking Penguin, New York. 2010 (2008)

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