Friday, July 1, 2011

flux, mere flux

Nina -- and when I say Nina I mean one of the two teachers in Muriel Spark's 2004 book The Finishing School, the one who teaches afternoon lessons in comme il fait -- Nina talks with aplomb on any topic that comes into her head, she talks about elephants, about Ascot, about hypocrisy, about criminal boyfriends, and she tells her students that if you are pursued by a snake then what you need to do is sit on the ground facing the snake with your legs apart and while the snake is trying to work out which foot to bite you should chop its head off with your knife. She is absolutely confident and serious and ludicrous yet truthful and I wonder if she would be a good model of behaviour for Mr Toots.

As you can see from my last post I am thinking about the problems of Mr Toots.

If Mr Toots could pursue a topic with Nina's indifference to shame then he could tell Florence Dombey that he loved her straight away, without sabotaging himself. He could go into the subject in depth. But, no, that wouldn't work because Nina only holds people in thrall like that when she has the cape of the classroom around her, when people are listening to her because she is going to tell them how the world works and how they should behave in it; this is the promise of the class. Also she is in a Muriel Spark novel, and this is the way people talk in Muriel Spark novels. They are mysterious with non sequiturs.

On the outside they are presented rigidly. The author will describe them with the same character tag again and again. (Different students in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie are known in shorthand: "famous for sex," the "silent lump," the one with "tiny eyes," etc.) But then they will do something almost unprepared-for -- and yet you could see it moving underneath that strangely dotted surface of tags and gestures, and in fact the surface rigidity itself is enough to let you know that things are not as they seem, because these brief tags and stiff spoken lines leave very obvious gaps, they do not explain; the author is not explaining everything to the reader, she is touching on the characters too slightly, she tells us too little, and perhaps in this way she lets us know that she thinks that as human beings we cannot know people. People will always surprise us.

"If we were constant beings by nature, like angels, it would be easier," she wrote once in a letter to her lover, Derek Stanford. "But we are flux, mere flux. No, not 'mere' flux -- necessary, right & proper flux."

Mr Toots is a constant being, like an angel, and the flux of his disorganised behaviour is only a mere outward flux -- he is rushing home and throwing himself on the bed because he can't bring himself to tell Florence Dombey about his constant inward state, which is one of love. He is attracted to her from beginning to end. His feelings are solid, like a long stuffed tube that never alters its diameter. By contrast in The Finishing School one character will start the book admiring her husband and by the end of the book she will have left him for the next-door neighbour, and a heterosexual man will hate another man to the point of wanting to murder him, and then he will decide that he is in love with him, and gay.

"Leave Dombey and Son," a concerned friend might say to Mr Toots. "Leave Dickens. Move to a Muriel Spark. You won't get anywhere with the heroine in a Dickens novel. He never lets them marry characters like you. Look at young John Chivery in Little Dorrit. Dickens lets his people jiggle around and give off energy but he keeps them on track (with some exceptions. Miss Mowcher veered but she had help) and if they're villains then they get to be superlatively villainous, and if they're ridiculous they get to be superlatively ridiculous, and if they're talkative they get to be superlatively talkative, and so they expand their god-given personalities to the fullest extent, but we know where it's going, don't we -- we know that the villain is going to suffer, die, or vanish at the end, and when a specific type of man shows up we know that the book is going to end with a marriage, and she's going to marry him. But Muriel Spark is different. Spark will let you hope. You might marry Florence Dombey in a Spark. It's not impossible."

Wrong, wrong, the friend is forgetting what Mr Toots is made of, Mr Toots is made of words, and if this word-thing (assume for a moment that he is a thing) moved into a Muriel Spark novel he would be freer, but he would have to change, he would not be Mr Toots, and the readers would be afraid of him perhaps or scornful of him or they would hate him; there is something ominous about the intractable mutability of her characters. He might be annihilated instead of rewarded. There's freedom's risk. The world become newly unreliable. He would not be as easy to see, or as easy to touch, and the readers would be less likely to recognise their own silliness in him, their own fallibility, because who thinks they are Miss Jean Brodie? She is totemic, a stiff totem, not an intimate one.

Freedom and uncertainty but also coldness and distance. Would it be worth it, Mr Toots? You live in a tyranny now, but the tyrant loves you.

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