This is a transcript of Recommended Season 4 Episode 5.
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This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today, authors Susan Choi and Peter Mendelsund each talk about a classic that influenced their own work.
Susan Choi is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction, and her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. Her new novel, Trust Exercise, takes place at a highly competitive performing arts high school and examines what happens when a first love between high school students is interrupted by the attentions of a charismatic teacher. It will be released on April 9 of 2019.
My name is Susan Choi, and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark is my recommended.
I first encountered this book as a thing floating around culturally that I had heard of and had formed weird associations with before I ever understood it was a book. It’s really strange. Because it was a movie, and because of the title, which is, I think, starchy, or fussy, or prissy sounding if you don’t know what the book is about, or don’t sort of understand that Muriel Spark is incredibly assertive, acidic, and misanthropic, I had these associations with that title of, I don’t know, like that moment in the Sound of Music when Julie Andrews spins around. You know that really corny moment where she spins around while she’s singing, and there’s a tracking shot from overhead? And, I always used to cringe when I saw that when I was a kid, because she seemed so sincere in a way that, even then as a cynical child, I found uncomfortable.
And, that title, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” somehow evoked the same image for me of sincerity, some middle aged lady who’s feeling really excited about something. So, I wasn’t attracted. And, I didn’t end up reading it until I encountered other books of Muriel Spark’s and just fell so hard for her.
I was so enthralled by how unconcerned she is for, I guess, issues of likeability. She seemed, as an author, not to care if you liked her, if you liked her characters, if you liked her story. There was something very regal, and bitchy, and just hilarious about her tone.
And so, when I went to look for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” having realized that it had to be different from what I’d thought, I did have expectations. And, my expectations were subverted even again, because it’s such a flawless sendup, in certain ways, of the school novel, the novel of students and teachers with the hothouse environment of a girls’ school specifically. But, it’s also a really compassionate and sad book. I think Miss Jean Brodie ultimately is … she’s a moving figure to me. She’s a fascist. I mean, the book is so strange. She’s this charismatic teacher who is given to just outlandish utterances. And, it seems as if we should either laugh at her, or mock her, or deplore her. Maybe all of those things. But in the end, I found her really moving. And so, I think that that’s what really surprised me about this book, is that it’s not a caricature in any way at all.
I don’t understand where it comes from, but it feels to me, even when I’m teaching my students or reading on my own, that we … And when I say we, I guess I mean American readers. We spend a lot of time wondering if we like somebody. Or if we don’t like them, we wonder if we’re supposed to. Or if they’re not likable but we do like them, we wonder if there’s something wrong with us. This whole question of whether we’re supposed to sympathize or condemn seems really preoccupying to us. And it’s surprising, when you look at somebody like Muriel Spark who’s presenting this just panoply of human bad behavior, and almost seems to be saying, “Why are you so worried about whether you should like or dislike these people? Read. Be entertained. Be appalled. Be surprised. Give a dark chuckle. But, maybe you should stop agonizing so much about whether you like them.” That’s my imagination of her voice in my ear as I read her.
My thought was always that that’s what literature’s for in large part, you know? I say this to my students all the time, so I almost feel like I’m spouting a cliché. But, none of us wanna hang out with Ahab, and you don’t wanna go sailing with Ahab. You don’t wanna spend the summer with him. But, it’s amazing to read about him, right?
I mean, he’s a crazy, obsessive, murderous, monomaniacal lunatic. And, that’s what literature can give you, is the experience of spending time with somebody like that.
I think that we do really hunger to read about people who are operating off the moral map, possibly. People who are not as concerned, maybe, with what they do, how they act, how they’re received than we might be. Again, I think one of the things that I love about literature is it lets you have vicarious experiences that you either can’t have in your life, or you don’t wanna have, or you fear having them. But, you can stray into these strange, frightening, or unfamiliar psychological realms through a character. And so, if every character was super nice and behaved the way you want your best friend to behave, how interesting is that? It wears thin after a while, you know?
I recommend it all the time because it’s a book that, although I’ve read it now multiple times, I have never read it without laughing at some point. Even thinking about it now, I could start laughing at certain moments of it that I think are just so funny. Often, the way Miss Brodie talks to her students, she’s so … In the most severely serious way, she’s so flamboyant. There’s so few characters in literature that are just singular, where you can’t compare them to any other character or person. And, Jean Brodie is one of those really singular characters.
Also, there’s a crazy, overheated, female pubescence depicted in this book that the only other thing that I’ve ever encountered that captured it in this similar way was Peter Jackson’s movie Heavenly Creatures-
… with Kate Winslet, which is such an astounding rendition of adolescent femaleness. I And, that movie and this book are weirdly linked in my mind, because they have this similar quality of being these sort of just extraordinary renderings of what the youthful female psyche looks like or feels like. I’m thinking of those passages in Muriel Spark’s book where the two girls are … they’re fantasizing about this character from Robert Louis Stevenson, I think. Because, Spark loved Stevenson, which is another thing I love about her, is that she loved R.L.S. and alludes to him in her writing all the time.
And so, there’s this whole sequence in the book where two of the school girls are essentially writing fan fiction about the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. But, they’re living in this imaginary world in which one of his heroes is rescuing them from the craggy peaks of mountains, and ripping his shirt off in a cavern. It’s so funny and dead serious at the same time. And, she’s really good that way. She puts the full craziness of female friendship in play on display, but in a way that makes you … You’re able to laugh, but she’s not mocking it at all. She’s just rendering it.
I think the other thing about Spark that is valuable to me is something that I’ve already referred to repeatedly, which is that she writes short books. And, I don’t say that cynically, as in, “Thank god they’re so short.” But, the art of the short book is really … it’s not practiced by that many writers. And, I sometimes think there’s a bias toward long, monumental, big books. People talk about big books, and they mean books that have a big impact. But, they also sometimes seem to literally mean big books, like a book that’s really thick and has lots of pages. Which I also, maybe this is just me, but always seems kind of masculine to me, a little bit. ’cause I think when people think of big books, they think of “War and Peace” by Tolstoy or “Infinite Jest.” Or, I don’t know. I’m looking at “Mason and Dixon” by Thomas Pynchon, which is sitting on my shelf right now, being like … You could take all the books from either side and it would just keep standing there, ’cause it’s like three inches thick.
And, I think that there’s so much artistic rigor required of an author who can write a very slender book that has impact. I think that that’s harder than writing a big sprawling epic, personally. Maybe it’s just because it’s easier for me as a writer to write big and sprawling than to have the rigor to create something that’s really lean and effective at, I don’t, 136 pages, you know?
And so, I think that that’s a really undervalued skill in literature, being able to write the slender book. And, she was really good at it.
Wish I could learn it from her.
Thanks again to Susan Choi for joining us and recommending The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Trust Exercise, published by Henry Holt and Co., will be available on April 9, 2019, wherever books are sold. You can learn more about Choi at susanchoi.com.
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Peter Mendelsund has worked as a dishwasher, a bookseller, a butler, a classical pianist, chicken farmer, teacher, cover designer, house painter, commercial composer, branding consultant, & writer. He is the author of several books including What We See When We Read, and Cover. He is the former Associate Art Director of Alfred A. Knopf, and is currently heading-up a redesign of The Atlantic magazine. Mendelsund has been described by the New York Times as “one of the top designers at work today,” and his design work has been described by The Wall Street Journal as “the most instantly recognizable and iconic in contemporary fiction.” His debut novel Same Same is about what it means to exist and to create . . . and a future that may not be far off.
My name is Peter Mendelsund and “Magic Mountain” is my recommended.
“Magic Mountain” is widely considered to be Thomas Mann’s masterpiece. It is a massive volume that is about something which is reasonably trivial, which is a young man named Hans Castorp takes a trip to visit a cousin of his who’s a soldier, who’s recuperating from a bout of tuberculosis up at a sanitarium in Switzerland, in Davos essentially. He goes up intending to spend a couple weeks there, and ends up staying for years … I think six, actually. Then comes back to the flatlands, as he calls them at the end of the book, and is presumed dead in some sort of World War I action, like Passchendaele or some place like that.
In the interim between those two bookends of him arriving at the sanitarium and him marching off to his death in the first World War, really very little happens. He meditates about time a lot, he worries about his temperature, he reclines on a bench under a camel hair blanket, he meets some people who are variously interesting or uninteresting to him, he has a somewhat stuttering and thwarted love affair with a young woman named Clavdia Chauchat, he meets a kind of Nietzschean Superman named Pieter Peeperkorn, and he’s privy to very long debate between a humanist revolutionary philosopher named Setembrini and a Jesuit nihilist named Naphta.
And that is the long and short of it. It is very light on plot despite the fact that it’s a hugely long book.
I think if you’re at all interested in western canonical literature, the book “Magic Mountain” is a little like a mountain itself, a magic mountain, in that landscape of Great Western White Male Lit. It sort of looms; it’s an enormous book, it’s a huge project, it’s an immensely interesting thought experiment. And it’s just one of those books that’s hard not to read, I guess, like “Ulysses”, or “Tristram Shandy”, or “Moby Dick”, or any of those other sort of encyclopedic novels.
I was a teenager and it was sitting on my parent’s shelf and it had a big fat yellow spine and it looked incredibly impressive.
I’d read “Death in Venice” and really enjoyed it and was very interested in early 20th century, mid 20th century German/ Austrian milieu open literature, and it just seemed like an interesting thing to try, so I did it. And I got very, very, very bored, as I think actually one is supposed to … we can get to that later. By the time the book was done, I really didn’t know what the fuss was about.
But then the second time I read it, the late great editor Carol Brown Janeway, who also was a great translator as well, had commissioned a new translation of the book in the earlier aughts, and when that came out I thought I would give the book a shot again. I think that was published in a Knopf Everyman’s Library edition. I picked it up, and whether it was the new translation or me just being a little older and wiser, it really took that time, and I started to understand the themes that Mann was contending with.
The third time I read it was right before I started work on my new novel, “Same Same,” which is deeply, deeply informed by that particular text.
So though it’s been a couple years since I’ve read it, it obviously has been an important book for me.
I guess this is a little counterintuitive, but I’ll just say it: the book is really barely a novel. You know, I think when most people talk about this book, they like to talk about some characters, the main character Hans Castorp in particular, but I think what’s missed is that Mann was actually not particularly interested in character, and, to me anyway, was not particularly good at drawing characters.
I guess what I’m saying is what interested me in “Magic Mountain” as a novel is that it really wasn’t a novel, it was a vehicle for him to talk about really interesting questions about mortality, and time, and ontology, and ruminate a bit on Europe before the war, big political questions, big questions about the rise of medicine and science, and how that affects epistemology in ways we see the world, and I just hadn’t encountered a lot of books up until that point where the writer just didn’t seem to really care about plot or character. The question remains, What’s left without those appurtenances? And what’s left is ideas, so that seemed really interesting to me.
To me, when I started writing my own novel, my concerns as a novelist were not character and plot. I wanted to investigate what a novel could be when it wasn’t that, so this just seemed like a perfect armature to hang my novel on. So my book not only takes inspiration from “Magic Mountain” but it references it quite explicitly throughout the book. I mean, my book is set at an arts colony in a desert, but it might as well be a sanatorium in the mountains. It’s the same idea: isolation, a group of people thrust together, trying to work out these deep problems and essentially failing to do so.
There’s a lot of scenes that I love in “Magic Mountain” and I would say the first one that springs to mind, which is probably the most famous, I would guess, is the one where our hero, Hans Castorp, sees an x-ray of this woman, Clavdia Chauchat, who he has this massive crush on. He’s waiting in line … I think he’s waiting to see his cousin’s x-ray and the doctor is there and he’s looking at this woman’s x-ray and all his assumptions about life and romance and everything is sort of blown apart at that moment because he sees inside a person for the first time, and not just a person but this woman that he is in love with.
It’s actually a really startling moment, I think, in the history of some sort of medical anthropology. I mean, much like they describe the first films, people sort of ducking out of the way of the train coming towards them in the theater, there must have been something sort of uniquely amazing but also horrifying of being able to see into the human body for the first time that way.
And we don’t really think about those moments of huge technological leaps in medicine and how they affect us as a culture, but it’s a really incredible moment, because essentially it’s a love scene, but it’s a love scene that’s sort of tainted by this … I want to say, almost kind of like Faustian insight into the workings of the human body. Rather than it dispelling any mysteries, as you’d think it would, it sort of increases the amount of mystery around this woman, like you can see all of this plumbing and it begs the question, as it always does: Where does the spirit reside? So it’s an amazing scene; it’s both really, really creepy and super, super cool. And I would imagine that would be a scene that people would really enjoy in that book, or at least find particularly interesting.
With “Magic Mountain” everything is pretty much laid out there on the page for you. The problem is it’s just not really compelling reading if you expect things to happen. So, in a way, you just have to be prepared that this book … I would say a little like David Foster Wallace’s “Pale King” is a book about boredom, to some degree, and about the kind of lassitude that allows you to think those big thoughts, like I was saying earlier. So you just have to strap in and allow the slow rhythm of the book, and you just have to accept it on its own terms and recognize that not every reading experience is going to be about figuring out what happens on the next page. Some reading experiences are about carefully, slowly building an argument. I’m making it sound like it’s doing your taxes or something, and in some ways, I think it is. But it’s better to be prepared for that than unprepared for that.
It’s not like there’s a great gloss on the book, or some sort of annotated version that’s going to make your life a lot easier. Thomas Mann wrote a short companion to it when he was done, about the writing of “Magic Mountain”, but it doesn’t really help you understand any of the major themes. Like I said, it’s not really that complicated.
The great thing about “Magic Mountain” is that because it unfolds at this extremely glacial pace and because it’s a book that’s trying to unpack the meaning of time and the experience of time, your own experience of time as you’re reading the book stretches out and becomes observable in a way that I think is a very interesting experience that you don’t get from many books. I think the aim of most popular literature is to do the opposite, which is to speed up time, which is to make your blood rate go up, for you to want to know who done it. And that’s just not the case here, so my advice would just be to be prepared.
Thanks again to Peter Mendelsund for joining us and recommending The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. His novel Same Same, published by Vintage, is now available wherever books are sold. You can find out more about him at petermendelsund.com.
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