For a long time I had the idea of writing a post titled “Flannery and the Flashbacks”, or something like that, as a token of my admiration for the way Flannery O’Connor uses –what is technically called analepsis– so naturally and smoothly. However, reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie I discovered Muriel Spark has also a great time-management ability, but this time with flash-forwards which are more rare, probably because they are more difficult to use.
The most simple flash forward is to give some information about the future, for example the famous opening lines of Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez:
On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar woke up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.
After giving out the information about the future the Narrator goes back to present narrative time and keeps on. Spark manages to insert not just concrete pieces of information into the ongoing story, but complete future scenes. These insertions have a very important task in conveying the meaning of the story: by jumping forward to the adult lives of Miss Brodie’s students, the influence of the teacher is enhanced. It is made clear that she was not just a teacher, someone belonging to a past forgotten long ago or, if not forgotten, at least irrelevant: her influence is very much alive after a good many years have gone by. The past is not forgotten, it keeps acting event to an extent that we cannot understand the present without it.
I’ve copied below a dialogue inserted in the middle of the story right where it is beginning to unfold. Suddenly we see Sandy not as a teenager but as in Sister Helena of the Transfiguration losing her composure and firmly clutching the bars of the grille when reminded of Miss Brodie.
“Well, it was the ‘thirties,” said the man. “Tell me, Sister Helena, what would you say was your greatest influence during the ‘thirties? I mean, during your teens. Did you read Auden and Eliot?”
“No,” said Sandy.
“We boys were very keen on Auden and that group of course. We wanted to go and fight in the Spanish Civil War. On the Republican side, of course. Did you take sides in the Spanish Civil War at your school?”
“Well, not exactly,” said Sandy. “It was all different for us.”
“You weren’t a Catholic then, of course?”
“No,” said Sandy.
“The influences of one’s teens are very important,” said the man.
“Oh yes,” said Sandy, “even if they provide something to react against.”
“What was your biggest influence, then, Sister Helena? Was it political, personal? Was it Calvinism?”
“Oh no,” said Sandy. “But there was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” She clutched the bars of the grille as if she wanted to escape from the dim parlour beyond, for she was not composed like the other nuns who sat, when they received their rare visitors, well back in the darkness with folded hands.
The reader gets tons of information in the short dialogue: not Auden nor Eliot nor Edinburgh’s Calvinism, but a certain Brodie was the one that shaped her. We, out of the blue, see Sandy not just as an impressionable girl but transformed in a nun! The effect of course is to grab the attention of the reader, forcing him to stop and reflect that we are in front of a long lasting influence with dramatic changes. In other words, the reader is called to take this queer –and sometimes comic– Miss Brodie much more seriously.
I think this is more than just a literary resource. It springs from an in-depth understanding of the weight and influence of history in today’s being. Faulker does not jump from present to past and future to confuse the reader –though he manages to do it–: he wants to stress that we cannot understand any of his character without considering history as an entry point. Henry Sutpen, Bayard Sartoris on any of the Compsons have a history and without it, we just won’t understand them.
But why all this? Well, because I have to write a paper on Mark Twain, and in his work this conception of history is completely missing. Traditions, family ties, manners, etc…seem always to carry a negative charge with them in his work. They have to be dropped and left aside in order to let a newborn man spring forth in a kind of never ending search toward autonomy. History is not something to build on, but a ruin to be cleaned up and let newness sprout for newness sake.