Muriel Spark teaches us how to escape from elephants and pythons


We learn things from novels.  From Jane Austen, I learned how an educated Englishwoman of the early 19th Century lived.  From Melville, I learned all about whaling (really, more than I needed to know).  From Thomas Pynchon, in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” I learned a really astonishing amount about the German V2 rocket project.



And, from Muriel Spark, I have learned many other things.



I have been reading Muriel Spark since the early 1970s.  Her novels are terse – often under 200 pages – and very funny, and dry,  and odd. 



Muriel passed away in 2006, and I have been trying to catch up on the novels I haven’t read.  Each is a revelation, but her later novels often reuse themes and situations that occur in the earlier novels.  “The Finishing School,” her last novel, involves a private school (as does “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”), homosexuality (as does “The Bachelors”), novelists who aren’t sure if they’re in control of their characters (as in “The Comforters”).



“The Finishing School” does not have a very distinctive plot, and is not considered one of Muriel’s greatest novels.  But it contained the following very interesting information (this is my paraphrase):


If you are being chased by an elephant, wave your handkerchief in the air as you run.  It will confuse the elephant.

If you are being chased by a python, run in a zigzag fashion. The snake’s head and tail aren’t in sync, and he will fall behind.

If you don’t have time to run, drop to the ground, sit facing the python, and spread your legs.  The python will pause, not knowing which leg to consume first.  During this pause, pull out your knife and cut his head off.



(I related this to my friend Cathleen.  She objected: “So I’m supposed to have a knife?”  I responded:  “Are you an idiot to be in a python-infested jungle without a knife?”



This is why novels are important.



Keep reading, kids. You never know what you might learn.



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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