A Far Cry From Kensington had been ordered a few months back in anticipation of just such a reading mood. Muriel Spark wrote 22 novels in her lifetime and many years ago I had read a few (but only remember The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and that probably because of the movie). I do remember that as a young man who eagerly awaited the arrival of the New Yorker each week, a story from Spark or Mavis Gallant or J.D. Salinger automatically meant it was a good week.
This slim, tightly-written novel (it clocks in at 194 pages in a wonderful Virago Modern Classics edition published in 2008) met all my objectives. First published in 1988, it is a memory novel told in the first person — the central character, Mrs Hawkins (now Nancy), is looking back more than 30 years to post-war London, when she lived in a rooming house in South Kensington and worked in “publishing”.
Ali Smith in her introduction picks out a segment that captures the author’s intent so well that I make no apology for repeating it:
Can you decide to think? — Yes, you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time. You can sit peacefully in front of a black television set, just watching nothing; and sooner or later you can make your own programme much better than the mass product. It’s fun, you should try it. You can put anyone you like on the screen, alone or in company, saying and doing what you want them to do, with yourself in the middle if you prefer it that way.
More than 20 years on, that remains very good advice. Even better, however, is when an author does that work for you and delivers a volume that lets you come along for the ride. Casting her mind back, Spark describes her character from the ‘fifties:
Although I was a young woman of twenty-eight I was generally known as Mrs Hawkins. This seemed so natural to me and was obviously so natural to those around me that I never, at the time, thought of insisting otherwise. I was a war-widow, Mrs Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.
This memory conveniently overlooks an even more important aspect of Mrs Hawkins’ character: a commitment to the truth and a refusal to abandon it. She is employed at a struggling London publishing house and is being watched and beset by an aspiring author, Hector Bartlett, whose cause has been taken up by a “name” author, Emma Loy, who may be the most valuable asset that the firm has.
Bartlett stops Mrs. Hawkins in Green Park one day as she makes her way to work. Her resistance cracks and she informs him that he is a ‘pisseur de copie’, translated as “a urinator of frightful prose”, an indictment that results in the loss of her job hours later. Loy and Bartlett will continue to haunt her for the rest of the novel; her refusual to abandon that judgment of him (he never does get published until he self-publishes many years later) will continue to cause its own problems.
That is not the only plot line in the book — most of the rest centre around the other inhabitants of the three-story South Kensington house where Mrs Hawkins lives. While I am sure it is a very tony residence now (and even was when Spark wrote the book), part of the beauty of the novel is the way that it captures the hopes and challenges of a generation that had just emerged from war and now were struggling to build a new Britain.
Wanda the dressmaker is one of them, a Polish refugee who rarely leaves the house but does do what seems to be a reasonable trade from her room — her sewing machine, now paid for, is her prized possession. It is no spoiler to say that the evil Bartlett (he is a pisseur in more ways than one) will find a way to use her in his campaign to ruin Mrs Hawkins.
Sparks takes time along the way for a number of rewarding set pieces. Drinks at Grosvenor House on Park Lane. A couple of American homosexuals who have fled the McCarthy era to set up a literary magazine in London. And many more.
Enjoyable, entertaining and challenging enough that after completing a first read in one session, I went back to page one and started the reread immediately. Highly recommended. And I think I will be exploring more of Muriel Sparks’ backlist as a result.