A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark


Purchased from chapters.indigo.ca (click cover for more info)

Purchased from chapters.indigo.ca (click cover for more info)

Just as there are horses for courses, there are books that are particularly suited for certain reading moods. Having finished the last of the Booker longlist, I was eager for a book that could be described as enjoyable and entertaining, while still being challenging. I was hoping for a grumpy, but likeable, central character; a story line that kept my attention focused and, in a perfect world, a setting that brought back personal memories.

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.


20 Responses to “A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark”

  1. adevotedreader Says:

    I find there is more to Spark’s books then apparent on a first reading, as although slim they always have a lot going on beneath the surface. Her back catalogue is certainly worth exploring.


  2. kimbofo Says:

    Forgive the self-promotion of my own blog, but I read Spark’s Aiding & Abetting last year and thoroughly enjoyed it


    I have the Ballad of Peckham Rye in my reading queue, too.

    Oh, and aren’t those hardcover Virago Modern Classic’s lovely? I’ve got one of the Elizabeth Taylor’s but am yet to read it.


  3. Tony S. Says:

    Muriel Spark, one of my favorite authors. Perhaps my favorite Muriel Spark novel is “Girls of Slender Means”, written in 1963. But all of her novels are easy to read and very enjoyable.


  4. Tony S. Says:

    Kimbofo, I’ve been trying to comment on your “Read once or twice?” article, but for some reason the comment feature does not work at Reading Matters”. This has been a problem for about two days.


  5. kimbofo Says:

    Tony S — that’s weird, as I can comment and have received many comments over past two days, so perhaps it’s something at your end?


  6. Tony S. Says:

    Kimbofo, not sure what it is, but neither the “Preview” or the “Post” buttons light up, and they do nothing when I hit them. It is like when a blog closes a post to comments after a certain amount of time. I haven’t experienced difficulty posting comments to other blogs.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the pointers to further Spark reading — with such an extensive list, all are welcome.


  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This review, and the pointers to further Spark, are very welcome from my perspective. I’ve only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is extraordinary, and am very keen to read more.

    I’m not sure she’s an underrated writer, but I think she is perhaps an underread one.


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: As a frequent visitor to London, I love novels set in the city. And Mrs. KfC lived in a Kensington flat for a year at the end of 1960s (and worked in a struggling music publishing house) so this novel did reinforce the stories she told me and does do an exceptional job of bringing the London of the time to life. I agree with the underread but perhaps not underrated observation.


  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    As you may know Kevin, or may not, I grew up in Kensington. I’d missed that there was a Sparks located there, which does put this one up my TBR pile somewhat.

    You’ll be glad to know I’m back on the Anthony Powell’s by the way, The Military Philosophers. Slowed somewhat by the need to blog all my holiday reading now I’m back, one post up so far (sf and not I think your thing at all) and three to come (one non-fiction and two historical/literary fiction which I think will interest you). Out of interest, what do you do about your blogging when on holiday, do you stack it all up for your return or do you try to write as you go along?


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. KfC is saving this one for a day when she wants to remember her London experience (which probably means when it is raging winter here) and I suspect you should do the same thing. It is a fast-paced read and can be finished in an evening. I didn’t know that you grew up in Kensington — I’ll be very interested in your response when you do get to it. We always spent a day wandering around my wife’s old haunts (including a wonderful pub for lunch), so it did bring back fond memories even for me.

    As for holidays and blogging, my back problems mean air travel vacations are not on the agenda (it’s the airports, not the airplanes, that I’m not up to). Since I read a lot on holidays anyway, the existence of wi-fi at the hotels we go to means that I bring the laptop and the blog with me.

    And I do look forward to your next installment of the Powell.


  12. kimbofo Says:

    Small world. I live in W. Ken.


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: My review underplays Nancy’s role as an editor — given that that’s your trade, I think you’ll find another thread in the book (as I did, given my journalistic background) that is quite rewarding.


  14. Thomas Says:

    A Far Cry From Kensington is such a great book and Muriel Spark was such a great writer. I have probably read about 10 of her books and they are all so different and some of them can be very quirky and slightly subversive in a very entertaining way.


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    “Slightly subversive” is very apt, Thomas.


  16. sheila O'brien Says:

    I have just finished ” A Far Cry, from Kensington”, and was utterly charmed by it. I lived in a bedsit in South Ken, complete with coin operated heater in the room and a communsal telephone in the midst of the front hall. It was fifteen years after the time this book was set, but post war change was slow to come to England until the explosion of the seventies Everything about this lovley little novel resonated with me, from the decsriptions of the rooming house, to the atmosphere in the publishing houses. It was a simpler time, and things were both harder and easier then.
    Sparks conveys the spirit of the times, and the sense that destiny was in ones’s own hands, at long last in London. Her characters are uncomplicated, and very likeable, and they harmonize together in a sweet and sometimes funny way.
    It is a lovely read.


  17. kimbofo Says:

    Kevin, thanks to your review I went out and bought this book, read it this weekend and have reviewed it this afternoon. You can read my review here: http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2009/10/a-far-cry-from-kensington-by-muriel-spark.html


  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I think this a very special novel that deserves more attention — as I think you do too. I’ve left a comment on your site. But I do think it is fair to say that both of us think this is a very worthwhile book.


  19. Phillip Routh Says:

    I was blessed by starting out with two excellent books by Spark (Momento Mori and The Bachelors); the string of novels I read after those were either diverting or disappointing. This was interrupted by the lightning stroke of The Driver’s Seat, which may reveal more about the strange Ms. Spark than anything else she wrote.
    In one of her novels (autobiographical) she described the situation in a prestigious London publishing firm where she worked: there were Authors and there were Names; the firm was interested only in the Names. She wrote that Authors submitting manuscripts were sending their work “to sea in a sieve.”
    I’ll have to read A Far Cry. That book will mark the end of my long and interesting relationship with Dame Muriel.


  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I make no claim to Spark expertise — but I certainly like what I have read. Not so much that I am ordering the whole catalogue, but I will return.


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