Wednesday, 15 February 2012
A Far Cry from Kensington
Muriel Spark's A Far Cry from Kensington is a playful, clever and occasionally disturbing comic novel. It is also a book about the publishing industry but it's far from being a self-obsessed media novel.
The central character and narrator is Mrs Hawkins, who works for (and gets sacked by) a series of publishing houses. However, equally important to her and the plot are her fellow tenants in a large "rooming-house" in South Kensington. The most significant of these is Wanda Podolak, a Polish dressmaker and devout Catholic who begins to receive poison letters and anonymous phone calls, the investigation and consequences of which lie at the heart of the novel.
Mrs Hawkins, as she insists on being called, is a wonderful character. A Catholic, like Spark herself, she recites the Angelus at midday even while in the midst of work conversations (which makes for some wonderful comic juxtapositions). She is also a great dispenser of advice and so the novel provides, in passing, some fantastic passages about creative writing, simply because "it fell to me to give advice to many authors ... So I will repeat it here, free of charge."
This advice includes such gems as acquiring a cat, which "will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. ... The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost."
I have not yet taken this advice myself and so cannot comment on its usefulness.
Someone else who fails to take any of Mrs Hawkins' advice is Hector Bartlett, a "pisseur de copie", who represents all that Mrs Hawkins (and, I suspect, Spark herself) despised. He was a writer who, as he put it, took "incalculable pains with my prose style."
"He did indeed," the narrator agrees. "The pains showed. His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words."
The page and a half which this quotation concludes would make a wonderful A Level unseen passage.
But A Far Cry from Kensington is not simply a book to be mined for great quotes: it is a novel which fizzes with wit, intrigue and psychological insights. Muriel Spark was a great novelist and, as this and many other novels reveal, her books deserves to be much more widely studied and read.