Posted on | February 14, 2010 | 27 Comments
Sometimes, I wonder about myself. Half way through this Fantastic February Female Frivolities (I like alliterations, love double alliterations…), I realised I hadn’t picked out a single Virago Modern Classic. Like I said, sometimes, I do wonder about myself. Anyway, the minute this hit me, I reached out for the first VMC I could find on my shelf, and here you have it: Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington.
I haven’t read anything by Muriel Spark before, and to be honest, I’ve always been kind-of intimidated by her works. I wasn’t quite sure as to what to expect with A Far Cry From Kensington, but I definitely didn’t expect it to be such an easy read – easy enough to finish in just one sitting!
Narrated by Mrs. Hawkins, a war widow, A Far Cry From Kensington is her reflections on a post-War London when she stayed in a “rooming house” in South Kensington, and worked in publishing houses in the early 1950s. Mrs. Hawkins is a likeable narrator – she doesn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade, and there’s no beating around the bush. Even when she talks about herself, she’s direct, honest, and slightly hyperbolic – always good attributes in a story-teller.
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.
One of the unwritten items on the job spec at a publishers is being diplomatic. While Mrs. Hawkins was well-liked and respected by everyone around her (even her boss confided in her), diplomacy wasn’t her strongest asset. On calling an aspiring author, Hector Bartlett, pisseur de copie (a urinator of ‘frightful prose’) to his face, she finds herself in hot water – the author had a strong relationship with a famous influential authoress, Emma Loy, and she was looking out for him. Inevitably, Mrs. Hawkins lost her job, but the two authors (one famous, the other still unpublished) continued to plague her career, as she herself refused to withdraw the remark.
The secondary thread of the novel revolves around the other inhabitants in the housing, and how they bond together. Wanda, the Polish dressmaker receives an anonymous letter, which threatens to expose her to Inland Revenue for not paying her taxes, and the poor woman is convinced that she will be deported. Mrs. Hawkins (and the other residents) try to sleuth around, eliminating all possible suspects one by one… and then the episode slips to the back of their minds, until Wanda receives an intimidating phone call. The cycle repeats.
The book represents the post-War London, where people from different backgrounds are still affected by the horror of war, but, they’re taking on the challenges to make a new life, almost optimistically. Throw in some extortion (fraudulence), some homosexuality, a budding love, humour, wit and even radionics (!), and you’ve got yourself an absorbing fascinating story, with vivid realistic characters – some awful, some immense. For instance, Hector Bartlett really is a pisseur de copie, but, by the time the book comes to a close, that’s not the only phrase you’ll use to describe him!
Oh, and let me repeat a small part of the opening paragraph of the book, for it drew me in immediately, and I felt compelled to keep flipping the pages. Even when I flipped to the last page, I almost felt as though I should go back and start from page one.
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 blank 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, one or in company, saying and doing what you want them to do, with yourself in the middle if you prefer it that way.
Have you read any Muriel Spark? Do you have any recommendations as to what I should read next?