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A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

Polygon, 2017, 181 p, plus iv p Foreword and vii p Introduction by William Boyd. First published 1988.

These are the memories from much later in life of Mrs Hawkins, who in the early 1950s lived in 14 Church End Villas, South Kensington, a rooming house owned by Milly Sanders. The other occupants are childless married couple Basil and Eva Carlin, dressmaker and alterer Wanda Podolak, district nurse Kate Parker, young (and single) Isobel Lederer – a secretary who wants a job in publishing – and medical student William Todd. Mrs Hawkins – she is referred to as such by the other characters until very late into the book – had married during the war but her husband was killed at Arnhem. She does editing work in publishing, firstly at the beleaguered Ullswater Press, later with the more successful Mackintosh & Tooley, both of which jobs she loses because of the relationship of successful author Emma Loy with aspiring writer Hector Bartlett, a man for whom Mrs Hawkins has no time at all. Her considered opinion of his talents is that he is a pisseur de copie, a phrase which really requires no translation. Unfortunately she says that to his face, and repeats the assessment to her employers when asked. Of one particular example of Bartlett’s deathless prose which she had been asked to make publishable, she tells her boss, “‘I consider that it cannot be improved upon.’” A non-commital but barbed assessment. Later Mrs Hawkins is invited to work at the Highgate Review.

Describing herself as fat at the start of the book, Mrs Hawkins has begun to slim down; by the simple expedient of eating half what she did before. Even when eating out she will only have half a sandwich or half a cup of coffee etc.

At first an insignificant seeming character, Bartlett’s influence weaves in and out of Hawkins’s story. It is his baleful effect on Wanda Podolak which is the motor of the book’s plot though. He has persuaded her, most probably by blackmail, to operate a machine (known as the Box) for the propagation of radionics – to Mrs Hawkins an entirely spurious activity but one on which one of her employers is very keen – to undermine Mrs Hawkins’s health. Her apparent wasting away, though of course not due at all to the Box, distresses Wanda to the point of suicide.

Spark’s publishing experiences are mined fruitfully. The scenes in the various publishing houses bear the stamp of authenticity. A publisher opines, “The best author is a dead author,” and Mrs Hawkins gives us her advice to authors, “You are writing a letter to a friend ….. as if it was never going to be published.” Throughout, Spark, via Mrs Hawkins, never misses an opportunity to deliver the phrase pisseur de copie. And why not?

William Boyd’s introduction, as is usual with these things, reveals some of the plot. Do not read until after finishing the novel proper. His consideration that the portrayal of Bartlett is at odds with the rest of Mrs Hawkins’s generally kind character depictions is somewhat off the mark, though. Bartlett is not meant to be sympathetic and the text provides ample evidence of his iniquities. And that Bartlett is a thinly disguised depiction of someone whom Spark knew very well indeed in real life, whether A Far Cry from Kensington is a piece of revenge fiction or not, is of little relevance to the 2021 reader. It is his function in the book, and only that, which matters. And pisseur de copie is a wonderful description.

I generally find Spark frustrating to read, but this caught and held my interest. It is the best Spark novel I have read so far, by a long way. A far cry, even.

Note to the sensitive. A woman on a bus is referred to as a negress. (It was referring back to the 1950s.)

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “the The Sunday Times has an extraneous ‘the’,) Mrs Hawkins’ (several instances; Hawkins’s.) Otherwise; Sanders’ (Sanders’s,) “and I him in about Wanda” (and I filled him in,) paranoically (I would have thought this to be spelled ‘paranoiacally’ but it seems it can be both,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) “she was doing this with the idea of getting rid of him easier” (more easily.)

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2001, 216 p

Aiding and Abetting cover

Hildegard Wolf is a psychiatrist in Paris. She has not one, but two clients who claim to be the fugitive Lord Lucan. One gives his name as Robert Walker, the other is known as Lucky. Between them though they have plotted to blackmail Wolf as in a former life she was the fake stigmatic Beate Pappenheim, still wanted for fraud. To avoid this she disappears herself, not even telling her lover Jean-Pierre Roget, where she has gone.

Spark leavens this pretty slim stuff with relatings of the details of Lucan’s murder of his child’s nanny and assault on his wife, his penchant for salmon and lamb chops (which the police could use to apprehend him if they ever got near,) mentions of his aiding and abetting by his friends, his frequent resorts to them for money. There is also a frankly unbelievable liaison between Lacey Twickenham, daughter of one of Lucan’s acquaintances and widower Joseph Murray, yet another who had known the earl, and accounts of their serial near-misses in confronting Lucky.

Spareness can be a virtue but here Spark is taking it to extremes. As in her later The Finishing School, she has given us a sketch for a novel rather than a rounded whole. I am really struggling to see why people hold her writing in high regard.

Pedant’s corner:- imposters (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “a nail-wound on each hand and foot, and a sword wound in the side” (this is a commonly held perception, but crucifixions were carried out by nailing the wrists and ankles, not the hands and feet. And wasn’t it a spear wound in the side?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “One way and another” (One way or another is the usual – and more sensible – expression.) “Could that young woman in the department store in Oxford Street be really Ursula?” (What kind of syntax is this? ‘Could that young woman in the department store in Oxford Street really be Ursula?’ is the more natural way to say this.)

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2005, 158 p.

The Finishing School cover

On reading this I found my dissatisfaction with Spark’s writing beginning to crystallise. Clearly people find it engaging and worthwhile but to me there is something cold and detached about it, observational yes, but uninvolving. Her de haut en bas style renders her characters flat and merely going through whatever motions Spark intends for them. They don’t come alive. They certainly don’t leap off the page and into my mind.

This one all starts promisingly enough with a lecture on scene-setting in writing delivered by the joint owner of College Sunrise, the Finishing School of the title. He is Rowland Mahler who runs the place along with his wife Nina (who actually does most of the work.) One of the attendees, Chris, a seventeen year-old, is writing a novel where he speculates the death of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was instigated by a desire for revenge on the part of Jacopo, brother of David Rizzio in whose murder Darnley was deeply implicated. Rowland has aspirations to be a novelist himself but having read Chris’s first two chapters finds himself blocked and increasingly obsessed with Chris.

That first page is deceptive though and we are soon pitched into a narrative where too much is told, not shown; where information is dispensed to the reader in a way that is like reading author’s notes for characters rather than experiencing them behaving as themselves. They may have passions but we are not given the opportunity to feel them but Spark does find space to include a few sideswipes at the publishing industry.

There are some interesting ideas here but they are not fleshed out. In the end this is not so much a novel, more like a series of preliminary sketches for one. Or an extended outline.

Pedant’s corner:- wirey (the word is spelled ‘wiry’,) automatons (automata,) a missing comma before a quote (x2,) to-day (why the hyphen? It’s spelled ‘today’,) “on the grounds of imputed, activities unbefitting her one-time royal connections” (doesn’t need that comma after ‘imputed’,) “‘Is that it’s natural colour?’” (its.)

Another List

I recently came across this list of ten of the best Scottish fiction books. (A bit late I must admit. It was produced five years ago by the Irish Times on the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum.)

The ones in bold I have read.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)
Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981)
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (1989)
Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington (1992)
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner (1995)
Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)
Day by A L Kennedy (2007)

Most of the usual suspects appear here. Trainspotting is the only one I haven’t read.

The list seems to be biased towards more modern novels. Remarkable for its absence is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (now nearly 100 years old, however.) I doubt that’s an omission any such list produced in Scotland would make, though.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 1960, 141 p.

 The Ballad of Peckham Rye cover

Dougal Douglas has been hired by Meadows, Meade & Grindley, manufacturers of nylon textiles, because “the time has come to take on an Arts man.” The novel relates the effect this appointment has on some of the workforce and also on the inhabitants of Miss Frierne’s lodging house where he holds a tenancy. One of these effects is that Humphrey Place jilted his intended, Dixie Morse, at the altar, an incident referred to in the book’s first lines but not fully described till later.

I confess I find myself totally underwhelmed by Spark’s writing. There is something about it which is just too detached. I never feel I get close to understanding why her characters behave the way they do, what motivates them; Humphrey’s jilting of Dixie being a case in point. Spark is held in high regard though, so maybe it’s my expectations of fiction that are at fault.

That this was published in another time – nearly sixty years ago now – is evidenced by the casual use of the phrase “nigger minstrels”.

I have two more Sparks on my to be read shelves so I will be coming back to her – but perhaps not in the immediate future.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quotation mark after a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “ the brussels” (Brussels,) Hooch (it’s heeooch, or heeugh.) “‘You did, a matter of fact’” (the phrase is ‘as a matter of fact’ but this was in dialogue,) ditto “‘What you know about kids?’” (What do you know?)

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Polygon, 2018, 93 p, plus iv p Foreword (common to the edition?) and xi p Introduction by Andrew O’Hagan. First published in 1970.

The Driver's Seat cover

Polygon seems to have published all Muriel Spark’s works in a uniform edition to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. As I have others of hers on my bookshelves I might not have read this particular one had the good lady not picked it up at a local library.

The novel starts with Lise buying some clothes in absurdly clashing colours after she left a previous shop in high dudgeon when the saleswoman informed her the fabric was stain resistant. Lise clearly wants to draw attention to herself. The clothes are for wearing during the holiday she is about to embark on.

She spends her time on the plane looking for a man who is her type, thinks she has settled on him but he is frightened off. On the ground she engages with random people she meets, constantly looking for her “type” and dismissing men who don’t fit the bill, taking up with Mrs Fiedke, having unusual encounters in shops and (deliberately) leaving her passport in a taxi.

About the only flash of humour is the sentiment spoken by one character, “I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife.”

As the – very short – book hastens to its denouement it becomes obvious that Lise is the one in control of her own destiny. She, a woman, is in the driver’s seat, unlike in most fictions covering dark subject matter. Spoiler alert. Responsibility for the crime, when it occurs does not lie with its perpetrator.

This is another odd one. Like in others of Spark’s books I found her style unengaging. It’s as if you’re observing her characters through a layer of glass. Lise’s psychology may be sound but since we only observe her obliquely it comes across as just weird.

Pedant’s corner:- “Lise and Bill pull down the table in front of their seats” (tables,) “moving quickly away and away” (away and away?) “a charging head of buffalo …. cross the two patches” (a … herd of buffalo … crosses the two patches,) curb (kerb,) “another pair appears” (strictly, another pair appears.) “I was away out” (I was a way out makes more sense.)

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 1977, 104 p.

The Abbess of Crewe cover

On its surface a tale of nefarious goings-on in a nunnery involving electronic eavesdropping, a nun’s assignations with a Jesuit and a stolen thimble, all against a backdrop of an election for the post of Abbess, the cover’s assertion that it is “a wicked satire on Watergate” could nowadays be applied to political machinations more widely.

Sister Felicity had been stirring up the nuns before the election with her stance on what you could designate as modernity, certainly in her espousal of sexual freedom (she is the one nipping off Compline or Nunes or Lauds or Vespers to meet with her Jesuit,) but the old guard, Alexandra and Walburga, even if their disapproval of her activity is nuanced, (“‘I must say a Jesuit, or any priest for that matter, would be the last man I would elect to be laid by,’ says Alexandra. ‘A man who undresses, maybe; but one who unfrocks, no.’ To which Walburga observes – in a sentence that shows such proclivities on the part of clerics were never exactly a secret in some circles – ‘That type of priest usually prefers young students’”) is determined she should not prevail.

As could sometimes be her wont Spark does not present us with a straightforward linear narrative, chapters set pre- and post the Abbess’s election being scattered throughout the short tale. Occasional lighter moments arise in the content of telephone calls to Sister Gertrude, off doing good works in Africa.

There are occasional bons mots such as, ‘Philosophers, when they cease philosophising and take up action are dangerous,’ and, “‘Invariably a man you feed both ends,’ Gertrude says. ‘You have to learn to cook and to do the other,’” and it’s all very readable, but somehow off-hand.

Pedant’s corner:- covent (convent,) Gent’s (Gents’.)

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

The Reprint Society, 1965, 187 p.

Memento Mori cover

The cast of characters here consists of elderly people some of whom are in a home. While the driver of the plot seems to be the reception by some of them of telephone calls wherein the recipient is enjoined to, “Remember you must die,” the police can make no headway in discovering the culprit, whose voice is described differently by different people, and there is an indication that the whole scenario is due to hallucinations. Yes, one of the elderly is beaten to death during a burglary but this was opportunistic, the result of an overheard conversation revealing the victim would be home alone.

A lot is made of the past indiscretions of both Godfrey Colston and his wife, Charmian – the first’s known to his spouse (though he believes they aren’t and is subject to blackmail as a result,) the second’s not to her husband (at least early on,) with, respectively, Lisa Black and Guy Leet.

I’ve seen this book described as one of the great novels of the 1950s. Not for me it isn’t. It’s well written certainly, but in total felt a bit inconsequential.

Pedant’s corner:- “a old woman” (an,) Symons’ (Symons’s, we had “James’s” correctly,) “‘Gwen!’ she screams. ‘Gwen!’” (screamed, the rest of the paragraph is in past tense,) a missing full stop, a missing end quote right at the end of the last section.

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2008? (a later reprint of the 1966 edition,) 143 p.

The Girls of Slender Means cover

This is the tale of the young ladies of the title, residents at the May of Teck Club, opposite Kensington Gardens, in the summer of 1945, taking in both VE and VJ days; or to be more accurate, it is the tale of Nicholas Farringdon, “anarchist” and writer, who is introduced to the club by the secretary of the publisher he is trying to get to buy his book The Sabbath Notebooks and who forms an attachment to another resident, Selina. The story is framed by the news of Farringdon’s death as a missionary in Haiti and perhaps explains why he tended up taking that path. 1945 is described in the first and last sentences as long ago, yet was only 18 years before the book’s first publication date. Still, the intervening 18 years might have seemed like a lifetime in those less eventful post-war days.

The book feels a slight work. It is barely more than a novella and while it has a tragedy at its core (not a spoiler as Spark herself tells us so early on) there is not really much more to it.

For such a lauded writer I find Spark curiously unsatisfying. She tends to tell us about her characters rather than reveal them and has a propensity to overuse the repetition of phrases. While emphasis on Joanna’s recitation of The Wreck of the Deutschland is warranted by the plot other such instances are not. And I hate the spelling “connexion”.

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