- A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark
Constable, 189 pp, £9.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 09 468290 9
Twenty years ago Muriel Spark described a principle on which ‘much of my literary composition is based’. This was ‘the nevertheless idea’. Mrs Spark was writing about Edinburgh, about her exile from and her attachment to that city, a city in which, she explained, ‘nevertheless’ becomes ‘niverthelace’: ‘I can see the lips of tough elderly women in musquash coats taking tea at MacVittie’s, enunciating this word of final justification ... I believe myself to be fairly indoctrinated by the habit of thought which calls for this word. In fact I approve of the ceremonious accumulation of weather forecasts and barometer-readings that pronounce for a fine day, before letting rip on the statement: “Nevertheless, it’s raining.” ’
In Mrs Spark’s fiction, ‘the nevertheless idea’ means that an elegant display of possibilities is undermined by jokes, grim twists, surprising conclusions. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie it means that it is not the sexpot but the girl with piggy eyes who becomes the mistress, and that the mistress becomes the nun. In The Public Image it means that the actress who has never had anything to say but someone else’s lines is the person who finally tells the truth. The nevertheless idea promotes scepticism about whatever seems probable or apparent, and it encourages credulity about the unknown or unprovable: ‘It was on the nevertheless principle,’ Mrs Spark went on to say, ‘that I turned Catholic.’ The oblique fictions informed by this principle are stalked by the sense of a contradictory voice. These are fictions, written by a woman who once worked in military intelligence, which specialise in secrets and in blackmail. They are fictions whose spareness can provide vivid definition. And they are fictions which can seem to fling their lack of explanation as a challenge to the reader – to find the contradictions or hunt the meaning behind balletic treatments of terrorism and kidnap. The Abbess of Crewe declared that scenarios ‘need not be plausible, only hypnotic, like all good art’. Muriel Spark’s later novels have encouraged the idea that these adjectives are mutually exclusive.
The least plausible feature of A Far Cry from Kensington is not the violence of its suicide or its blackmail. It is the spellbinding fatness of its heroine. Nancy Hawkins is in her twenties, in Kensington and in publishing. And she is enormous. There is nothing unconvincing in her anatomising of her fat: she details with relish her two chins, big bum, tree-trunk legs and large belly. What is bizarre is the lightness with which she bears her bulk, and the mesmeric effect it has on others. Mrs Hawkins (enormousness means that she is not known by her Christian name) is happy in a fatness which brings no strainings, poppings, wheezings or squeezings – and which casts no shadow on her self-esteem. Its main consequence is to draw people to her. She invites trust and confidences: colleagues, fellow lodgers and the most glamorous of authors all turn to Mrs Hawkins for advice. Her advice is never less than stringent. ‘It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on’; ‘My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much.’ She tells authors that she hates their work; she voices her suspicion of fraud to fraudulent publishers. She is a woman who not only doesn’t tell lies but compulsively tells the truth. And yet she is thought of as cosy. It seems that, as far as her confidantes are concerned, Mrs Hawkins’s fatness camouflages her spikiness.
Fatness is Mrs Hawkins’s passport to a Fifties London of bedsitters and singular personages. The South Kensington lodging-house in which she lives – a house which, with its meters, basins and gas-rings, has an air of Kennington – accommodates a Cockney nurse with a passion for cleanliness, a soulful Polish dressmaker and a debby secretary. Her first employer is an amiable swindler, who numbers among his staff a packer with a disruptively batty wife, and the survivor of a concentration camp who threatens to put her head in the gas oven. Her second boss makes a point of giving jobs to people whose pasts or persons are spectacularly blemished: he reasons that printers and authors can’t be beastly to the daughter of a famous mass-murderer, a man who beats his mother, or a woman with a disfiguring birthmark. Behind this procession of hermetically sealed oddities can be heard the voice of Fleur Talbot, the novelist-heroine of Loitering with Intent, who had ‘a demon’ inside her ‘that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more’. Fleur Talbot derided her fellow authors for the ‘needling after frankness’ by which they destroyed characters: ‘I could have realised these people with my fun and games.’
Mrs Spark is unlikely to stand accused of unwarranted frankness. Her realising of people, here and elsewhere, is a matter of economically animating their main point – a point which contributes to a scenario or pattern. She could be accused of supplying one blemished person too many in her latest novel, and might be defended by the explanation that these are characters sketched with the simplifying clarity of hindsight. Like that other story marshalled by a fat girl in publishing, The Girls of Slender Means, this is a novel with two time schemes. The tale of fat Nancy Hawkins and her friends is told by a latterday slim Nancy, a Nancy who is happily remarried and who spends her holidays in Tuscany. Her night-time hours of recollection, her sense that ‘it is one of my memory’s impressions, rather than a memory that I am describing,’ are skilfully conveyed. But because the reader knows from the beginning that Mrs Hawkins was never really trapped in her own grossness – that she shed her pounds at will, and, with them, her confiders – it is difficult to be engrossed by her fatness. And it is difficult not to feel a pang for those who can’t escape their blemishes.
There is a price for Mrs Spark’s witty encapsulations. The price is snobbery. This is a book in which it is difficult to entertain the possibility of a fat Mrs Hawkins having a Tuscan holiday, or of a slim Mrs Hawkins putting money into a gas meter. The most pitiful lament that issues from its heroine is a lament which recalls the ‘brutally ugly’ man in The Takeover who was ‘starving for style’. Looking back at a low moment in her fortunes, Mrs Hawkins explains: ‘I needed some compelling charm.’ Who doesn’t? Who but someone who was confident of being one of the elect, of having their requirements fulfilled, would dare to say ‘need’ rather than ‘want’? Mrs Hawkins is starving for charm because she has twice been sacked for being frank, and has taken to riding round the outskirts of London on the tops of buses. She cruises through Dagenham, Southall, Ewell, Surbiton. She notes ‘faceless streets’ and ‘shabby suburbs’, and she feels gloomy. She finds that her travelling companions are ‘most of them shabby’, which lowers her spirits. She observes that these travellers talk about their shopping and about their families, and never about ‘a general topic’, and this lowers her further. Well it would, wouldn’t it? Anyone who goes on public transport (why always on the ‘top of buses’ in novels?) expecting to hear an in-depth analysis of the state of British culture is asking for depression. At this point the normally shrewd voice of Mrs Hawkins takes on the tone of a colour-supplement writer whose chief complaint is an insufficiency of smartness, and who uses the poor old beaten-down world as a setting for her own bella figura.
This is a tone which detracts from but does not engulf the main argument of the novel, an argument which is rendered in more fiery, more specific and more justifiable terms. A Far Cry from Kensington is a book which says that the world of books breeds stinkers – in the sense of horrible people as well as bad reviews. In the course of the novel Mrs Hawkins bobs through three editorial posts, all rickety in various ways, in each of which she encounters either the vile work or the odious person of a literary hanger-on. This untalented consort of a well-known novelist is exposed in typical Sparkian style as a blackmailer who drives one of Mrs Hawkins’s fellow lodgers, the Polish dressmaker, to suicide. He is also an evil magician, the brains behind a network of spell-casting boxes, one of whose aims is to destroy Mrs Hawkins for denouncing his meretriciousness. He doesn’t succeed: Mrs Hawkins, the widow of an incredibly unsuitable soldier, falls in love with an incredibly suitable young man, marries him, and is happy.
Like Fleur Talbot, Mrs Spark does not usually ‘go in for motives’: her characters display themselves (as much of themselves as they are going to display) by their actions. This means that plots are important. The plot of A Far Cry from Kensington is rather a tipsy affair: a series of peculiar scenes and inciddents linked by the plump presence of Mrs Hawkins. It is also over-emphatic in its apportioning of blame. People can be shown to be rotten without being proved to be criminal. The horrible Hector Bartlett is made not more sinister but simply more recognisably thuggish when blackmail and black magic are added to his repertoire of nasty behaviour.
His pushy meretriciousness – not a bad qualification for success in the literary world – is quite enough to make us loathe Hector Bartlett. He is a leach who, as he picks his way towards the influential at parties, makes ‘a sort of hole in the crowd’. He is the author of a never-to-be-published work by which he hopes to become known as ‘the poor man’s Kierkegaard’: it is, explains a putative publisher, ‘entitled The Eternal Quest, a Study of the Romantic-Humanist Position. Somewhat deep.’ He is, in Mrs Hawkins’s memorable and often repeated phrase, a pisseur de copie. The attributes which earn him this title are delineated with great liveliness, and with an explicit partisan scorn unusual for Mrs Spark: the pisseur ‘vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.’ Her denunciation of his prose style amounts to an artistic anti-credo: ‘his writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.’ Mrs Hawkins’s compulsive recitation of the Angelus is replaced by her compulsive repetition of the news that this man is a pisseur de copie. ‘It feels,’ she says, ‘like preaching the gospel.’
Muriel Spark has talked about this novel in connection with her early days and associates in literary London. Some of these associates were bad writers: ‘I could see that not all of them were good ... but they were my friends, charming people, and I didn’t do anything about it. Perhaps I’m doing something about it now.’ Perhaps. Not everyone will feel that something has to be done about friends who don’t write well. But it is difficult to resist the idea that something needed to be done about the pisseur, whose pollutions extend beyond his prose, and who sets out first to use and then to harm two women: the fat Mrs Hawkins, and the striking, successful (and presumably slim) novelist, Emma Loy. These two women may seem to make one Muriel Spark.
Mrs Spark, who has been a slimmer, has experienced the hallucinatory condition of Mrs Hawkins who, when she feels ‘faces looming’ on buses, thinks of Lucy Snowe and laudanum, and is ‘tempted to reflect that my diet had the same effect as a drug’. She has also been treated to the ‘falsities and the vaunted sensational revelations and the pathetic inventions’ meted out to Emma Loy by the pisseur in his memoirs. She has had friends and associates (not all of them charming and not all good writers) who have rushed, with the eagerness of a Hector Bartlett intent on deploying demonic powers to do Mrs Hawkins harm, to tell the world about her difficulties. These friends have explained that when Muriel Spark thought T.S. Eliot was breaking into her flat to take bits of food from her cupboard, she thought this because she was ill, not because she was demonically possessed. They have claimed some credit for her conversion, and have praised her for the ‘attractions of her person’, and for excelling at caricature. Muriel Spark is right to take her revenge. She is also right to chide her successful novelist for indulging the pisseur.
In her Edinburgh essay Mrs Spark observed that she had never ‘quite accustomed myself to the world’s indifference to art and the process of art, and to the special needs of the artist’. Many a welder must feel the same way about her special needs, with less opportunity for publicly upbraiding the world. Welders don’t, on the other hand, depend for their livelihood on a body of people who seem to care and often don’t. In A Far Cry from Kensington the bravura displays of indifference to writing and writers tend to come from publishers. This indifference is persuasively shown to extend beyond a failure to indulge tender susceptibilities or to cherish lofty aesthetic ideals. Anyone who has caught the hunted look on a publisher’s face at the news of a writer’s approach will respond to the description of the executive who complains that ‘there isn’t an author who doesn’t take their books personally.’ Anyone who has typed a reader’s report will recognise the tone of easy superiority, though perhaps not the peevishness, of the examples produced here: ‘No, and again, no, to your novel, Mr Travers’; ‘This author should definitely be rebuffed.’ And anyone who has spent a day in a publisher’s office will be familiar with the sense of privilege visited on the ill-paid: when her employer is jailed for fraud, a book-keeper explains that she won’t take a job outside publishing, because ‘I don’t want to come down in life.’
Muriel Spark’s novels are more often scanned and praised for elusive profundities than for accessible truths. But much of A Far Cry from Kensington is unnervingly straightforward: its playfulness and bizarreries are, like Mrs Hawkins’s fatness, a penetrable cover. When Mrs Hawkins announces that the best advice to authors is to miss out italics and exclamation-marks, and to write ‘about something in particular’ her remarks may seem to have the cuteness of a person blinking at saying something weighty, but these are sound suggestions, which capture the spirit as well as the letter of Mrs Spark’s style. When Mrs Hawkins praises an upper-class friend for delivering her stories in ‘inconsequential phrases, without any rancour, explanations or many details’, she is echoing Fleur Talbot’s dictum: ‘How little one needs, in the art of writing, to convey the lot.’ Echoing it, but not altogether practising it. This is a novel which is full of descriptions of a characteristic Spark style from which it diverges. A Far Cry from Kensington is economical with explanations and rich in inconsequential phrases, but it is instinct with rancour, for which it gives full and good explanations. Its Catholic heroine explains that ‘it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.’ This is illuminating about many of Muriel Spark’s novels, which are studded with astute discriminations, but which do not deliver moral verdicts or deal in rewards and punishments. But Mrs Hawkins does not leave much to God. She changes her own life, by deciding to become a slim person; she imposes her justice on others – what more effective revenge could there be on an author than spreading the word that he is a pisseur de copie? The effective interventions of a discriminating heroine make A Far Cry from Kensington not the best, but the least problematic and the most hopeful of of Muriel Spark’s novels. This is a book which ceremoniously accumulates sad figures and mean behaviour, and which says: Nevertheless, it’s sunny.