Susannah Clapp

  • 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.

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