A Far Cry from Kensington is the Muriel Spark novel to fall in love with
Although astringent in places, this portrait of publishers and poseurs is also marvellously warm-hearted
Tue 20 Feb 2018
After some epic comment threads last week, I’m won over: you’ve convinced me that Memento Mori is a fascinating and impressive book. But it took a while to get to this understanding, and I still feel more admiration than affection for this sharp novel and its harsh wit.
I have no such hesitation when it comes to A Far Cry from Kensington. I love Spark’s evocation of 1950s London and the postwar publishing industry. When I finished the last page, I actually said out loud: “That was just great.” It was, as Claire Tomalin proclaims on the cover of my old Penguin edition, “pure delight”.
A Far Cry from Kensington is much easier to love than Memento Mori. Warmer and kinder in tone, the story is narrated by the no-nonsense but all-generous Mrs Hawkins, and initially centres on a large “rooming house” where a diverse set of young arrivals in the Big Smoke rub together under the auspices of a landlady called Milly. A good impression of this benign regime (and of Spark’s exquisite wit) comes when a couple in the house next door start having an argument and we are told: “Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates.”
Give or take a few more fights, and the frightening and tragic breakdown of one of the rooming house’s occupants, the story of Milly’s tenants is largely an optimistic one, of people making good progress through the world.
An especially warm glow comes from Mrs Hawkins’s reminiscences relating to her work among the eccentrics and oddballs in publishing. Part of the interest of these parts comes from knowing that they are partly based on Spark’s own time working for such legends as Peter Owen. The affectionate, if exasperated, portrayal of Martin York, is a delight, especially when tempered by the knowledge that Owen was also regarded as a genius … and the man who failed to take Spark’s advice and publish Samuel Beckett.
The nostalgia is heady. Mrs Hawkins tells us she is relating things that happened 30 years ago, a distance of time now doubled, since the book was first published in 1988. But there are plenty of publishing truths that still make perfect sense. Publishers were not much better at sifting through slush piles. (“I wonder how many of the aspiring writers of those days still have in a drawer the leaf-eared typescripts that they sent to sea in a sieve,” muses Mrs Hawking.) Plenty would sympathise with the observation that “Books don’t wriggle, authors do. They take everything personally.” And there’s just as much to enjoy in her depiction of “venerable publisher” Sir Alec Tooley, who observes vaguely: “Ah yes, in fact, books … Yes, many of our staff here are in fact fairly interested in books.”
Last week I asked if Memento Mori could be regarded as a cruel book. I feel no such reservations about A Far Cry from Kensington – although it actually contains a far more devastating character destruction than anything in the earlier novel: pompous writer Hector Bartlett. Mrs Hawkins lashes him unremittingly, branding him the “pisseur de copie” who not only urinates prose, he “vomited literary matter, he vomited and sweated, he excreted it”.
Spark is clever enough to avoid showing us his dreadful writing, although she provides her own glorious description of it: “His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long Latin-based words.”
It sounds like the direct opposite of Spark’s own spare, direct style (or that of her literary hero Georges Simenon, whom she admired for using fewer words than almost any other writer, with devastating effect). But Bartlett is all too recognisable, as is the industry’s willingness to indulge him:
“A great many people fell in love with Hector’s pretensions, a surprising number, especially those simple souls who quell their doubts because they cannot bring themselves to discern a blatant pose; the effort would be too wearing and wearying, and might call for an open challenge and lead to unpleasantness.”
The great unwritten rule in publishing remains that you should never tell anyone their writing is crap – which just adds to the frisson and catharsis every time Mrs Hawkins reminds Bartlett he is a “pisseur de copie”. She can’t help but tell him the “absolute truth”, even at the risk of her job. It becomes a moral as much as an aesthetic judgement. Like Mrs Hawkins’s takedowns, A Far Cry from Kensington feels as nourishing and provocative as it is entertaining. This is the book to read if you want to fall for Muriel Spark.
DRAGON / READING GROUP