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a far cry from kensignton pb muriel sparkA Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark ~ 1988. This edition: Penguin, 1989. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-010874-2. 189 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

I am breaking my several-weeks’ book-discussing silence to applaud this brief novel by the increasingly enjoyable Muriel Spark.

Isn’t it interesting that there sometimes seems to be a proper time for certain writers in a reader’s life? I think I may have entered into a deliciously Spark-ling phase of my own, for recently I found The Mandelbaum Gate to be unexpectedly good, as is this other nicely crafted thing.

A Far Cry From Kensington turned out to be happily mesmerizing, being a tightly written tragi-comedy narrated by once-obese Mrs Hawkins – I mention the obesity because it is crucial to the plot in a most bizarre way – looking back three decades to her life in 1954-55.

At the period of time which is the focus of her reminiscences, Mrs Hawkins works “in publishing” – she is employed as an editor at a soon-to-be-doomed small press situated in Kensington – and throughout the novel we get intriguing glimpses of the workaday side of the flourishing-yet-troubled literary scene of London in the 1950s, an era and an atmosphere which Muriel Spark knew in intimate detail.

Widowed soon after her impetuous wartime marriage, Agnes (“Nancy”) Hawkins, always a large girl, has effortlessly transformed into a cheerfully fat woman, “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.” And people confided in Mrs Hawkins: “I looked comfortable. Photographs of the time show me with a moon-face, two ample chins and sleepy eyes… It was not until later, when I decided to be thin, that right away I noticed that people didn’t confide their thoughts to me as much, neither men nor women…”

Living in a rooming house presided over by the warmly maternal and personally high-principled Milly, Mrs Hawkins is fortunate in her housemates, whom she describes with concise but living detail: the ultra-respectable and preternaturally quiet married couple, the Carlins – he an accountant, she a nursery school teacher; the cleanliness-obsessed district nurse Kate; the gloomy and excessively emotional Polish seamstress Wanda; the young and vivacious post-deb Isobel, trying out her downy wings in London as a secretary, though in constant close contact with her doting father via a private telephone of her very own; and, not least in eventual importance to Mrs Hawkins’ personal story, the brilliantly promising, dragged-up-by-his-own-bootstraps medical student William Todd.

All of these lives are intertwined with that of Mrs Hawkins; some exceedingly closely, as we will discover later in the narrative, though Muriel Spark frequently dangles just the briefest, most tantalizing fragments of information in front of us in the course of Mrs Hawkins’ tale.

Mrs Hawkins is prone to giving advice, much of it quite good, as it turns out. Pragmatic common-sense spiced with opinionism is Mrs Hawkins’ style. We learn how simple it is to lose weight (eat just half of your regular portions, and then, when the willpower is adjusted, half again); to control rheumatism (eat a banana a day, as advised by “an American negress met on a bus”); to write an engaging narrative (pretend one is writing to a single close friend); to attain concentration (acquire a cat).

This last was one of my favourite asides in this vignette-rich novel. At a dinner party, Mrs Hawkins meets a gruff, red-faced, retired Brigadier General, who mentions that he “could write a book” about his life.

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Can’t concentrate.’

‘For concentration’ I said, ‘you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?’

‘Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.’

So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

The Brigadier listened with deep interest as he ate, his glaring eyes turning back and forth between me and his plate. Then he said, ‘Good. Right. I’ll go out and get a cat.’ (I must tell you here that three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs…On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that the cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’

Ha!

If you smiled sympathetically at this excerpt, this book is for you.

Read it, then, and discover just what a pisseur de copie is, and what significance The Box in the esoteric (and deeply weird) practice of radionics holds, and just what Muriel Spark really thought about one of her ex-lovers, here immortalized as the deeply dislikeable Hector Bartlett.

And, for another agreeable opinion, click on over to His Futile Preoccupations, one of many other favourable reviews of this quietly malicious minor masterpiece.

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