Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence. Eventually, I fell asleep contented. filled with soundlessness, but while I was awake I enjoyed the experience of darkness, thought, memory, sweet anticipations. I heard the silence. 
In A Far Cry from Kensington Muriel Spark gives us Mrs. Hawkins, a war widow living in London in the 1950s. Mrs. Hawkins has "a job in publishing," lives in a boarding house filled with colorful postwar characters, and spends the majority of the book in an epic battle with a gentleman named Hector Bartlett.

In Mrs. Hawkins words: "Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it." Her distaste for Mr. Bartlett and her nickname for him--"pisseur de copie"--gets her fired from a multitude of publishing jobs, but she seems undaunted in her quest to destroy Bartlett's literary career. She moves seemingly effortlessly from job to job, not letting any version of The Man get her down. Mrs. Hawkins and her sharp, occasionally sarcastic observations of the people around her are a delight, and her ability to hover above the various unfolding dramas and retain a somewhat distant voice makes her both reliable and loveable as a narrator.

Spark wades into some fairly deep water; Mrs. Hawkins works for a man who seems to be a devout member of some version of Scientology, and (after one of her many firings) a Communist publication, but she does so with wit and humor and avoids getting too serious--even when dealing with the death of one of her characters. This might come off as superficial or cavalier from another writer, but Spark gives Hawkins the depth she needs to navigate these waters.

One of the central transformations of the book is Mrs. Hawkins weight loss (achieved, she tells us, simply by only eating and drinking half as much as she used to), and the transformation is not just physical. Hawkins tells us: "I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable." She attributes all kinds of benefits to her weight: she gets jobs, seats on the bus, friends. As she begins to shed the pounds and these benefits subside, her character changes in subtle ways. She gains confidence, starts doling out advice more forcefully, and, of course, finds love. She is less obsessive about this physical change than a protagonist today would be; she's very matter of fact about both the physical and emotional changes, and it made me like her all the more.

My favorite thing about Mrs. Hawkins, though, is the advice she gives to her readers, her friends, and her foes. This advice ranges from weight loss to effective writing and is simultaneously practical and ridiculous (as the best advice often is). Some of my personal favorites are as follows. To everyone: "It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, and that is my advice to everyone except Parisians." To competent women: "My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being too capable is to not demonstrate her ability too much." To those wishing to concentrate more: "If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat."

As in Loitering with Intent, Spark has woven in just enough mystery and intrigue to keep you going. This time, the mystery centers around threatening warnings sent to the Polish seamstress who lives downstairs; it unfolds a little bit more slowly, but is no less exciting.

I really enjoyed this one. Mrs. Hawkins is smart and funny and approachable and you love and hate all the same people she loves and hates. You root for her as she moves in and out of jobs and embarks on her first romantic relationships since the death of her husband. Overall, a fun, great read!

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I really love this one. You have to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie now.