Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story.  I forget which of the French symbolist writers of the late nineteenth century denounced a hack writer as a urinator of journalistic copy in the phrase 'pisseur de copie', but the description remained in my mind, and I attached it to a great many of the writers who hung around or wanted to meet Martin York; and finally I attached it for life to one man alone, Hector Bartlett...  Pisseur de copie!  Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.

Mrs. Hawkins used to be looked to for advice from everyone; that was before she lost all the weight and no one looked at her that way anymore.  It was back in Kensington, when she was working for a series of small publishers, each their own kind of insane: one a very bad blackmailer, another obsessed with a pseudo-scientific program called "radionics" which involves turning the knobs of a mysterious box (perhaps inspired by the Scientologists and their e-meter?  Writing in England in 1988, it's hard to say).  One day, Mrs. Hawkins is pressed for an introduction to her boss by Hector Bartlett, a terrible but vain writer, and she calls him a "pisseur de copie"--a French term meaning, basically, prose-pisser.  But Hector is friends with a powerful novelist, and Mrs. Hawkins loses her job for the outburst.  Then she loses another, because she refuses to apologize for it.  It's not hard to read that kind of proud irascibility as something Spark saw in herself.

At the same time, Mrs. Hawkins neighbor at the boarding house, Wanda Podolak, has begun to receive threatening letters:

Mrs Podolak,

We, the  Organisers, have our eyes on you.  You are conducting a dressmaking business but you are not declaring your income to the Authorities.

Take care.

An Organiser.

(Spark loves secret, cryptic messages--like the unexplained phone calls in Memento Mori.)  Mrs. Hawkins knows the threat is hollow, but Wanda doesn't, and eventually worry causes her to commit suicide.  I found this passage to be one of the most elegiac and touching things Spark's ever written, describing the process of cleaning out Wanda's apartment:

The sadness of these last gatherings of personal effects, the siftings and sortings and parcelling-up, is more inexpressible than the funeral, where at least there is a fixed rite, there are words, the coffin has a shape and the grave a certain depth, and even the sorrow of the mourners has some silent eloquence if only conveyed and formally interpreted by their standing still.  But the grief which is latent in relics like Wanda's pair of worn shoes has no equivalent at all.

I've read quite a few Spark books, and I expected these disparate storylines to stay disparate.  But to my surprise, I was wrong; Spark ties the different threads--the publishing houses, Bartlett, Wanda--rather neatly at the end.  That, and the uncharacteristic strength of Mrs. Hawkins as a character and a narrator, make this one of the more innately satisfying of Spark's novels.  Her protagonists are often enigmatic ciphers or sociopaths, or sometimes both.  The exceptions, like The Mandelbaum Gate's Barbara Vaughan and Loitering with Intent's Fleur Talbot, all seem to be self-portraits to some extent, and that's the case here, too.  I'm not totally sure, but I think this is one of only two Spark novels I've read with a first-person narrator, which gives it a sense of intimacy that undercuts her more savage tendencies.  (The other is Robinson.)  All in all, this is easily one of my favorites.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie >
The Mandelbaum Gate >
The Only Problem >
A Far Cry from Kensington >
Girls of Slender Means >
Loitering with Intent >
Momento Mori >
Robinson >
Hothouse on the East River >
The Driver's Seat >
Symposium >
Aiding and Abetting >
The Finishing School