Category Archives: Spark, Muriel

The Finishing School: Muriel Spark

“And jealousy is an affliction which, unlike some sins of the flesh, gives no one any pleasure.”

The title of Muriel Spark’s short novel, The Finishing School, conjures up images of proper young ladies attending an elite institution in Switzerland. Scratch that: Spark’s finishing school, College Sunrise, is a second rate shady venture run by a young married couple, Nina and Rowland. The school, with its 9 students, is mobile and “would move somewhere new every year.” This impresses parents with the boho-ness of their children’s education, but it’s also a way for Nina and Rowland to escape debts and outrun the need for a permanent license. Rowland, a would-be novelist, teaches the school’s creative writing course. As his novel continues to remain patchy and unfinished, Nina has taken over more and more of the business side of the school in order to allow Rowland to “conserve his literary strength.” Nina and Rowland’s relationship strains to breaking point when one of the students, the very confident 17-year-old Chris, begins to write a novel.

Of the 9 students, some with questionable family members, Chris causes Rowland the most “disquiet,” and when Rowland realizes that the first chapter of Chris’s historical novel about Mary Queen of Scots, is good, he initially peevishly tries to discourage Chris. But Chris won’t be discouraged. Rowland becomes depressed, “off his food,” and so begins an intricate game of jealousy and obsession. Nina, buried with work, begins to wonder if she made a mistake marrying Rowland:

She looked at Rowland’s unfinished supper and felt a wave of panic. She was afraid that something was happening to Rowland beyond explanation with which she would be unable to cope.

Nina becomes aware that what is going on is Rowland’s head isn’t normal. She suggests that Rowland write about Chris “to get him off your chest.” Rowland’s random observations are supposed to be the beginnings of a springboard for Rowland’s novel:

Was Chris inside the gates lurking? Could he be a peeping tom under the guise of a researcher for his own novel? What was he really up to sitting around the bar of the hotel next door? He says he’s 17 but to me he seems older. Is he 17? Perhaps 19. Pallas Kapelas is not yet 17. Chris is very friendly with her. Does he sleep with Pallas? If so he’s a pedophile.

Initially, being able to jot down weird accusations against Chris helps, but the more Rowland writes, the more hate filled vitriol he spews. There’s a lot of humour here as Rowland sinks into his obsession with Chris, and Nina, realizing she must move on, begins an affair. Rowland is, of course, oblivious that his wife has a lover.

Chris has never experienced jealousy before but he finally recognizes this emotion in Rowland. And of course, Chris’s novel, about the murder of Rizzio, follows the inevitable path of this powerful, toxic emotion. A visiting scholar (the school’s only requirement is that they should be cheap) points out that Elizabeth I was deeply jealous of Mary, Queen of Scots. What a chain of jealousy we have here: Lord Darnley is jealous of Rizzio, Elizabeth I is jealous of Mary and Rowland is jealous of Chris. Rowland soon comes to believe that Chris, who is actively talking to publishers and bragging about a film version of his still un-published book, is actually hindering the writing of his novel.

Certainly Rowland gains no pleasure from his thoughts about Chris, and since he can’t sway Chris’s confidence, he contemplates murder. Will the finishing school become a finishing-off school????

An awfully nice boy Rowland said. In his tone was a touch of regret as if Chris had been an awfully nice dog that however, for some overwhelming reason, had to be taken to the vet to be put down.

And later:

I could kill him thought Rowland, but would that be enough?

The Finishing School is a wonderful example of Muriel Spark’s biting, sometimes cruel, wit. No one comes off well here: the parents who are so happy to get rid of their children (at a cut rate price) that they don’t ask too many questions, Nina whose “Comme il Faut” class teaches the students useless trivia such as what they should do if they see a python, or Rowland who can’t accept his own failures.

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The Bachelors: Muriel Spark

“Never have to do with a woman … they draw the virtue out of you.”

Muriel Spark’s The Bachelors, a tale of blackmail, fraud and skullduggery, focuses on a handful of thirty-something single men who live in London. London is, according to the novel, “the great city of bachelors,” and as expected, most of the novel’s characters are unmarried men who are connected, in various ways, to a criminal case of fraud against spiritualist/medium, Patrick Seton. Patrick Seton, a member of a spiritualist group, The Wider Infinity and its elitist, secret center, The Inner Spiral is charged for fraud and forgery. Seton is accused of forging a letter, purportedly from his former landlady, Mrs. Freda Flower, “a dumpy, much-powdered woman of middle-age.” The letter included a cheque for 2,000 pounds–the entirety of Mrs. Flower’s life savings. Barrister Martin Bowles is prosecuting Seton, and Martin’s acquaintance, Ronald Bridges, an epileptic who works as an assistant curator at a museum of Graphology, who is also a handwriting expert, is to be called as a witness in the upcoming trial. Other bachelors include art-critic, Walter Prett, Irish journalist Matthew Finch, grammar school master/spiritualist Ewart Thornton, and clairvoyant /male prostitute Mike Garland who is in the blackmail/pornography biz with Father Socket.

While the story centres of a group of bachelors, a few females enter the plot. There’s Ronald’s former ‘perfect’ girlfriend, Hildegarde, one of those awful know-it-alls. Diabetic Alice Dawes is Patrick’s pregnant, naive, girlfriend. She believes Patrick when he tells her that they will marry as soon as his divorce comes through, and she refuses, much to Patrick’s annoyance, to abort their baby. Elsie Forrest, Alice’s friend dislikes and distrusts Patrick, and she becomes embroiled in the forgery case. Elsie has a tendency to blackmail men into sex, and this habit has mixed success in the book. There’s also Marlene Cooper who heads the spiritualist group, and who runs it almost exclusively for her own purposes: after all she has both a husband and boyfriend on ‘the other side,’ and occasionally wonders “how Harry and Carl were making out together in the land of perpetual summer.”

The novel takes us into the world of Spiritualism where Patrick Seton is a much admired medium. While the date draws nearer to Patrick’s trial, immense pressure is exerted upon the impressionable Mrs. Flowers, and Patrick consoles himself with fantasies (as well as a concrete plan) to murder Alice. He doesn’t want to be tied down with a wife and baby, so Alice must go.

And I will release her from this gross body. He looks with justification at the syringe by her bedside, and is perfectly convinced about how things will go in Austria (all being well), since a man has to protect his bread and butter, and Alice has agreed to die, though not in so many words.

The Bachelors is the funniest Muriel Spark novel I’ve read to-date. Authentic vs fake is a theme: for example, while Patrick takes medication he doesn’t need to enhance the showman side of his contact with the other world, Ronald takes the very same medication to control his epilepsy. Most of the characters, spiritualist or otherwise are frauds in one way or another, and most are not what they seem. While deceit controls the action, sex is the currency, so the subject of sex weaves its way through the lives of the characters: the lack of sex, post-coital guilt, onion as a weapon of abstinence, homosexuality, and pornography all play a role here. Great fun. It’s rare for a book to cause me to laugh out loud.

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2021: It’s a Wrap

Book-wise, this was a great year, and here are the highlights.

Best of 2021:

A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin

One of the most enthralling, creepiest crime books I’ve read, this is the story of Bud, a psychopath who returns from WWII a hero, but finds that the normal route to success (hard work, starter jobs, college) is not for him. A stint as a gigolo for an older, wealthy widow is just the ticket, but it comes with an expiration date. Bud calculates that the next move is a wealthy, young bride, so he enrolls in a college known as “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.” The plan works well until the girl gets pregnant….

Nightmare Alley: William Gresham.

This gritty noir story follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a carnie worker who moves up in his trade from mind reader, to medium to reverend. Along the way, he manipulates, steals, defrauds and murders. His weakness is sex and women. He uses women, but eventually stumbles into the life of a woman who’s nastier than he is. There’s a film version of this just released.

The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

A well-to-do older married couple allow their lives to be invaded by a manipulative, resentful would-be writer, Reginald Parker. The couple, a professor and his independently wealthy wife, have warning signals about Reginald, but they are ‘nice’ people, burdened with their own sense of privilege and constantly under siege, financially, from their 3 awful children.

The Paper Lovers: Gerard Woodward

Arnold Proctor, a professor and poet, is happily married, or at least thinks he is, when he finds that he’s attracted to one of his wife’s friends, Vera. Arnold becomes fascinated with Vera–yes there’s a strong sexual attraction, but she’s religious and somehow, Arnold can’t align Vera with her strong religious beliefs. A sexual advance leads to almost instant coupling. Again Arnold can’t align Vera’s actions with her beliefs. This is adultery, right? Doesn’t she feel guilty? Arnold finds out the hard way (not that we feel sorry for him) that transgressions for the religious have a certain trajectory.

Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell

A wonderful novel which traces the life of Molly Gibson whose father, a country doctor, marries a silly, selfish, vain widow. Dr. Gibson has no idea what he’s dealing with when he marries the snobby, ridiculous shallow widow, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but Molly doesn’t know what she’s dealing with when her capricious step-sister, Cynthia, arrives.

Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

This is the story of a man in crisis who calls upon his ex-wife to cushion him from life. Lucy Barton and William have been divorced for some time when the story begins, but she still cares about William. By the time I finished this, I wanted to shake Lucy Barton and ask her why William’s needs were sooo important–even to the exclusion of her own. The tale is told by Lucy who divorced William for his (as it turns out) numerous affairs. Lucy may have left the marriage behind but not apparently the need to ‘care’ about William. When William’s much younger wife dumps William (shock!) Lucy becomes re-involved with William. Their relationship is an example of Amy Witting’s ‘the diners and the dinners,’ and we all know who the diner is here.

The Bachelors: Muriel Spark.

This very funny story strings together several London bachelors who become involved, in various ways, with the sticky tendrils of a forgery and fraud case which involves a male medium who has murderous designs on his pregnant girlfriend.

The Barsetshire Series: Anthony Trollope.

Six novels. The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset. The series follows the lives and tribulations of various characters who live in Barsetshire. With countless subplots, Trollope delves into the squabbles between clergymen, ecclesiastical hierarchy, love affairs, the vagaries of marriage, the power of the press, snobbery, debt. Barchester Towers has long been a great favourite, but The Last Chronicle of Barset comes a close second. Throughout the series, Trollope reveals petty behaviour, but towards the end of the series, petty behaviour yields to much more serious transgressions. But Trollope oversees all with his customary good humour and generosity.

Hoke Moseley series: Charles Willeford

This is a 4-book, hardboiled crime series: Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, The Way We Die Now, Miami homicide detective, Hoke Moseley isn’t anyone’s idea of a hero. When the series opens, he’s divorced, living in a flop house hotel, wearing leisure suits, beginning to go bald, has no teeth and is struggling to make ends meet. By the end of the series, his career is looking up and he has both of his teenage daughters after his Ex took off to California. Now he has a few stray hairs on his head, still wears those outdated leisure suits, and still has no teeth. Actually Hoke’s false teeth play a role in the books. Hoke’s career moves through the influx of Cuban refugees, Affirmative Action, gentrification and, horror of horrors, laws concerning public smoking. Hoke’s laconic attitude belies his natural born-killer instinct and his peculiar way of looking at the world lightens the darkness.

Leisureville: Andrew Blechman

Not the best book I read in 2021, but definitely the most interesting non-fiction book of the year. The book is written by Andrew Blechman who goes to the world’s largest retirement community, The Villages in Florida after a neighbour moves there. While the author didn’t approve of the ethics (if that’s the right word) of the place, I was fascinated. Why would people choose to move to a community with age restrictions? What’s it like? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?

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Memento Mori: Muriel Spark (1959)

How nerve-wracking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old!”

At the heart of Muriel Spark’s wickedly funny novel, Memento Mori, lies a chain of anonymous phone calls in which the speaker says “Remember, you must die.” These anonymous calls set off a series of events as various characters react to the calls with anger, terror and, in some cases, interest. While most of the characters in the novel are connected, the telephone calls bring other characters together, but perhaps the least predictable fallout from the phone calls is the way in which the past comes calling in various ways. So here’s a breakdown of the characters:

Dame Lettie Colston. Unmarried, one of those social do-gooders. Busy bossy everyone about and arranging their lives.

Godfrey Colston, heir to a brewing company. Perennially unfaithful to his wife. “Obsessed by the question of old people and their faculties.”

Charmain Colston, novelist. Dotty. But not as dotty as she appears.

Charmain’s former employee Jean Taylor who lives in a nursing home. She’s mostly glad that she lives there and isn’t subject to the wild emotional challenges of life outside of the home.

Lisa Brooke, deceased, a woman whose death unleashes other plot developments.

Guy Leet, charming, even now in old age and ill health. Charmain’s former lover.

Mrs. Pettigrew. Lisa Brooke’s conniving housekeeper

Alec Warner. A emotional vampire whose obsessive, morbid interest in the health and health reactions to exciting or traumatic news reflects his own fear of morality.

Various residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward

Inspector Mortimer, retired, who investigates the phone calls.

Other minor characters

While chapter one kicks off with an anonymous call, the plot thickens when Dame Lettie, a dreadful bossy woman, persuades her brother, Godfrey to employ Mrs. Pettigrew to ‘take care of’ Charmian. Mrs. Pettigrew was supposed to inherit her employer, Lisa Brooke’s estate, but since that doesn’t work out as planned, Mrs. Pettigrew must move on to pastures new. Dame Lettie, a woman who lacks a particle of empathy, argues that Charmian “needs a bully,” and her desire to see Charmain in thrall to Mrs. Pettigrew is not without malice:

Mrs. Pettigrew has a constitution like a horse,” said Dame Lettie, casting a horse-dealer’s glance over Mrs. Pettigrew’s upright form. “And it is impossible to get younger women.”

“Has she got all her faculties?

“Of course. She had poor Lisa right under her thumb.”

“I hardly think Charmain would want to —

“Charmain needs to be bullied. What Charmain needs is a firm hand. She will simply go to pieces if you don’t keep at her. Charmain needs a firm hand. It’s the only way.

At the core of the novel, lies mortality. An unfaithful husband find innovative ways of straying, nasty people become nastier, and dottiness is a refuge from the more unpleasant things in life. Charmain, who ponders the limits of marital obligation, Jean, who proves immensely powerful, even from a care home, and Guy, who remains pleasant company in spite of ill health, bad luck and old age, are the nicest characters in the book. Mrs. Pettigrew with her very practiced way of infantilizing the elderly is the nastiest person in the book with Dame Lettie as the runner-up. Mrs. Pettigrew insinuates herself into the good graces of those with power, and coopts others, who don’t want to be seen as dotty, into her crew. What a horrible woman.

Memento Mori: Latin translation: Remember you must/have to die. (I had to look it up.) So it’s no surprise that the themes of death and dying appear here, and while that may seem morbid, how one choses to approach life, how one accepts aging, and how one choses to live life are also themes. Charmain has chosen to approach life in a very particular way–as has Guy Leet, in spite of ill health. At the same time, there’s 87-year-old Godfrey choosing to pursue women–even if these days it means paying for the privilege (in more ways than one) of salivating over the view of a suspender belt. Somehow Muriel Spark’s mordant, black comedy brings the idea of the best way to live one’s life, and how to waste it, in sharp relief.

“Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?” Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

“Well I would like the war news,” Charmain said.

“The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,” Dame Lettie said. “If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean, perhaps …?”

There are lessons here about death and dying, but there are also lessons for life. The novel argues that people don’t change. Youthful bores become old bores. Pleasant, kind young people become pleasant kind, old people. We don’t change. We distill.

A delightful, darkly comic read.

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Loitering With Intent: Muriel Spark

“Truth is stranger than fiction.”

In Muriel Spark’s lively, witty novel Loitering with Intent Fleur Talbot is writing her first novel, Warrender Chase. It’s 1949, and Fleur, living in a London bed-sit, is in need of employment when a friend points her to a job as a secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, the founder of the Autobiographical Association. The Association is composed of ten members, or VIPs, supposedly all Sir Quentin’s friends. The object of the association is for its members to write their biographies, but due to libel laws, the biographies are, according to Sir Quentin, “top secret,” with the plan that publication will take place at least 70 years in the future. Right away, Fleur feels a “vague uneasiness,” and suspecting that the whole scheme is a “racket,” wonders if Sir Quentin is a blackmailer, a “psychological Jack the Ripper.” Fleur is not to be a mere editor. Sir Quentin tells her that “you should easily be able to rectify any lack or lapse in form, syntax, style, characterization, invention, local colour, description, dialogue, construction and other trivialities.” Trivialities indeed. …

The plot has two trajectories: Fleur’s short lived employment with Sir Quentin and Fleur’s private life. Fleur has been conducting a somewhat lackluster affair with Leslie, but her attraction to him is rapidly waning. Leslie’s desperate wife, Dottie, is aware of the affair and yet has a somewhat tangled relationship with Fleur. Are they friends? Rivals? When Leslie moves on to yet another lover, Dottie intrudes into Fleur’s life and becomes a nuisance as if the two of them now belong to some sort of ‘abandoned woman club.’ Fleur suggests that Dottie join the Autobiographical Association as a diversion. While this is presented as a helpful suggestion with the caveat that Dottie should “not on any account [to] give herself away,” Fleur’s motives, since she already suspects Sir Quentin of some sort of shenanigans, are open to interpretation.

Over time Fleur continues her novel but right after it’s accepted for publication the fictional world of Warrender Chase collides horribly with the machinations of Sir Quentin and the Autobiographical Association. Fleur admits that the creation of her characters is “instinctive,” and “the sum of my whole experience.” And that sometimes she seems to meet her “characters” long after she’s written and published. How much are characters based on “types” or pulled from personal experiences? As Fleur becomes more embroiled with the Autobiographical Association, fact and fiction blend and blur. Where does fiction end and truth begin? Even Fleur seems confused and acknowledges that Sir Quentin “was conforming more and more to the character of [my] Warrender Chase.” Why do the characters in Warrender Chase seem an awful lot like the members of the Autobiographical Association? This lively novel is packed with eccentric characters, Mrs Beryl Tims, Sir Oliver’s intimidating housekeeper, Sir Oliver’s completely perennially overdressed “aged mummy,” the boring yet devious Dottie, and various peculiar VIPs from the Autobiographical Association.

You have to keep on your toes when reading this tale of literary skullduggery. Loitering with Intent is bitingly funny but under the surface lurk serious questions regarding artistic inspiration, plagiarism, the all-consuming, intense creation of a novel which can be compared “like being in love,” and, drawing in Cellini and Cardinal Newman, the nature and vagaries of autobiography. Fleur’s tart, confident and unapologetic voice is a delight.

Now the story of Warrender Chase was in reality already formed and by no means influenced by the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, but the interesting thing was it seemed rather the reverse to me at the time. At the time, but thinking it over now, how could that have been? And yet it was so. In my febrile state of creativity I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character.

Here’s Jacqui’s review.

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The Girls of Slender Means: Muriel Spark (1963)

The meaning of the title of this, a short novel from Muriel Spark, becomes clear by the time the book concludes. The Girls of Slender Means is set in an-all female residence, The May of Teck Club. It’s London 1963 in this frame story, and The May of Teck Club has been in existence for decades. Originally, it was intended “for the pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means” below the age of thirty. The 30-year rule has long been ignored and many of the female residents have lived at The May of Teck Club for decades. The novel is jump-started by the news of the death (murder) in Haiti of Nicholas Farringdon, a Jesuit at the time of his death.

The novel goes back and forth from the present (1963) to 1945 and opens in London with a vivid depiction of bombed-out buildings.

The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or no repair at all, bombsites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out leaving the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art form, leading up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye.

So in 1963, when “woman columnist,” Jane Wright hears of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, she contacts acquaintances she knew back in 1945, people who also have slivers of memories of the dead Jesuit. Those who remember him, recall that Nicholas was the lover of Selina, a resident of The May of Teck Club. That’s his claim to fame as far as the residents, or former residents of The May of Teck Club are concerned. Then the story peels back the decades to the story of what happened during that brief period of 1945. Although The May of Teck Club is the home of dozens of young women, we are only concerned with the fate of a handful: including the beautiful, capricious, and fickle Selina, saintly rector’s daughter Joanna Childe, and Jane Wright. The residence houses just women, but some of the female residents pass through a narrow slit window which grants access to the flat roof of the club. It’s here that lovers meet.

This is a peculiar book replete with Muriel Spark’s dark (I’m going to say it: ‘twisted.’) wit. While the plot is far removed from The Driver’s Seat, nonetheless, the connection is the bizarre undercurrent worming its way under what appears to be a fairly non-exciting plot. On one level there’s a shocking incident that occurs in 1945 and that is linked, somehow, to the death of Nicholas Farringdon. It’s not a direct thread–Muriel Spark is too subtle for that. Instead it’s a question of how did Nicholas Farringdon, anarchist/poet, end up as a martyred Jesuit in Haiti? There’s no definite answer to that, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots.

Here’s Lisa’s review

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Robinson: Muriel Spark

“My  moods are not stable at the best of times.”

In Muriel Spark’s Robinson, Catholic convert January Marlow, following a plane crash, wakes up with a concussion and a dislocated shoulder to find herself one of three survivors. The plane, “bound for the Azores,” crash-landed on Robinson’s island–middle-aged Robinson, who grows pomegranates, lives on this island with only a boy, Miguel, for company. Well there’s a cat, Bluebell,  too.

The three survivors are January, Jimmy Waterford and Tom Wells. Strangely, relationships between these three were formed before the flight. January, partly to avoid Tom Wells, struck up a conversation with Jimmy. She immediately disliked the brash Mr Wells, a man who believes in the supernatural and produces an occult magazine called Your Future.

I find that, when travelling abroad alone, it is wise and actually discreet to take up with one well-chosen man on the journey. Otherwise, one is likely to be approached by numerous chance pesterers all along the line. One must, of course, discriminate, but it is a thing one learns by experience, how to know the sort of man who is not likely to press for further commitments

Coincidentally, Jimmy Waterford, who speaks in a sort of stilted patois, was traveling to see Robinson. Jimmy tells January “Robinson is not a man for the ladies. I know Robinson from the past.” January, for her part, senses in Robinson, “something more than indifference: a kind of armed neutrality.” She thinks “he could be positively hostile to the idea of women in general.” Perhaps this explains why she sets out to annoy Robinson as much as possible.

Robinson

These three survivors must wait for the arrival of the next pomegranate boat in 3 months time. All of them have various injuries, but they all have various agendas which clash with Robinson’s way of running his island. Food is short and Tom Wells tries to grope January. Strong-willed and opinionated, January butts heads with Robinson–even employing the cat to irk Robinson. This is, after all, Robinson’s island, and January, Jimmy and Wells, are mere guests. They are welcome to Robinson’s library and food, and yet his rules are broken, buttons are pushed. Tensions run high, boredom sets in; like rats in a too-small cage, aggression emerges and then Robinson disappears. …

I liked parts of this book: the glimpses of January’s sharp side for example–the way she tells herself that if she steals Robinson’s rationed cigarettes, she won’t bear grudges. Then there are elusive glimpses of her prickly relationships with her two, very different, sisters. Julie married a bookie while Agnes married a doctor. While on the island, January wonders who will take care of her son, Brian, and (rather interestingly) hopes that it’s the bookie, Curly “the kindest” of all her relatives.

Of course, we can’t escape the image of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but here Spark gives us a sharper, darker view of what life would be like if people were plane-wrecked on an island. I liked Robinson but didn’t love it. I had the feeling that Spark wasn’t quite ready to unleash the darkness we see in The Driver’s Seat.

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A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

It had been some time since I picked up a novel by Muriel Spark, so when Caroline mentioned Muriel Spark Week, I decided to join in. For her quirky world view and dark sense of humour, this author is a great favourite of mine, and so I returned to A Far Cry From Kensington–a marvellous novel set in 1950s London.

While the story is set in the 1950s, the events that take place are recalled decades later by a woman who now lives in Italy–“a far cry from Kensington.”  During her long nights of insomnia, the woman, once known as Mrs Hawkins reminisces about her post WWII life as a vastly overweight “comfortable in her fatness,” 28-year-old war widow. Mrs Hawkins recalls how she lived in a Kensington boarding house with an assortment of fellow lodgers and worked in a small publishing house, Ullswater Press.

Mrs Hawkins (or Nancy as we eventually discover) has the ability to reassure people. Perhaps this is due to her matronly figure, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that she listens and freely dispenses advice (to become thin “you eat and drink the same as always, only half,” and to improve concentration, you need to adopt a cat). She has a responsible position at work, appears to be much older than she actually is, and at the boarding house, she’s perceived as reliable.

However all that may be, in the year 1954 I was comfortable in my fatness, known as a ‘wonderful woman’ although I had never done anything wonderful at all. I was admired for my largeness and that all-motherly look. A young woman who I imagine was older than myself once got up in a bus to offer me a seat. I declined. She insisted. I realized she thought I was pregnant and accepted graciously. I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

Mrs Hawkins may be a source of comfort to those around her, but she’s also a woman of firm principles, and those principles are tested, mainly through her professional life. There’s something fishy afoot at Ullswater Press, and it’s here that Mrs Hawkins first falls foul of the very shady character, Hector Bartlett. They become enemies, and this is a relationship that plagues Mrs Hawkins for some time and follows her on to future employment.

A Far Cry from Kensington is full of Muriel Spark’s dark, off-kilter humour, and her novels have the tendency to skewer hypocrisy while exploring beneath the surface of everyday, seemingly respectable life. Here’s Mrs Hawkins and her landlady, Milly, at night, standing on the landing watching the “Cypriot husband and his English wife” next door fighting.

Suddenly they appeared on the stairs, the second half of their staircase, before our eyes, as on a stage. Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates. we sat side by side, eating chocolates, and watching the show. so far, no blows, no fisticuffs; but much waving of arms and menacing. Then the husband seized his wife by the hair and dragged her up a few stairs, she meanwhile beating his body and caterwauling.

 

Eventually I phoned the police, for the fight was becoming more serious. A policeman arrived at our door within ten minutes. He seemed to take a less urgent view of the din going on in the next-door house and was reluctant to interfere. He joined us on the staircase from where we could now only see the couple’s feet as they wrestled. The policeman crowded beside us, for there was no convenient place for him to sit. My hips took up all the spare space. but finally our neighbours descended their staircase so that we could see them in full.

 

“Can’t you stop them?” said Milly, passing the chocolates.

The policeman accepted a chocolate. “Mustn’t come between husband and wife,” he said. “Inadvisable. You get no thanks, and they both turn on you.”

The British publishing industry which may first appear to be a bastion of respectability in the novel, becomes the target of Sparks’s merciless humour. Mrs Hawkins works for the small, ever-shrinking publisher, Ullswater Press, a publisher of “serious books.” One of the partners is largely absent, and that leaves the younger partner, Martin York in charge with various creative financing plans to revitalize the business which include his knowledge about how to “throw off” the Income Tax inspectors. Mrs Hawkins moves on to the publishers Mackintosh and Tooley, and while this firm appears to be eminently more respectable than Ullswater Press, again there are darker forces lurking beneath the surface. With one of the office mottos, “the best author is a dead author,” the culture at Mackintosh and Tooley appears to be pro-reader and pro-employee, but as always Muriel Spark shows us that appearances can be deceiving.

As fate would have it, all of the strands of Mrs Hawkins’s life connect with a “glint of a thin trail, like something a snail leaves in its slow path,”  and eventually, she finds herself mixed up in blackmail, anonymous letters and suicide as she determinedly confronts evil for the first time in her life. Ever stalwart, Mrs Hawkins sticks to her principles simply because she can do no less:

I can’t help it. Sometimes the words just come out and I can’t stop them. It feels like preaching the gospel.

A Far Cry From Kensington is one of my favourite Spark novels–a must-read for fans, and a great place to start if you’ve never read this brilliantly entertaining and vastly amusing author.

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