My local book club met last night to discuss Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington. We always try to follow some kind of thread from one book to the next; after reading two novels by Elizabeth Taylor we were thinking about other mid-20th century women novelists and while Muriel Spark seemed like an obvious choice, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie seemed a little too obvious, plus some of the group had read it before. (I hadn’t, but was finally prompted to by this discussion.) We chose A Far Cry From Kensington a bit randomly from among her other novels — I think the Amazon description of it as including “shady literary doings and a deadly enemy; anonymous letters, blackmail, and suicide” may have been decisive, because, after all, how tempting does that make it sound?!
So. Well. Hmm. I guess I could start by noting that I didn’t do terribly well with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — it’s not that I didn’t like it or find it interesting, but as I reported at the time, I struggled to make sense of it. The comments I got on that post helped me see how I might do better, but they didn’t do much to prepare me for A Far Cry From Kensington, which I found even more baffling — formally baffling, because it seemed to jump around from genre to genre and tone to tone; thematically baffling, because I couldn’t understand why it included the different elements it included; and baffling to me as a reader because in spite of all the things about it that bemused me, I didn’t hate it, and in fact I kind of liked it. Despite my confusion, I didn’t resent the book the way, say, Mrs. Hawkins, in the novel, resents Hector Bartlett’s The Eternal Quest, a study of the Romantic-Humanist Position.” I may not really get Muriel Spark’s fictional method or mission, but she’s so obviously artful about whatever it is she’s doing that I feel confident she is not the novelistic equivalent of a pisseur de copie…which is the epithet Mrs. Hawkins so fatefully hisses at the insufferable Hector.
Mrs. Hawkins — large, observant, acerbic, insomniac — is the best thing about A Far Cry From Kensington. I was actually going to write my whole post about the advice she hands out so confidently (and bafflingly! why does she give us so much advice?), but while googling around for insight into the novel, I came across this piece by Maud Newton, which is not only good about Mrs. Hawkins’s advice but smarter about the whole novel than I can be. So I will quote only this one bit of it:
It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise.
Even Mrs. Hawkins doesn’t know why she can’t help calling Hector a pisseur de copie (“a hack writer of journalistic copy,” she helpfully explains) but she can’t stop doing it and won’t retract it, either. She’s really quite virulent on the topic of Hector’s terrible writing:
Pisseur de copie! Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it . . . His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.
Little does she know that drawing this line in the rhetorical sand will cost her not one but two jobs in publishing, which the novel endlessly reminds us are both hotly desired and terribly recompensed. Spark is acidly funny about the cliquishness of the publishing world, in which a word in the right place from the right celebrity author means more than any amount of dedication to literature. “Ah yes, in fact, books,” says one of Mrs. Hawkins’s employers:
Yes, many of our staff here are in fact fairly interested in books. One of our senior colleagues in fact was saying at a meeting only the other day that he thought he might perhaps have a shot at getting back to his first love — books.
Hector has the backing of a famous novelist, Emma Loy, who exercises her influence against Mrs. Hawkins (only, years later, to end up herself a victim of Hector’s malice, as Mrs. Hawkins placidly relates). Hector’s vengeful plotting against Mrs. Hawkins goes far beyond getting her fired, though, and realizing the extent of his insidious scheming is both amusing and, again, baffling. Spark lays her clues out so ingeniously that it’s easy to miss “that glint of a thin trail, like something a snail leaves in its slow path” even though, unlike Mrs. Hawkins, we know we’re looking for it.
Right up to the ‘reveal,’ in fact, the novel seems more random than plotted itself — which may, of course, be part of Spark’s art. And then I was surprised, rather than satisfied, by the conclusion, which draws together elements as disparate as a hysterical, ultimately suicidal, Polish refugee and the absurd pseudo-science of radionics (“no more a subject for mockery,” Mrs. Hawkins observes, “than the claims of all our religions”). And what about the parts that seemed unrelated to that plot, like Mrs. Hawkins’s brief, violent marriage (“Now, it is my advice to anyone getting married, that they should first see the other partner when drunk”), or the unwed mother in the upstairs attic whose father proposes to Mrs. Hawkins because “it would be good for Isobel to have a mother” (“at the age of twenty-nine, I wasn’t minded to take on a girl of twenty-two as a daughter”), or “the Boys” she goes to work for who “always got up when we came into the room” (“Is that American or is it homosexual?”)? I don’t understand why these are the ingredients of the novel — and yet each, in its own way, in the reading moment, was interesting or funny or temptingly quotable.
The jury is out on Ms Spark for me. I’ve read two by her now (Brodie and then Girls of Slender Means). I was expecting crisp dry wit but it never materialised. Like you with Brodie, I struggled to see the point she was trying to make.
I read this years ago and quite enjoyed it. But I didn’t find it to be anything more than a vehicle for Spark’s two great talents: being funny and being mean. I see now I didn’t find it confusing because I didn’t think very hard about it; I wonder if it merits thinking hard about? I mean, maybe she just didn’t have a great plan; or, maybe being funny and mean was her plan, her entire and only plan–in which case, I suppose she succeeded. I’ve read a number of her books and while she doesn’t recycle the same plots over and over again (like Wodehouse), I never got the sense that anything much was happening except compelling (well, to some!) displays of pretty well-written sass.
That’s provoking, Colleen: one of the reasons I was trying to hard to figure it out was my usual working assumption that something was there to be figured out — but also I have been fretting because I’ve internalized the general claim that “Muriel Spark is a major 20th-century novelist” and so have been assuming that this novel must be better than I think. Maybe it is only (barely!) as good as I think — and “funny” and “mean” do kind of sum it up. And here I’ve been blaming my own inadequacies as a reader…
I can’t think of anyone less afflicted by readerly inadequacy than yourself, Rohan. 🙂
I just read this book, as it happens, and while the momentum certainly slackens in the last fifty or so pages, I really enjoyed it. This is my second Spark novel, after Brodie, and I intend to read Memento Mori soon (not because I know anything about it but because I saw a copy at a used book shop).
It just occurred to me while reading your post that Kensington is a novel about faith and our personal relationship with our faith, or at least with our beliefs that aren’t necessarily based on any sort of empirical evidence. Think of Mrs Hawkins’ praying the Angelus every day when she hears the bells at noon, and then her abandoning that habit (with the statement that her religion goes well beyond the Hail Mary). Her insistence upon proclaiming Hector a pisser of prose no matter the consequences, because to Mrs Hawkins it is the truth that cannot be denied, is a lot like the action of an Old Testament prophet. I haven’t got it all worked out, but I do think that this novel–like Brodie–is a novel about belief and how belief is often a mirror of the believer’s self-image. I’ll have to think more about that, but I think that might be one key to what Spark was doing here. I’ll also say that none of the formal choices she made seemed all that baffling to me, and all the elements seemed to be sort of prismatic visions of the central ideas. Publishing as the religious world, differing levels of faith and understanding, etc. I don’t know how hard I want to push on that metaphor, though. I think there’s plenty enough of just observations of the ways people are, too. Like I say, I’ll have to think more about this.