FFB: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

69516I don’t know why I put this off so long: maybe it was knowing it was set in the publishing world. That sort of roman à clef doesn’t usually appeal to me much — possibly because there is nothing much that will surprise me about the publishing world anymore.

But dashing off on the train to meet the fab QoE (still need to write that up) and needing something to read, I wanted more #MurielSpark100 so I grabbed this from the shelf. An unfortunate cover: I see what they were trying to do but it doesn’t really work. So many other lovely versions like this.

But of course this is SPARK so I was riveted from the start. The opening sentence is now among my faves ever:

‘So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence.’

How great is that? Then she goes on to explore her late night thought process and it’s just wonderful, of course. Written as a memoir by the main character, Mrs Hawkins (surely a nod to Waugh’s Nanny Hawkins), life is a far cry from the rooming house in Kensington that she lived in during the post-war period. Everyone confides in the ‘comfortable’ woman who describes herself as ‘massive’ and ‘hefty’ until ‘I decided to be thin’ (a whole other post on Spark’s obsession about weight will have to be written by someone else). Though not old, everyone treats her as if she were.

Both the house in Kensington and the odd publishing house Hawkins works for are superbly and exquisitely unique as Spark lays them out for us. Modern publishers would have a fit: the opening is all description of people and places, yet it sparkles. Ullswater and York sound like so many real publishers, and yet completely mad, too. The dissection of class is barbed and hilarious. The back and forth in time allow us to know about York’s imprisonment even while we see how he gets away with his crimes because he’s charming and has the right accent.

So many things are going on–little dramas and tiny crimes–that it’s difficult to know what will carry on through the novel and what is merely an episode, which is how Spark surprises you all the time. But she creates one of the all time worst authors in soooo many ways: ‘At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story.’ Hector Bartlett is a terrible writer and a horrible man. She makes him absolutely unforgettable and worse than we even imagine. Anyone who has dealt with a horrible author will know him.

Like Highsmith, Spark finds a lot of life’s bizarre coincidences stand out. For Highsmith they’re the heavy hand of fate; for Spark, I rather think they are the reward of faith. Plus she’s so funny and charming between the slicing witty observations:

‘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.’

Go read more Spark! I have her play up next, Doctors of Philosophy.

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

FFB: The Comforters by Muriel Spark

518etwianjl-_sx317_bo1204203200_I have been filling in some of the holes I didn’t even know I had in my readings of Spark on her 100th birthday year. I have not been disappointed. Don’t make my mistake: read everything of hers. Compounding the audacity of The Driver’s Seat (which really every crime writer needs to read especially) I at last got around to her debut novel The Comforters and I am astonished that it is not more celebrated.

Audacious: it’s the only word for it. It seems so now, and yet it came out in 1957. Why it is not a lynch pin of modern novel studies I cannot say: I suspect that in addition to her gender there’s the Catholicism. Literary studies are much more comfortable with dour Protestants, and very suspicious of the magical side of the older faith. But Spark never shied away from engaging with as well as critiquing her adopted faith and it’s part and parcel of her outlook which has as much whimsy as scathing satire, though she’s mostly accounted for the latter.

As Ali Smith writes in the introduction (which does a great job of spelling out the accomplishments of the book), ‘By the time we reach the Typing Ghost, which declares itself to Caroline by its literal repetitions, this style is already embedded; in many ways the narrator is a joke, the narration a mocking of bad literary style–and as we know by the end of the book, it’s been the narrator all along having the joke, and not on us, but with us.’

Of course the main reason you should read it is that it is a delight with a gripping storyline (even when Spark allows us to anticipate what will happen next it’s not at all like we think it is) and enormous fun all along the way. Some fave bits:

Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped, and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not thing there would be any difficulty with Helena.

“You’re mad,” said the Baron abruptly. Caroline felt relieved at these words, although, and in a way because, they confirmed her distress.

“Neurotics never go mad,’ he said.

“You do not know the madness of scholarly curiosity, Mr Webster. To be interested, and at the same time disinterested…”

‘I think she’s too ignorant to be a witch.’

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog (on hiatus) Todd’s place.

FFB: The Driver’s Seat – Muriel Spark

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?
If she was asking for it,
Did she ask you twice?
Hole – Asking For It

2018-01-07 15.32.47It seems redundant to call this a lean novel from Spark — her novels are singularly lean. I always feel as if they have been sanded fine. I’ve been on a kick since the winter break before and after seeing The International Style of Muriel Spark exhibit with Miss Wendy at the National Library in Edinburgh, which I highly recommend you see. I loved it in the nosy way writers always want to peek at the process of others, but also damn, the woman had style — and chops. I feel like I need to cut my own prose to the bone like her or I’m just dithering too much. But you can’t miss anything: you have to absorb every clue. The thing is you don’t always realise what is a clue. You have to become hyper-vigilant and note everything which leads to a kind of madness rather like the heroine of this book.

coverThe Driver’s Seat is a great example of this. There is not one word in excess. This is a crazy book, off-putting to many I’m sure (I looked at some of the contemporary reviews) but both brilliant and searingly insightful. The blurb on the back (and what a marvelous cover, Penguin) from David Lodge calls it not only a ‘tour de force’ but ‘a crime story turned inside out’ which is a great description. Within the first few pages, you know that Lise is going to die. With mordant zeal, the narrator points out the clues that will be put together at the end of the investigation.

Many of them will puzzle the police forces. They’re both vivid and seemingly inexplicable. Like the clothing captured well in this cover: ‘the necessary dress’ as she calls it. the colours are so garish the porter of her building laughs at her.

She says, ‘Are you going to join a circus? Then again she throws back her head, looking down through half-closed lids at Lise’s clothes, and gives out the high, hacking cough-like ancestral laughter of the streets, holding her breasts in her hands to spare them the shake-up. Lise says with quiet dignity, ‘You are insolent.’

How marvelous is that? This whole world is at a slant, Lise’s particular slant, from her model of efficiency modular flat to the sudden and violent reaction to being informed that the dress she’s trying on is ‘stain resistant’ (‘I won’t be insulted!’). The alternation between helpless laughing and crying quickly leads to the deduction that the ‘months of illness’ that punctuate her sixteen years at the same job are definitely related to her mental health.

Now, here’s where it might get a little spoilery if you don’t want to know more about it than the fact that she’s doomed. She heads off on her holiday telling people she’s meeting a boy-friend though she doesn’t seem to know who and constantly lies about what she has done and plans to do. Even the narrator draws back at times, shying away from true omniscience at the most interesting junctures yet with chilling suggestions that have to be carefully sifted.

Lise is lifting the corners of her carefully packed things, as if in absent-minded accompaniment to some thought, who knows what?

The narrator seems uncertain what’s really going on, yet knows a great deal of facts –they’re just impossible to explain.  The novel reads like an assemblage of facts that took some time to put together, yet still don’t add up. Lise buys all the items used in her murder, deliberately and particularly. She even urges her befuddled killer to murder her: ‘She told me precisely what to do.’

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?

I suspect that like many of us, Spark may have heard one too many times about a ‘girl who was asking for it’ and wondered what sort of woman would ask to be killed, really. A mad woman, an insanely driven woman who is both consumed by lust and gravely puritanical — and utterly deranged. Asking for it?

I have bookmarked the Liz Taylor film version, but I dunno…

I admire her hugely. Check out all the FFB over at Patti Abbott’s blog including Evan Lewis’ post on Bill Crider’s celebration of life.

Spark Satire

FFB: Bill Crider’s Sherlock

Thanks to Patti and Todd for cajoling me into doing this special round of FFB. Many of you know that Bill Crider is doing poorly, so it’s great to have a chance to celebrate him and his vast catalogue of work while he can still appreciate our accolades. It’s always a joy to celebrate someone who seems universally regarded with genuine fondness. I’ve only met him briefly myself (not being much of a networking type) but he was just as kind and self-effacing in person as he has always appeared to be online over the years.

35433206 I chose the unconventional Crider: his Eight Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Crossroad Press. If you’re a fan of the detective you will be pleased by how well Crider gets into the head of our famed narrator Dr Watson. Clearly he has had a lot of fun immersing himself in the style of Doyle’s doctor.

Then there’s the celebrity ‘guest stars’ that include everyone from Bram Stoker and his own Van Helsing as sidekick, Oscar Wilde, and even a descendant of Ebeneezer Scrooge making this a good holiday gift giving choice for ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Ghosts’.

The suggestion of the supernatural is ever present but purists shouldn’t worry too much. This is Holmes after all and he will get to the bottom of what seems to be unnatural. Crider manages to capture the fun and the cleverness of Holmes without being too slavish to the originals, giving them a chance to breathe.

The bonus story by Patricia Lee Macomber and David Niall Wilson is more Lovecraftian and clashes quite distinctly with the other stories: less homage and more pastiche.

Thanks Bill for your camaraderie on line, your fine books and your VBKs. Happy to salute you on the long trail.

See all the entries over at Patti’s blog.

FFB: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

dark-is-risingAlthough a classic I’d not read this novel before, but stumbling across it at the Oxfam Bookshop this winter, I found the combination of the title and the folk horror revival vibe in Michael Heslop’s cover irresistible. Will is the seventh son of a seventh son, which he did not know as one of his brothers died very young. He’s been born to a special task, uniting the forces of light against the darkness:

‘It is a burden,’ Merriman said. ‘Make no mistake about that. Any great gift of power or talent is a burden, and this more than any, and you will often long to be free of it.’

It’s full of history, pagan symbols and eternal struggles. The struggle of dark against light is rather simplistic as many myths are. The contempt for women is striking within the narrative: ‘typical females’ are silly. There are maiden, mother and crone for symbolic purposes, but the maiden has to be rescued by Will, the mother falls and sprains her ankle to provide emotional ammunition and the crone has to be brought back by Will as well. Not that any of the characters are especially well drawn: they’re just pegs to carry the narrative forward, and it moves at a good clip.

This sounds more negative than it is in sum. The vivid scenes of magic and myth really leap off the page. The mysterious mask, the snow that falls for days, the almost sentient fire Will discovers in the past all offer a thrill. Her poetry sings:

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.

The Wild Hunt at the end that awakens Herne is truly magnificent. We all need inspiration to fight the dark that is rising now. There’s much to inspire here.

See all the overlooked gems at Patti’s blog  make that Todd’s blog.

FFB: Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

porterhouse_blue_bookI have been thinking about academic novels lately because I am — much as I swore never to do so — working on a roman à clef called Hire Idiots (the topic of which ought to be abundantly clear). I taught Lucky Jim in my senior seminar and enjoyed my students’ reactions to it. I’ve been thinking of re-reading Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but I can’t seem to find it. I’m not sure it’s even possible to write satire anymore as reality outstrips it, but now that I’ve started I want to finish.

I had not read Tom Sharpe’s novel of a fictional college at Cambridge. He’s probably best known for the Wilt novels. There’s no Jim Dixon or Paul Pennyfeather to fasten our sympathies to in this novel: everybody is kind of awful in a cringingly realistic way. There is the poor post graduate student Zipser who commands our pity if not sympathy, but alas, he exits the story rather early on. There are some great comedic scenes.

What’s fun about this book is the horrible way the petty politics quickly ascend to the heights of absurdity as the new Master of Porterhouse arrives and intends to make big changes. In the cyclical nature of politics (which I suppose ought to give us some hope at the moment) this 1974 novel gives us a college of hidebound tradition faced with the liberalising force of a reformer. Sharpe makes all the partisans ridiculous, but not without sympathy. The bullying Master is bullied by his wife (women are either harpies or sexpots if they appear at all, alas), the deaf Chaplain is mostly kind, the put-upon Bursar leaps from frying pan to fire, and the snobby porter has been grossly misused.

Anyone who has been in academia (or academia adjacent) will appreciate the humour here — especially when the score-settling tv host who’s also an alum arrives. Sharpe’s humour mostly rests in good and bad intentions going madly awry. I’ve got the mini-series based on it to watch when I get the time. Some quotes:

‘As far as the College Council is concerned I think that the best policy will be one of…er…amiable inertia.’

‘There’s nothing like prevarication,’ the Dean agreed, ‘I have yet to meet a liberal who can withstand the attrition of prolonged discussion of the inessentials.’ [ouch]

With the experience of hundreds of hours in committees behind him, the Master anticipated the arguments that would be raised against him by the Fellows…It was precisely on such divisions of opinion that he thrived. The original issue would get lost in argument and he would emerge as the arbiter between divided factions.

But first he needed an ally. He ran through the Fellows in search of a weak link.

‘We shall muddy the issue until it is uncertain…If there must be dirt let there be lots of it.’

‘Trouble with you academic wallahs,’ said Sir Cathcart finally…,’is you take things too seriously.’ [cringe]

‘In my opinion genius is by definition a capacity to jump the whole process of taking infinite pains, but then as I say, nobody listens to me.’

There was something perverse about English political attitudes that defeated logic.

His had been an intellectual decision founded on his conviction that if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal.

See all the neglected books over at Patti Abbott’s place.

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FFB: Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes

For some reason, I had not noticed before Peter Cook’s sister saying that their favourite childhood book was Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes by Harry Graham. It much reminded me of our childhood fave Shrieks at Midnight so I had to get a copy.

And of course it’s delightful.

Check out all the other overlooked Friday books at Patti’s blog or rather over at Todd’s this week.