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.

Skulk at Edge-Lit

Much floof so wow: books sold; pages signed; sustenance shared; friends hugged.

Edge-Lit

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Fox Spirit skulk assemble! It’s Edge-Lit and there is fun to be had for all.

Seven Books That Made Me

I have been tagged repeatedly in this meme (and the music one, and there ought to be an art one, too).  I hate lists. I hate the inherent [ahem patriarchal, capitalist, etc] need to rank and rate and declare bests, that divides us into endless competition. But as the latest tagger, Helen Grant suggested, it’s interesting to hear what has influenced your friends. So in that light, a random selection of books off the cuff, not the ‘best’ or the ‘highest rated’ but some that have had an impact on making me who I am.

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I don’t remember a lot of the details of this book, but it’s the first one I can remember changing me. Much of my childhood passed in an unremembered Zen state of being, but I distinctly recall excitedly asking my cousin as he got into the car with us (my mother, brothers and I), ‘Do you like fog? I like fog!’ because the book had so captivated me. I still love fog. I am fortunate to live in two areas prone to fog, mist and the haar, so make of that what you will. Books that fired my imagination enough to make me want to live there also included My Side of the Mountain, set in the Catskills. Huh: half the year, I live there.

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Yes, I wanted to be Jo, like so many young women. Her life (and her author’s) gave me a model to believe it could be possible for a girl with no experience to speak of or connections with famous people — that one could just make up the things and write about them and make books. I cannot read the book even now without crying. And I still haven’t totally forgiven Amy. Like the Alice books, indelible.

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My copy was plain: a turquoise cover with the title and Anna Sewell’s name in white, a knobbly texture. It was a book I read and re-read constantly. That kicked off my horse mania: I read every book in the library on horses. Seriously, every book. I still feel angry that the librarians (or my teachers?) forced me and my best friend to read books that were not about horses (did they ever do the same thing to boys? I doubt it). I read a book on Annie Sullivan. It was fine. But then it was back to horses. This is why I trust my obsessions.

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I think there is an age at which many young girls diverge from the common path: some go to Plath. I went to Parker. I liked Plath, but Parker was the one for me. At an age when one is too young to know the truth of her mordant wit, one fancies she does. She is wrong. When she is older, one understands more clearly why Parker hid her sorrow behind wit so it wouldn’t frighten the mens. Also I guess I can’t squeeze in Barbara Pym this time so she’s here too. And Anita Loos. And of course Austen. And Gaskell…every funny woman.

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It’s a bit unfair to make Marie stand in for a whole host of medieval books, but there it is. You’d have to understand my distaste for what I thought of as ‘medieval’ once upon an ignorant time — this is why I have such sympathy for my students’ eye rolling. Oh, but you don’t know, I tell them — and then of course I show them. My madeleine-in-the-tea moment might have been Beowulf, but Marie made me change my mind about the stereotypes. Medieval romance seemed the least interesting thing out there. It’s still not my favourite thing, but Marie told her tales — even the wretched Arthuriana — with such verve and a lack of sentiment that I even decided to retell her tales. Likewise many medieval women — Hrotsvita and Silence and Christina of Markyate and more…

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Likewise standing in for all the great crime dames like Patricia Highsmith and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Hughes’ masterpiece is a genius dissection of a serial killer that predates the much more lauded Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Where the latter gives a (surprisingly shallow) insight into the mind of a serial killer with a great deal of sympathy for him — Thompson seems to admire Lou Ford’s smug disdain for the world — Hughes lays open the brutal mind of Dix Steele with insight and understanding. There is a kind of sympathy for the mess of desires and ambitions he has, but there is no doubt about his chilling nature from page one. Hughes was way ahead of her time and still doesn’t get the acclaim she deserves. If she’d written only this book I’d call her a genius — but she’s written several excellent books.

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Seven tomes already and I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is why I don’t like lists. They are always inadequate. So this last one stands in for all the books of the fantastic I have read and loved. It’s also to make plain that the influences go on. While we gild the memories of some books from childhood to give them lustre, books can continue to change life. I’ve written conference papers and essays on this immense novel — and finally admitted I am probably writing a book on it. I love its world, I love Clarke’s loving scholarship of it. You never know when a book will sneak up on you and nudge you to another path. This one’s put me to work in a delightful way — I even get to use my medieval scholarship a bit.

Ione’s Dream Festival: Dream Poem for Sunday

Ione Dream FestThe SpeakEasy dames are hosting Ione’s Dream Festival this week: check it out on Facebook. Here’s our Sunday poetry offering by Wendy Goldberg; I think it’s got just the right touch of melancholy for an ending.

We’ve had a wonderful time sharing our writing, music and art. Keep dreaming, remember refill the well, and as the dames would surely tell you, make sure someone’s got your back while you dream. 

Dreaming

Perhaps it would be like no poem would ever be forgotten,
if we remembered every dream we ever had.

The day would be as surreal as the night,
populated with a memory that does not exist,
a narrative running counter to the light.
Would people say in the café, wiping sugar off the table
I am a flyer or I dream of water?
Would lovers whisper sexual non-sequitors
about images that abandon all sense of plot?

Perhaps those taboos would go silently unshared,
and if nightmares could not be broken with the day,
we might keep those secret yet.

But, we would remember all —
from an angel in the deep midnight womb
telling us the mind of God
to our last twilight vision in sickbeds
where dreams glide away like a grey sky
sliding its palms on an endless, still sea.
As we breathe at night, we breathe in day
like the way we dream
about the dead in that first year of grief.

Instead, mornings have merciful hands,
wiping a fogged-up mirror, and we see
the same story we keep telling ourselves.

Ione’s Dream Festival: Dream Music

Ione Dream FestThe SpeakEasy dames are hosting Ione’s Dream Festival this week: check it out on Facebook. Here’s tonight’s entry by singer-songwriter Julie Beman:

“Memory This” is a song about two dreams, but it also sounds dreamlike due to various production choices made during development and engineering.

The song opens with a mellotron, moody and wonky; its sound is a staple of both science fiction and prog rock and its “out-of-tune-y-ness” serves to destabilize. The piano brings in a feeling of being grounded, but only until the vocal, awash in reverb and delay, introduces a dream. After four lines the vocal splits into elaborate harmonies. As all of the parts are sung by the same person, there is a hall-of-mirrors quality to them; one person has multiplied into many. Strings are typical dream-fare. Panning moves the sound in space, denying it an opportunity to “land.” The song ends with an improvisation, an act of creation that will happen only once, much like a dream.

Ione’s Dream Festival: Dream Poem

Ione Dream FestThe SpeakEasy dames are hosting Ione’s Dream Festival this week: check it out on Facebook. Here’s today’s entry by Karen Ponzio in poetic form: find her as @kptheword on Twitter and Instagram and on Facebook.

Ode to Dreaming

What do you do when you cease to dream?
Do you walk the streets endlessly,
Drink large quantities of wine, whiskey,
Or some other magic potion sweet
Search for a wild woman, make her your queen,
Feed her sugar fresh from your lips
As she lies back upon the green grass
Of your mountain bed,
Stir her guts up with promises
Of passion in pink and red
Comfort her when she breaks instead?

Is there comfort in anything if it isn’t taken
To its end?
Is death the only comfort left?
Must you pretend that life is the better choice
Knowing it is not a choice at all?
Must you fall over and over into the same hole
Hidden in plain sight
Or is the hole one of your own making
Where other worlds awaited you,
Jewels, gold, a dragon’s lair,
A sorcerer’s stone
A hiding place for an alien force
Though no escape from the torture of knowing
You were mostly alone?

Would you then try once again
To close your eyes at night
And see what transpires
Without judgement of what is
Wrong or right,
Without begging her to tell you something
Anything to keep you from hearing
The stories of your own plight
Buried deep within your troubled mind?

Would you let your queen get her beauty sleep,
or do you feel the need to wake her
And ask if she had claimed your love as well as
Your dreams?

How much do you expect her to take?
Do you even know what love is?
Do you have anything left to say?

Let what you love break if it has to
And love it anyway.