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.

Dundee Botanic Gardens


The Dundee Botanic Gardens: delights aplenty, a penguin and more. Many pix on the ‘book if you trawl there.

 

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.

Sunday Shenanigans

Lots to catch up on — pictures, posts, reviews — but in the mean time, it’s family day. Half off sale is still on at Smashwords and hoping for some reviews of HBW5 soon! More wanderings tomorrow —

Smiles of a Summer Night (and Day)

welcome home

I am back in Dundee so life has improved immensely. Yes, still busy (week two of a three-week online intensive, one review written and sent, a couple of deadlines looming) but I have played with the Executive Princess, slept soundly, finished a book I’ve been reading in bits, and started watching the final series of Bron/Broen/The Bridge — Saga, how I have missed you!

No conference papers this summer, but plenty of shenanigans to come.

 

Edinburgh: National Gallery

I love the story of Callum. I can’t recall if you weren’t allowed to photograph the Turner watercolours that are only on display in January, or if I was just too busy looking at them. I got the catalogue. It took me until the Bacon and Turner exhibit to understand his appeal, but I get it now.

Edinburgh: A Cold Morning

Miss Wendy and I arrived at night and had a terrific meal at Howie’s Waterloo which included a divine cullen skink and gave me the chance to say ‘I’ll have the pheasant’ which is not too common for me. In the morning we started with the Old Calton Burial Ground, which I visited on my very first trip back in 1980. I even took another picture of David Hume’s grave which I have in a yellowed old snapshot. They were dismantling the Christmas Market next to the Walter Scott Memorial, but this lovely caravan was still there waiting for me — but Wendy talked me out of rolling it away.