Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Extra Credit Muriel Spark

I don't know if I'm supposed to wait until the end of the month to post about my secondary Muriel Spark book for the Slaves of Golconda. But since I finished A Far Cry From Kensington and no one else is reading it and it's halfway through the month, I figured I'd go ahead because I might not remember it well enough later. I was a little worried when I first started the book. There were lots of characters to keep track of and there didn't seem to be much of a story. The main character, Mrs. Hawkins, lives in a boarding house full of unusual people in Kensington. She works as an editor for Ullswater Press which all the employees know is a sinking ship. After about the first thirty pages a story began to emerge and most of the characters, the ones that matter at any rate, began to stick in my mind. Mrs. Hawkins is the narrator. She tells the story looking back from the distance of some years, we are not sure how many, and describes herself then as 27 years old, a war widow, and motherly (aka fat). Everyone calls her Mrs. Hawkins, considers her solid and trustworthy and goes to her for advice about anything and everything. She is quite content until Hector Bartlett, a hack writer enters the picture. Hector is a pretentious hanger on of the famous, using them to try and become famous himself. If he had talent, he could do it, but he writes so badly Mrs. Hawkins can't help but call him a pisseur de copie, a urinator of prose. He haunts her throughout the book and is the pivotal character in many goings on even though his actual appearances are small. The book is a light read and full of humor. The advice Mrs. Hawkins gives on various subjects if worth the read. Here is what she tells a Brigadier General who has just told her at a swanky party that he wants to write a book but can't concentrate enough to do it:

'For concentration,' I said, 'you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?' 'Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.' So I passes him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from the lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
Now I know why so many writers have cats! Spark is a pleasure to read. Her descriptions of people in this book are delightful. She describes one character thus:
Fred talked like the sea, in ebbs and flows each ending in a big wave which washed up the main idea. So that you didn't have to listen much at all, but just wait for the big splash.
If you have ever read Barbara Pym, A Far Cry From Kensington reminded me of Excellent Women. I am very much looking forward to diving into The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.