‘What do we do with our lives? How do we employ ourselves? How do we view our pasts, and more, how do we survive them to really inhabit our futures? And what do we do if those pasts keep us awake at night? A Far Cry from Kensington is one of Muriel Spark’s most liberating, liberated and meditative novels. Spark is a writer who can take the meditative and make it mercurially funny, playful and mischievous; alongside the grim ‘cry’ at the core of this novel there’s a force of fun, and a force of calm light-heartedness in its analysis of the creative process in the light of free will, imagination, truth, history.
‘First published in 1988, it is a conscious exercise in looking back – a novel that announces its own preoccupied insomnia. But its insomnia is unexpectedly pleasant, a ‘beloved insomnia in the sweet waking hours of the night’ – as if the usual dark night of the soul has been replaced by something much, much lighter. We begin in the future, intimate with its narrator awake in her bed listening, in the silence, to the noise of thirty years ago, the noise of the mid-1950s, a time when Mrs Hawkins, publishing assistant, literally larger than life, large enough in a post-war time of rationing and utilitarian discomfort to suggest a comforting abundance to everyone who simply looks at her, lives in a shabby, decent rooming-house in down-at-heel Kensington – how things change over time! – run by Milly, an Irish landlady of great kindness and frankness.
‘A Far Cry was Spark’s eighteenth novel and, incidentally, takes place around the time when, in her own life, she was living in London and first writing her own fiction; her first novel, The Comforters, was completed in the mid-fifties and published in 1957. This particular time in her life is very entertainingly dealt with in her only volume of autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1992), a book she published four years after this novel and whose voice, wry and calm, witty and sharp, is very close to that of A Far Cry’s narrator.
‘Spark had spent the latter war years working in intelligence for the Foreign Office. When the war ended she made a career move which must have seemed very farcical indeed after such work; she took a post at the Poetry Society, editing its periodical, Poetry Review, and by all accounts enduring a series of mini-wars, battling with every mad faction imaginable in the London literary world; after this she took a position three days a week with Peter Owen, ‘a young publisher who was interested in books by Cocteau, Hermann Hesse, Cesare Pavese. It was a joy to proofread the translations of such writers. I was secretary, proof-reader, editor, publicity girl … in the office at 50 Old Brompton Road, with one light bulb, bare boards on the floor, a long table which was the packing department,’ as she writes in Curriculum Vitae. Much of her Poetry Society experience slipped into her marvellous novel Loitering With Intent, written seven years earlier, which dealt with the years just prior to those depicted in A Far Cry. With its lambasting of literary vicious circles and all their bombast and fakery, and by dint of its sheer post-war joyousness, Loitering With Intent can be seen as a sister-volume, the bright noon to this ‘wide-eyed midnight’ of a novel.
‘But in Spark’s work the lightness of things is always a serious business, and a literary vicious circle is likely to be one of the worst forms of viciousness, since she is an artist profoundly drawn to a morality in the art process, and especially to the function of fiction in the real world. For Spark, who converted to Roman Catholicism at about the same time as she wrote her first fiction (and consequently at about the same time as A Far Cry is set), the religious process, the writing process an the processes of art are inextricably intertwined. Her belief system gifted her a ‘balanced regard for matter and spirit ,’ as she called it, and a vision of all our realities, all our ‘real’ histories, as a kind of parallel fictional work; this gives the recurring notions in her work of the relationships between fiction, truth and lies, between real and fake, between author, authority and free will, a particular slant.
‘Here the trivial, intimate history of the novel apes the reality whose setting it is, in a plot which resembles a mini-Cold War, a mini-descent into 1950s post-war paranoia. Where the novel’s surface is scattered with the authentic references that make the obvious links between fiction and real time (‘Billy Graham, Senator McCarthy, Colonel Nasser . . . Lucky Jim’); where its general theme might be said to be a people getting back into shape in the post-war years; its subtext is Spark’s endless preoccupation, the ‘supernatural process going on under the surface and within the substance of all things’. The novel’s own preoccupation is moral – the makings of good and bad – in this case, what makes a good or a bad writer, in a novel where gratuitous viciousness and power-mongering, and ‘bad’ and ‘untrue’ writing, come together as the same thing. It’s a book that knows it’s a book – it is always announcing its status to its reader. ‘I offer this advice,’ our narrator says, ‘without fee; it is included in the price of the book,’ a book very much about the act of narrative skill, about the uses of foreground, background, foresight, hindsight, or the basics of narrative structure. Mrs Hawkins, the ‘scrupulous’ proof-reader and editor, almost suggests this novel is a casebook for those who would wish to write well.
‘Its subject is the thoughtful self, making sense, from an objective distance, of the meanings of both silence and voice. Its first refrain is the pained cry of the lost, wounded woman at the centre of its plot, and to some extent also Mrs Hawkins’ own silent cry, which readers learn of when they come upon the story of her war marriage. Its other, more pervasive refrain is much sweeter, and arises from emotional distance, from the meditative future which will, it is promised, simply put the past into its proper context. ‘I came to realise the answer later,’ as Mrs Hawkins repeatedly says. ‘I’m a great believer in providence,’ Spark herself wrote. ‘It’s not quite fatalism, but watching until you see the whole picture emerge.’
‘Above all, the novel is a fiction about what happens when you speak the plain truth out loud, how to survive the consequences, and the damage that happens to those taken in by, convinced by, the opposite of truth. It asks us not just to sense that we’re being watched (in both the cheap 1950s paranoia plot as well as in a much larger metaphysical context), but more, to watch ourselves and, like Mrs Hawkins, to be ready to change, to change our own bad habits, to put ourselves blithely to rights. This blitheness is the key to survival in a novel in which the bruised, haunting dark of the past is ever-present, but dealt with, as it were, with a combination of unsentimental affection and satisfying, score-settling wit – a perfect model of what critic Ruth Whittaker calls Spark’s ‘aesthetic of detachment’ and, in the form of this novel, a prelude to every kind of revitalization.
‘Spark often takes south London – and not the north of the city, which is the usual literary stamping-ground of novelists – as her subject in her books about the city. She likes to reveal alternatives; she comes, after all, to this most English of narratives, shot through with its references to the Brontës, Dickens and Forster, from a quite alternative position; for this most European of English novelists is a Scottish novelist, gifted in a particular otherness of authority, brought up between the wars in Edinburgh, where she ‘imbibed, through no particular mentor, but just by breathing the informed air of the place, its haughty and remote anarchism. I can never now suffer from a shattered faith in politics and politicians, because I never had any.’
‘‘Can you decide to think?’ This permissive education in the art of thinking, this laughing history of post-war literary London, this pensive and merry laying of old ghosts, is a book that knows its mere place as a book, and argues back about the importance of truth and art, and truth in art, with every fictive bone in its body. Masquerading as a chatty, realist piece of fiction, it is another revelation, as each of her novels is, of Spark’s art of merciful litheness, and the far-reaching after-effects of language well used. ‘That cry, that cry,’ the far cry at its core is both idiomatic and actual, painful then distanced, examined and understood, by means of the Sparkian balance of artifice and truth. It all adds up to something huge – a sprightly philosophical rejection of twentieth-century angst, with all the carefree carefulness, all the far-reaching economy, all the merciless, sharp mercy, that characterize the art of Spark.’ — Ali Smith
Official Muriel Spark Website
The Muriel Spark Society
Audio: Muriel Spark interviewed @ the BBC
Muriel Spark Archive
Muriel Spark Obituary
Muriel Spark @ goodreads
Muriel Spark @ New Directions
‘Killing Her Softly’
‘What Muriel Spark Saw’
‘Better Boundaries, With Muriel Spark’
“AND SHE WENT ON HER WAY REJOICING”
‘SMALL, BUT PERFECTLY FORMED
‘How Muriel Spark rescued Mary Shelley’
‘Surface and Structure: Reading Muriel Spark’s “The Driver’s Seat”‘
‘How to Tell If You Are in a Muriel Spark Novel’
‘Muriel Spark, Moral Hypnotist’
‘Meeting Muriel Spark’
‘Muriel Spark leaves millions to woman friend rather than son’
‘The first half of Muriel Spark’
‘IS MURIEL SPARK TOO FUNNY TO GET THE RESPECT SHE’S DUE?’
‘MURIEL SPARK: THE DRIVER’S SEAT’
‘Muriel Spark’s Novels: Concepts of Self’
‘The Rediscovered Genius of Muriel Spark’
Buy ‘A Far Cry from Kensington’
Sandy Moffat on painting Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark Quotes
Ian Rankin reads from Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”
Book Review: ‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ by Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark’s writing desk
letter from Elizabeth Taylor
A diary entry from September 1966
Young Spark crowned ‘Queen of Poetry’
Betting slip from a horserace
The first manuscript page of Spark’s novel, Aiding and Abetting
Muriel Spark’s grave
TOBYLITT: In Curriculum Vitae you say, ‘It seemed to me that the Comforters of Job were not at all distinct characters; they were very much of one type. They were, in fact, like modern interrogators who come to interview and mock the victim in shifts.’ Do you enjoy doing interviews?
MURIEL SPARK: Interviews can be stimulating. It depends on the intelligence of the interviewer.
TL: At a rough guess, how many inteviews have you been subjected to in your life?
MS: About five a year.
TL: Of these interviews, were any particularly memorable? For what reason?
MS: Frank Kermode interviewed me in my early days. It is an oft-quoted classic interview.
TL: What is the question that you are most commonly asked, during interviews?
MS: Do I write by hand?
TL: Is there any questions that you wish you were asked more often, in interview?
TL: Answer the above question as if I had put it to you as part of this interview.
TL: No idea.
TL: Have you yourself ever interviewed anyone particularly memorable? Who? Where? Why?
MS: Masefield (see my introduction to the revised edition).
TL: Given a choice, which person – living, dead, divine, mythical, semi-mythical, or fictional – would you choose to interview? Why? What would you ask them? Where would this interview take place?
MS: M. Heger, Charlotte Brontë’s master at Brussels. I would ask did he encourage her as a lover.
TL: Have you ever read or studied interviews with other writers? I’m thinking, in particular, of the Paris Review series.
MS: Yes. The Paris Review is good. I’ve had two PR interviews, neither of which has surfaced.
TL: Your latest novel, Aiding and Abetting, is centred around an interview of sorts – a psychoanalytic session. Do you believe in ‘the talking cure’?
MS: Never heard of it before. Psychiatrists are mostly fake, but they obtain results merely by being consulted.
TL: Do you ever feel that during an interview you have been prompted to come up with a new idea – an idea that has subsequently contributed to the writing of fiction?
MS: Yes, but I don’t recall any specific occasion.
TL: How do you usually feel, and what do you usually do, after you have finished an interview?
MS: Take a rest and think over what the conversation was about.
Muriel Spark A Far Cry from Kensington
‘Set on the crazier fringes of 1950s literary London, A Far Cry from Kensington is a delight, hilariously portraying love, fraud, death, evil, and transformation.
‘Mrs. Hawkins, the majestic narrator of A Far Cry from Kensington, takes us well in hand, and leads us back to her threadbare years in postwar London. There, as a fat and much admired young war widow, she spent her days working for a mad, near-bankrupt publisher (“of very good books”) and her nights dispensing advice at her small South Kensington rooming-house. At work and at home Mrs. Hawkins soon uncovered evil: shady literary doings and a deadly enemy; anonymous letters, blackmail, and suicide. With aplomb, however, Mrs. Hawkins confidently set about putting things to order, little imagining the mayhem which would ensue. Now decades older, thin, successful, and delighted with life in Italy — quite a far cry from Kensington — Mrs. Hawkins looks back to all those dark doings, and recounts how her own life changed forever. She still, however, loves to give advice: “It’s easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half….I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book.” A masterwork by “Britain’s greatest living novelist” (Sunday Telegraph, 1999), A Far Cry from Kensington has been hailed as “outstanding” (The Observer) and “wickedly and adroitly executed” (The New York Times). “Far Cry is, among other things, a comedy that holds a tragedy as an egg-cup holds an egg”.’ — Philadelphia Inquirer
The Cypriot husband and his English wife in the house next door to Milly’s were having a row. It was two in the morning. They had started the rumpus in the garden but had gone indoors to continue it.
Now the first half-flight of Milly’s stairs led to a small landing with a window from which you could see straight through the opposite window into the next-door house, three feet away; if you sat on the second half-flight of Milly’s stairs you could see the exact equivalent of landing and half-flight next door.
I had been to bed but the fearfulness of the noise on this occasion had brought me down to Milly who was already up in her dressing-gown. The wife next door was screaming. Should we do something? Should we ring the police? We sat on the stairs and watched through the landing windows. Our stair-light was out but theirs was on. Apart from the empty piece of staircase we could see nothing as yet. The rest of our house was quiet, everybody asleep or simply ignoring the noise.
There had been a christening party that afternoon in the house next door. The row concerned the true paternity of the baby boy, some friend of the husband having raised the subject to him, in an aside, at the christening party. I do not think there was any real doubt in the husband’s mind that he was the father; only, it gave rationality to the couple’s mutual need to dispute, which had spilt rowdily over into the garden; the guests had all gone home.
Evidently, the baby slept through the pandemonium for all we could hear were the wife’s shouts and screams and the husband’s fury: noises off.
Suddenly they appeared on the stairs, the second half of their staircase, before our eyes, as on a stage. Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates. We sat side by side, eating chocolates, and watching the show. So far, no blows, no fisticuffs; but much waving of arms and menacing. Then the husband seized his wife by the hair and dragged her up a few stairs, she meanwhile beating his body and caterwauling.
Eventually I phoned the police, for the fight was becoming more serious. A policeman arrived at our door within ten minutes. He seemed to take a less urgent view of the din going on in the next-door house and was reluctant to interfere. He joined us on the staircase from where we could now only see the couple’s feet as they wrestled. The policeman crowded beside us, for there was no convenient place for him to sit. My hips took up all the spare space. But finally our neighbours descended their staircase so that we could see them in full.
“Can’t you stop them?” said Milly, passing the chocolates.
The policeman accepted a chocolate. “Mustn’t come between husband and wife,” he said. “Inadvisable. You get no thanks, and they both turn on you.”
We could see the force of this argument. Milly offered to make a cup of tea, which she was always ready to do. Finally the policeman said, “I’ll go and have a word with them. This time of night, disturbing the peace.”
We heard him ring their front door-bell; it was a long ring, and at the same time we saw the scene before us disintegrate. The wife and husband sprang apart, she tidying her hair, he pushing his shirt into his trousers. They disappeared from view. From the street came the sound of their front door opening, and the mild reproving voice of the policeman. The wife’s voice, thrown high and clear into the empty night, was pleading, apologetic, conciliatory. “We was just having a bit of an argument, officer.”
The light on the stairs opposite went out. End of the show. Milly and I had a cup of tea in the kitchen and discussed something else.
When I left the house for the office at nine the next morning, the smiling, nut-brown face of our Cypriot neighbour looked up at me from the job he was doing on one of the wheels of his car. “Good morning, Mrs Hawkins,” he said.
How did he know my name? I didn’t know his. People always knew who I was before I knew them, in those days. Later, when I got thin I had to take my chance with everyone else; and this confirms my impression that a great large girl is definitely a somebody, whatever she loses by way of romantic encounters. “Good morning,” I said.
Generally, I got to the office between half-past nine and quarter to ten in the morning. The clock in the big general office was unreliable, and because of a chronic lack of ready cash was likely to remain so. I think that if a clock is not punctual you can’t expect the people who live with it to be so. We were all fairly lax about time as the business more and more declined. Patrick, the packer and sorter, was most often the first to arrive, and it was he who would take the first phone calls. I don’t know if my memory exaggerates but, looking back, it seems to me that almost every morning I would find Patrick on the phone, shouting to cover his embarrassment and inability to cope with the caller’s problem. At that hour the caller was usually an author and the problem was money. Later in the morning, just before noon, the printers and binders would have their hour; their problem too was money, bills unpaid. And certainly, till the bills were paid, there was no hope of sending more books to press.
The telephone: “Would you mind calling back later? Mrs Hawkins isn’t in.” That was Ivy, getting rid of someone. Again, the telephone: “Ullswater Press,” says Ivy.
Hardy a morning passed but Mabel, the distraught wife of Patrick, would come in to visit him. She invariably turned on me with accusations that I was seducing her husband.
“Mabel! Mabel!” – Patrick was a tall young man with glasses and lanky fair hair, very like a curate in his precocious solemnity; a little younger than me. He was hoping to make a career in publishing; books and reading were his passion. It was true he was attached to me, for he felt he could confide in me. I would listen to him often during the lunch hour when, if it was too cold and rainy to go to the park, we would send out for sandwiches and eat them with our office-made coffee. I think he had married Mabel because she was pregnant. Now Patrick earned very little, but Mabel had a job, and their young child was looked after during the day by Mabel’s mother. Whether it was because Patrick was too engrossed in his books to pay attention to his wife or whether he had spoken approvingly of me to her, or whether it was both, Mabel had taken it into her head that I was enticing Patrick away from her. She was in a great state of nerves, and if we had not all tolerated these outbursts of accusation when she came into our office on her way to work, I think she would have been unable to go on to her job in the offices of a paint firm nearby. As it was, we always calmed her down and she would leave with backward looks of reproach at me on her small blade-like face. “Mrs Hawkins, you don’t know the harm you’re doing. Perhaps you don’t know,” she said more than once.
“Mabel! Mabel!” said her husband.
Ivy the typist would batter on all through this scene. Cathy the book-keeper, her eyes bulging behind her thick lenses, would rise to her feet, wave her hands, and croak, “Mrs Hawkins is our editor-in-chief and innocent of the crime.”
Patrick was always mournful after his wife’s departure. “It’s good of you to take it like this, Mrs Hawkins,” he would say sometimes, although all I had done was stand in my buxom bulk. And at other times he would say nothing, intensely studying the books he was packing so carefully, so expertly and rapidly.
One of our creditors, a small printer, had taken the difficulties of Ullswater Press so personally as to employ a man with a raincoat to stand in the lane outside our office windows all morning and afternoon, staring up. That’s all he did: stare up. This was supposed to put us to shame. In the coffee break we did a certain amount of staring back, standing in threes and fours at the window with our cups in our hands. It was strange to see the raincoated man: he was out of place in that smart, expensive area of London; indeed, he was supposed to be shabbily noticeable. In that part of South Kensington from where I emerged every morning from Monday to Friday, the man would have been merely that man-in-the-street that the politicians referred to: one of many. But here in the West End everyone looked at the man, then up at our windows, then back again at him.
At Milly’s in South Kensington, everybody paid their weekly rent, however much they had to scrape and budget, balancing the shillings and pence of those days against small fractions saved on groceries and electric light; at Milly’s, people added and subtracted, they did division and multiplication sums incessantly; and there was Kate with her good little boxes marked ‘bus-fares,’ ‘gas,’ ‘sundries.’ Here, in the West End, the basic idea was upper-class, scornful of the bothersome creditors as if they were impeding a more expansive view. We, in the noisy general office, were not greatly concerned: after all, the responsibility was not ours, it was that of the Ullswater Press, of Mr Ullswater and of Martin York, and the other names who formed a board of directors; especially of Martin York who ran the firm. It was he who brought me manuscripts he had picked up from his fellow-officers of war-time, or former school friends. “Will this make a best-seller? Read it and tell me if it might be a best-seller. We need a few best-sellers.” As for the proofs of books waiting to be published, these piled up on my desk, waiting their long turn. I worked on them meticulously; words, phrases, paragraphs, semi-colons. But they remained on my desk long after they were ready to be returned to the printers. New credit from printers and binders was difficult to get. “Mrs Hawkins, keep these authors away from me.”
p.s. Hey. ** Wolf, Happy 2019, Wolf, *rawr* Oh, I think a good number of the guys just have a very complicated way of saying, ‘Please love me’. I will admit I scribbled that ‘wishing well’ thing down for possible future use. MUBI is great. You just have to get into a routine of using it often enough to warrant the subscription basically. Will do about the production company thing. Zac and I keep nudging and nudging. NYE is my least favourite holiday by far. Always has been. Worse than Thanksgiving. I crashed at my usual 11 pm, and fuck knows what happened at the strike of midnight. I hope you had big fun at that civilized shebang. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. My guess is he’s more like the Eric Roberts or Billy Baldwin of slaves. Happy New year right back atcha! Everyone, Mr. E’s FaBlog is a Ball of Confusion. Since confusion is the truth, I suggest you attend his ball of it. Would be great obviously, if that Vacchon thing turns out to be the case. As you know, my knowledge of the representation aspect of publishing is very low, but I’ll do what I can to help if I can. And I hope and trust others here will if they can. ** Sypha, Thanks for the adds. ‘Prey’, huh? I’ll check it out. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! My pleasure, and it would be theirs too, I’m sure, if they knew, if they don’t. Eek, well, I certainly hope and trust your dog’s leg will throw that little bum out this week. You move in two weeks? Oh, but as soon as the hassle part is over, you’ll feel so refreshed, I reckon. Good luck with all the prep, though. No, I was called into duty to do some sudden work for Gisele, so I had to delay seeing my friend and doing much of anything. Maybe today. I had the quietest, non-existence NYE humanly possible, I think, which was A-okay. Enjoy all of your time with Anita maximally! And I look forward to catching up when you’re ready. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Oh, I thought #metoo was a quite clever, catchy slave name just waiting for someone to snatch it. I think VU is probably a better choice. Nice mix-up idea for the film scene. What are your thoughts re: the film’s visualisation and filming style? I know I shouldn’t envy your freezing cold and snow, but, oh, I so do. If Gisele’s production company happens, it will definitely have a place for producing abstract films as well as narrative ones. ** James Nulick, Hi, James. HNY! Wow, you are one smitten fella. Only thing is, my radar tells me that there’s probably about a 80 or so % chance his photo is a fake. I didn’t even watch a movie on NYE. I didn’t even trek down to Concorde to watch the distant fireworks. I didn’t do nothing and, yet, here it is, 2018, shining like a newly minted dime right on schedule. The new film script is going very well, I think. It’s beyond infancy. We’ve roughed out about, oh, 2/3 of the film now, and we’re about to head into the last stretch/ending. I’m very excited about it. It’s very different from PGL while retaining Zac’s and my central interests. I’m like you when I’m writing a novel, but it feels more like lucking into a period of sanity to me, I think. Normal people are a fictional construct, aren’t they? I’ve never met one. Love back to you. ** _Black_Acrylic, Happy 2018, buddy! Your NYE sounds dreamy to me. Jools Holland is still on TV? Wow. He doesn’t still put out records, does he? Yes, 2018 should partly belong to YnY! A big portion even! As you said, let’s make it and everything else that’s right with the world happen! ** Misanthrope, Very Happy New Year to you too, George. Seeing each other in the flesh prior to the next turn around would be very nice indeed. I agree with your friend and you about gaming. In fact, I think I wrote a whole novel about that loneliness once. It does sound like the indoors twin is the one we’ll be following on Facebook any day now. 17 is a weird age. I liked it, but it’s spooky. You started a new novel! Can I presume that it is somehow inspired by your current passion for ‘CMBYN’? I think if I vomited into your new novel then tried to set it on fire, I would have a hard time keeping the fire going. Anyway, say more about that (the novel, not the flammability of vomit) when you can and want. If you were pregnant, you could make so much money off that by going on the Today Show and Oprah and stuff, man, and then, once you’re rich, you could just have an abortion. Sounds like a plan? I personally don’t have the slightest problem with her being very uncomfortable with any depictions of male-male intimacy. I know some proud, openly gay guys who are like that. Who cares? Why is that a problem? That’s just her personal taste and preference. It has nothing to do with you, does it? I have close friends who you couldn’t pay to read my novels because they’re not interested in or comfortable with my subject matter. That doesn’t bother me at all. Maybe it was a Ron Mael (of Sparks) moustache? ** Meatrod25cm, Hello, welcome. What, you think ‘The Sluts’ was a science-fiction novel or something, ha ha? Nope, sometimes I edit down the profiles and comments a bit for maximum effect, but the words are all theirs. Strange, perhaps, but true. ** Bill, Hi. Yes, a number of people seem to have seen ‘The Sluts’ in this month’s slave crew. Luck of the draw strictly. Are you still on the other side of the world, or are you out ‘west’ again? Happiest New Year! ** Okay, I would ask you to use your DC’s-oriented brain cells today to read and think about Muriel Spark. Thank you. See you tomorrow.