What I like about Muriel Spark is the sheer, take-no-prisoners, don’t-give-a-damn waspishness of her writing. At her best you need gloves to protect yourself from the venom that drips off the page. But you often don’t notice the sting because you are laughing, or at least nodding in recognition.
And nowhere is that more true than in A Far Cry from Kensington. It is not the insult, pisseur de copie, that Spark’s substantial alter ego, Mrs Hawkins, discovers, but the relish with which she repeats it, over and over again, sometimes several times a page.
Was there a real pisseur de copie, a real Hector Bartlett, who once aroused Muriel Spark’s ire? I think so. This novel has the air of something long delayed, a sort of literary revenge porn.
For much of the book, A Far Cry from Kensington, doesn’t read like a novel, but more like a disguised memoir. It is the recitation of a sequence of incidents, sort-of connected but sort-of unconnected, that link the residents of a Kensington rooming house over a period of months in 1954-5. There is no through plot, but a series of anecdotes about the idiosyncratic characters that Mrs Hawkins works with at two different publishing houses and then at a literary magazine, about the girl in the rooming house who becomes pregnant but won’t reveal the father, about the Polish seamstress who becomes unhinged when she becomes the recipient of poison pen letters, about the medical student who will eventually become Mrs Hawkins’s second husband, about the easy-going woman who owns the rooming house, and so on. And yes, I can imagine Spark, when she was a girl of slender means just starting out in the publishing world, living in such a house, getting to know such people.
The only thread that binds all this together is the character of Hector Bartlett, the third-rate hack, the pisser of copy, who sees women only as figures to be manipulated to his own unjustified glorification. He already has his claws into a successful novelist, Emma Loy, but now he wants to manipulate Mrs Hawkins, to exploit her publishing contacts. When she rebuffs him and, in a moment of inspiration, calls him a pisseur de copie, he needs revenge. So we see how, primarily through Emma Loy, he twice gets Mrs Hawkins fired from her publishing jobs. We learn, after the fact, how he got at the Polish seamstress, pushing a crank remedy that sounds to me like a variation on the orgone box, and in the end probably responsible for the woman’s suicide. We suspect he might be the undeclared father of Isabel’s child.
Recalling all of this from the distance of some 30 years, Mrs Hawkins is now happily married to her medical student, and a successful literary figure in her own right. And Bartlett, whom she encounters one last time in that retreat of the British literary set, Tuscany, is still a pisser of copy.
Oh it is a bitter delight of a novel, crisp and stinging and vivid. This is why I keep reading Muriel Spark.