The Long and The Short of Muriel Spark

I have just managed to finish a novel and two of Spark’s short stories today, and hopefully will be able to write something worthy of a post here in participation of the Muriel Spark Reading Week.

The full length novel which I had picked for this Reading Week is A Far Cry From Kensington, Spark’s eighteenth novel which is considered to be one of her most liberating, liberated and meditative novels, according to Ali Smith in her introduction to my 2008 Virago edition of the book. It is also noted that the wry, calm, witty and sharp voice of Curriculum Vitae (Spark’s volume of autobiography) is very close to the voice of the narrator in A Far Cry.

Mrs Hawkins, the narrator of the story, started off as an overweight twenty nine year old widow who works in the publishing industry as a proof-reader cum editor, and lives in a shabby but decent rooming- house in Kensington. The story is told from the point of view of the narrator some thirty years down the road, as she reflects back to the time when the events that took place all those years ago.

This is a fiction about what happens when one chooses to speak the plain truth out loud and how one is to survive the consequences of that. It is also about the damage that happens to those who are taken in or convinced by, the opposite of truth. “It asks us not just to sense that we are being watched, but more to watch ourselves and like Mrs Hawkins, to be ready for change, to change our own bad habits, to put ourselves blithely to rights.” Ali Smith.

Spark’s wry humour and wit comes across clearly in passages such as these :

‘Oh, I’m all right. It’s only that you look different, if I may be personal.’
‘Yes, I’m losing weight.’
‘Oh, dear. Shall you be thin?’
‘No, only normal, I hope.’

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

‘I must say, Mrs Hawkins, you’re looking very well.’
‘Thank you, Mr Wells. I hope everything’s fine with you?’
‘Everything’s fine. And I must say, Mrs Hawkins, if you’ll pardon my saying so, you look ten years younger than the last time I saw you.’
I was twenty nine. This meant I must have looked ten years older the first time.

And here’s one of my favourite passages, where Mrs Hawkins is giving her advice to someone on the matter of enhancing a person’s concentration. This will probably strike a chord too with all you cat lovers reading this. ūüėČ

‘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 passed 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.

A Far Cry From Kensington is my third Spark novel since discovering her last year. The first had been The Girls of Slender Means followed by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, both of which I had quite enjoyed reading and listening to. Of the three, I would say that A Far Cry is thus far, the favourite of the lot for me.

As for the two short stories I just read, one is titled ‘The First Year of My Life’ and the other is ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’.

I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday. Testimony abounds that during the first year of my life I never smiled. I was known as the baby whom nothing and no one could make smile….. My autobiography, as I very well perceived at the time, started in the very worst year that the world had ever seen so far.

Thus, begins this creative piece of writing that combines both the elements of fact and imagination, as Spark narrates the events and her earliest memories of that first year of her life, as a baby. Here are some of examples of her ‘sparkling’ genius in weaving out a seamless narrative.

I was about ten days old when Russia stopped fighting. I tuned in to the Czar, a prisoner, with the rest of his family, since evidently the country had put him off his throne and there had been a revolution not long before I was born.

Red sheets of flame shot across the sky. It was 21st March, the fiftieth day of my life, and the German Spring Offensive had started before my morning feed.

In the fifth month of my life, I could raise my head from my pillow and hold it up. I could grasp the objects that were held out to me. Some of these things rattled and squawked. I gnawed on them to get my teeth started. ‚ÄėShe hasn‚Äôt smiled yet?‚Äô said the dreary old aunties. My mother, on the defensive, said I was probably one of those late smilers. On my wavelength Pablo Picasso was getting married and early in that month of July the Silver Wedding of King George V and Queen Mary was celebrated in joyous pomp at St Paul‚Äôs Cathedral. They drove through the streets of London with their children. Twenty-five years of domestic happiness.

As for the second short story ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, all I am going to say is that I had enjoyed the tone and setting of the narration right from the start. That is until I reached the last two lines of the story, in which Spark managed to pull the carpet from right under my feet, causing me to make a full 180 degree turn from my initial fondness for the story. And that is all I have to say, lest I spoil it for you.

All in all, while I do enjoy the experience of reading Spark’s works to a certain extent, I know I am not ready to say that I love her. Well, not yet, anyway. Maybe it’s due to the somewhat disturbing feeling that is sometimes left behind like an aftertaste, long after the pages are turned and the words have evaporated. But what I can say though, is that I am certainly looking forward to reading more of her in the months and years to come.

Advertisements

March Reading Notes

Looking at my sidebar, it would seem as if all I had manage to read ever since this blog started was just Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle and Wodehouse’s Something Fresh. And it also looks¬†as if¬†I have been dipping into Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters and diaries for what seems like forever now. Both the allusions are not entirely true. Truth is, I have been reading from a number of different books simultaneously (problem with having a short attention span and being easily distracted by books calling for attention from every direction!) and none seems to be getting me any closer to the last¬†page (not yet, anyway), thus the lack of progress in books being added to the sidebar. Also, I have¬†actually not¬†been dipping into¬†Warner’s diaries and letters for past one over month now. Will need to rectify that soon.

So, what then have I been burying my nose into for the month of March? It is these.

The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen
I have been trying to¬†establish a sort of ‘Bedtime with Bowen’ of my own since March, by reading her collection of short stories just before going to bed at night. I figured this might help me to be more ‘disciplined’ in my reading and get me through the 700+ pages of short stories in the not too distant future (hopefully!). I have started chronologically with her First Stories (those written before the 1920s) but I think I might want to start mixing it up a bit by maybe reading a story in each of the different classified periods (The Twenties, The Thirties, The War Years & The Post-War Stories) in an alternating order. Like I said, I have a short attention span, so maybe this can help keep things¬†‘fresh’ and not so predictable.¬†¬†

No Name by Wilkie Collins 
I started the book in December last year but as usual had somehow allowed it to be set aside in order to make room for the other books and stuff that have taken my fancy in between that time and now. I finally went back to pick it up where I had left, and am slowly trying to gain back the momentum for this (also 700+ pages) chunkster. This is my first¬†Wilkie Collins that I am reading¬†proper, although I have had a sampling of his other works here and there before along the way. I¬†chose to start with No Name instead of his supposedly best work, The Woman in White, thinking that ¬†I would like to save the best for last. But going by what I have enjoyed reading in this book so far, I won’t be very much surprised if I find this¬†to be¬†his best, at least by my¬†preference. If not, then it can only mean that I am really going to be in for a treat with The Woman In White.¬†¬†Incidentally, this book had one of the best¬†openings to a book I have ever come across. Maybe I have not read all that many books in my lifetime for the statement to really carry much weight, but I can’t think of very many other books that had manage to make me feel so drawn into¬†anticipating¬†the unfolding of the story just by reading the¬†opening scene.

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
I started this over the last weekend in preparation for the Muriel Spark Reading Week. This¬†is my second Spark, the first being The Girls of Slender Means which I read last year.¬†I think I am enjoying A Far Cry more, mainly due to the narrator’s voice which I find¬†I can relate to better. Since April is¬†already here, I better step up the gear and read this up in time for the Reading Week!

 

Dracula by Bram Stoker
This was one book I never thought I would ever read. I am not a fan of the horror and supernatural genre, and have always steered clear of those. If it was not for a fellow blogger’s power of persuasion in convincing me¬†into giving this a try based on the fact that this book¬†is written in the form of journals and letters (which are one of my favourite forms in writing), I would not have picked this up. And once I did, I¬†must say that I was¬†rather surprised¬†at how engaging¬†a read the book is. I am still¬†averse to horror stories, and I see this as being one of the rare and few exceptions where I will find myself picking up a book in this genre.

Apart from reading, I have also been listening to quite a few audiobooks while¬†driving, walking the dog and at the gym. As with my reading, I also need¬†to have a variety of¬†audiobooks which are on-going simultaneously, depending on what I am¬†in the mood for. I seem to have hit a deep rut with Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery for which I had had such high hopes for. Somehow,¬†I¬†just quite lost it in there. And instead of crying over spilt milk, have decided to move on to more promising (or so I hope) stuff. I am making steady progress with Judith Flander’s The Invention of Murder: How The Victorians Revelled In Death & Detection And Created Modern Crime. It is chock-full of interesting cases and includes information on the circumstances upon which Scotland Yard came about at a time when murder stories are sensationalized, as well as how some of the infamous cases¬†and characters formed the basis for some of Dickens’ and Wilkie Collin’s works¬†in¬†Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and The Woman In White. Interesting as the book may be, it can be a bit tedious at times to listen to all the details¬†involved in the cases and a lil’ tiring to¬†digest all the information provided.

I guess the highlight of¬†the many hours of my listening pleasure in March would¬† have to be Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It is just a short book,¬†slightly over 2 hours of narration but the impact of the story lasts much, much longer. This is the second of Kafka’s works that I have encountered so far, and while I didn’t really quite get the point in The Hunger Artist when I read it, Metamorphosis has¬†probably¬†set me back on the right path¬†to begin¬†appreciating Kafka’s genius better. Although I think I still probably have¬†not¬†gotten quite¬†down to¬†the deeper and bigger issues he may be alluding to in the story, even¬†the little that I could glean from just the surface is reason enough to say it is truly a worthy read.

And so, that was how my month had March-ed by…..¬† ūüėČ
How did yours go?

Reading Muriel Spark

In about a month’s time from now, we’ll be seeing the Muriel Spark Reading Week hosted by Simon T and Harriet, taking off. Being the slow reader that I am, I thought I had better get started on my choice of Spark. And so I decided to take A Far Cry From Kensington with me while I accompanied my mum for a visit back to her hometown over the weekend. Incidentally, the town (technically, it has already achieved city status, but in essence it still feels very much like a town) which is famous for its good Chinese food, limestone caves, wealthy ex-tin miners, also happens to be the birthplace of Michelle Yeoh (a.k.a Ms Aung San Suu Kyi in ‘The Lady’).

Digressions aside, I am glad I still managed to read one third of the book amidst the busy schedule of eating (yes, eating is indeed one of the activities on the to do list for anyone visiting Ipoh) and meeting up with friends and family. I have also decided on the next Spark to follow up with, after reading Ali Smith’s introduction in A Far Cry. According to Smith, “….. Loitering With Intent can be seen as a sister volume, a bright noon to this ‘wide-eyed midnight’ of a novel. This is referring to the narrator’s preoccupation with insomnia in A Far Cry. I am enjoying the book so far and look forward to Loitering With Intent as well, as it is also listed as one of Simon’s 50 books to get stuck in. So there you are, those are the Spark titles I am going into the Reading Week with. What about yours? ūüôā

And in case anyone is still looking for inspiration on which of Spark’s works to choose from, you might want to check this out. Open Road Integrated Media has recently released 8 of Spark’s titles as ebooks. There are some rather interesting and lesser known titles here that might be harder to track down elsewhere, which might interest some of you with ebook readers. Each ebook also comes with an illustrated biography, with photos and documents from Spark‚Äôs archive at the National Library of Scotland.

I find the covers rather appealing and fun looking.