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. 😉
‘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. ‘She hasn’t smiled yet?’ 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’s 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.