Tag Archives: #ReadingMuriel2018

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

A Far Cry from Kensington is one of Muriel Spark’s later novels, published in 1988. It is set, however, in the 1950s in London. One of the chief pleasures of this short novel is the deft way in which she introduces and deploys so many characters. There are the residents of the boarding house, eight of them including the narrator, Mrs Hawkins. And there are no less than three different workplaces that employ her and their staff and many would-be authors who visit. There are cousins, friends, neighbours, handymen and their wives, printers, priests and visitors and there is Hector Bartlett around whom the action dances. Yet she never looses track, and the reader is never confused and always entertained.

A Far Cry from Kensington

At the start of the novel we are introduced to the inhabitants of the Kensington rooming house, in particular to Milly, the landlady with a big heart, and to Wanda the Polish seamstress. Our narrator Mrs Hawkins still lies awake at night, sometimes thinking about the events she is about to relate. In those days she was everybody’s confidante because she appeared very unthreatening.

I was a war widow, Mrs Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and a fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in ne. I looked comfortable. (6-7)

But it was exactly this Mrs Hawkins who told Hector Bartlett that he was a pisseur de copie– a very rude way of trying to dissuade him from pressing his awful writing on her. When he tells her that he takes great pains with his prose she comments,

He did indeed. The pains showed. His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity, and long, Latin-based words. (44)

[I was unfamiliar with the word tergiversations and had to look it up. It means ambiguities or evasions and is a Latin-based word.]

Hector Bartlett is offended by her description of him and as he is well connected he begins to plot his revenge on her. She looses two jobs in publishing because she refuses to back down from her assessment. The humour turns dark as Hector Bartlett continues his machinations, and at least two people die before the end of the story, and another flees to America.

Reading Muriel Spark

This is my fourth contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018 and I have come to understand that she was a very moral writer. In A Far Cry from Kensington she is concerned with integrity. She shows us the necessity of acting with integrity in one’s life and in one’s work. Many of the people in the novel do not act with integrity: they are fraudsters, con artists, over-indulgent parents, irresponsible young things, manipulated by others and so on. There are also many good people among her characters.

Her depiction of the publishing world in the 1950s, which she knew, reveals how few people care about the written word and how many of them are more concerned with their reputation, connections or just hanging on to their job. Hector (note the name) Bartlett and the people who espouse the radionics Box earn the grief that lands on them. She depicts Radionics as a kind of cult, preying on people’s weaknesses.

In A Far Cry from Kensington Muriel Spark displays a consciousness about writing and good writing in particular. In the first place her main character works in publishing and is happiest editing text and preparing it for publication. Muriel Spark uses this device to offer advice about writing a good story. She suggests it should be undertaken as if writing privately to a friend and without thought of the general public. Not bad advice. And she makes frequent references to the events of the plot which is placed in the past, as if to provide shape and reflection upon the events, as a writer does.

By noting these aspects of the novel I by no means wish to deny the fun and vivacity of this novel. It’s a good read.

More Muriel Spark

This is my fourth contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. You will find reviews of Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means  and The Abbess of Crewe  on this blog.

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark, published in1988. I read the Virago Modern Classics edition 194pp. It has an introduction by Ali Smith.

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The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

‘Come let us mock at the great’ quotes Muriel Spark in the epigraph for The Abbess of Crewe. She is quoting WB Yeats’s poemNineteen Hundred and Nineteen. ‘ … for we/ Traffic in mockery’ it ends.

The immediate reference for this scrutiny of corruption, power, surveillance and false information is the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. For those too young to remember two Republican Party employees broke into the Watergate building to install wiretaps so they could overhear the plans of the Democratic Party for the forthcoming US Presidential Election. President Nixon tried to cover up his connection with the burglary but the scandal unravelled his career and he resigned in 1974. Are bells ringing yet?

This is my third contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. You will also find reviews of Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means on this blog.

The Abbess of Crewe  by Muriel Spark

The novel opens as the newly elected Abbess of Crewe, Sister Alexandra, speaks with the naïve Sister Winifrede, who has forgotten that the Convent is bugged, including the poplar avenue in which they are walking.

The Abbess is a striking character, who dresses in white while the other nuns are in black. She drives the novel forward with her belief in herself, and the self-serving actions that result from her self-belief. As her plotting becomes more and more convoluted and Rome begins to question what is happening in the convent, she tries to claim special privileges.

In the election Sister Alexandra defeated Sister Felicity, who has then left the Convent and is stirring up press interest, especially about her stolen thimble. The Abbess is ably supported by two nuns, Sister Walburga, the prioress and Sister Mildred, the novice mistress. Their gofer is Sister Winifrede, the hapless young woman who will do whatever they ask, and get thrown to the dogs for her sins.

It emerges that the theft of the thimble was a by-product of a break-in by two young Jesuit novices, paid to look for evidence against Felicity, specifically her love letters from her Jesuit lover. It is not clear why they took the thimble. In the background is Sister Gertrude who is absent from the Convent as she seeks to reconcile cannibals and vegetarians in Peru and other such intractable opposing groups. The Abbess has recorded everything, which may or may not bring her down in the end. She plans to tough it out using a mixture of obfuscation and confidence.

The Abbess of Crewe today

Watergate was not so colourful. But Muriel Spark brings out the farcical, as well as the shocking corruption that comes with reckless pursuit of power.  Political corruption is shocking, perhaps more shocking in a religious house. But Muriel Spark is not making a case against the Roman Catholic Church, only using its traditions, establishments and rituals to demonstrate how people are manipulated, power is illegally obtained, and how information gained by any means is used to achieve and maintain power. Relevant today?

As I don’t own a copy of this novel, I borrowed one from Devon Libraries. It had no less than six labels for date stamps, from 1982 to today. This has been a popular book. It is savage, unrelenting, short, sharp and relevant to any situation where a manipulator is trying to hang on to power – to politics, then. I should point out that no one comes out well from this treatment, this ‘traffic in mockery’ by Muriel Spark. And I should also point out that there are many, many small points of humour and many quotations from English poetry.

I am very glad that #ReadingMuriel2018 put this novel my way.

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark, published in 1974 by Macmillan. 128pp

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The book group, the blogger and the book

There’s a cliché about book groups: the members are all women of a certain age, keen yoghurt knitters and instead of discussing a book they drink wine and gossip. They may exist, but I have never been in a book group remotely like that cliché. But I am having difficulty, partly because I belong to too many book groups.

kiki_b on Visualhunt.com / CC BY

Why belong to a book group?

What’s not to like? We talk about books. This is not something we can do just anywhere. With the odd exception (that is people who have read The Master and Margarita) on buses and trains people don’t expect to talk about books. The opportunity to indulge in these discussions is my main reason to be in a group.

I also enjoy reading other people’s choices, books I might have missed, or may have rejected for any number of reasons: I read it before; someone I know didn’t respond well to it; I’ve heard not good things about it; I am a book snob.

I like to be social, and meet new people, especially when I moved to Devon several years ago.

Book Group wars

There are some things to guard against in book groups, I have heard. There are people who speak too much. There are people who pronounce on a book’s qualities or weaknesses and will not listen to the views of others. And there are people who are downright nasty to other members, have secret meetings, and plot to make someone leave a group. I have never been in a group like that. But I know people who have been.

My book groups

I attend two face-to-face book groups. We meet in people’s houses and drink wine in the one that meets in the evening. Both groups are serious about discussing the books.

On my blog I join in readalongs, currently Muriel Spark’s centenary #ReadingMuriel2018 hosted by Heavenali. Recently there was the 1977 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. In the past I joined a year of Virginia Woolf. I like the on-line community, the different views of the bloggers, the slow conversation on-line and the sense of involvement in a project with others.

I have my own projects, the older women in fiction series, the women in translation series and the decades project. I also occasionally support the celebrations of birthdays of neglected women novelists.

I receive monthly novels from the Asymptote club that aims to promote fiction from around the world.You could try it.

Books about Book Groups

The Prison Book Group by Ann Walmsley

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

These first three are all non-fiction. The next three are novels.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler: a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Readers of Broken Wheel recommend by Katarina Bivald. Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

No! I don’t want to join a bookclub by Virginia Ironside, about much, much more than bookclubs.

And for a list of nine (including some of the ones I have mentioned) you could check out this article from bustle.

Book groups – so what’s the problem?

Recently I have been thinking that all this book clubbery is too much. Already I schedule my reading to meet the demands of my groups and blog plans. But this is making me feel under obligation about my reading. I want my choices back again.

The tension mounted and it became still more difficult when my blog was playing up recently. I have fixed the blog but the requirement to read certain things by certain dates remains with me.

Fortunately the resolution is in my own hands. It’s simple – I may not keep to my schedules. I don’t believe many people will notice or that anyone will suffer from this decision. But you have been warned!

Do you ever suffer from book-reading-obligation blues?

Tell us about it.

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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

We know we are in for an interesting read when we find this near the start of the novel:

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (9)

The time is 1945. The ‘savage’ girls live in the May of Teck Club which exists for

The Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years …(9)

This is my second contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. Memento Mori had older people as its subjects while The Girls of Slender Means are young. I plan to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work – she wrote 22 novels – in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of The Girls of Slender Means

The events in the Club in Kensington occur between VE Day and VJ Day in 1945, but also at a later date. A number of young women live in the Club, on the lower floors in dormitories but increasing in social standing as the accommodation rises to the fourth floor. There are many young women, and our attention is drawn in particular to Selina the beautiful one, Jane the fat one doing ‘brain’ work and Joanna who, having failed in love has come to London and teaches elocution. Joanna recites poetry throughout. There are lesser characters, such as the older women including Greggie who manages the garden and claims there is an UXB buried there.

The young women are obsessed with having a good time now and expect their futures, with suitable young men, to come along in due course.

Love and money were the vital themes in all the bedrooms and dormitories. (26)

Men are attracted to the hostel. Nicholas Farringdon is a poet philosopher ne’er-do-well. We learn that after the events of the novel he converted to Catholicism and martyred in Haiti. This is reported by Jane to one of the other survivors of the disaster at the May of Teck Cub.

Jane is employed by a dodgy publisher to write letters to authors so that he can sell their replies. You know he is dodgy because he changes his name every two years and has abandoned two of his three wives. Jane’s activities are referred to, by her, as brain work. Her employer asks her to investigate Farringdon and so he comes to the Club and falls for Selina. None of the young women really have a handle on the world, and they are too naïve to know it. Jane, for example, naïve in 1945, is really on the make as much as her publisher boss. In the later time frame of the novel, after Farringdon’s death, we find she is collecting material for a feature on him.

There is a role for a Schiaparelli dress, passed around the young women for various activities and stolen by Selina under cover of the chaos of the building as it collapses.

And there is a part for a skylight out onto a flat roof. The girls are forbidden to use it, but some of the most slender are able to slip through the opening, others have to smear their bodies with cold cream or margarine. It is the focus of the climax of the novel.

Some reactions

I really enjoyed Muriel Sparks’s spikey style. Her descriptions of people nearly always include a twist, undercutting what on the surface.

Her description of war-battered London is a marvel of compression. Here is the novel’s opening paragraph:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wall-papers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (7)

And the novel ends with the words ‘long ago in 1945’ (142). The focus is on the poverty of spirit of the young women emphasised in those not so far off days.

A review in the New York Times in 1963 by Virgilia Peterson points to the qualities of this novel, at the time of its publication.

A review that captures the social nuances of the May of Teck Club can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (from July 2017).

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) Penguin 142pp

More Muriel Spark

The first of my contributions to #ReadingMuriel2018 was Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I read the Virago version.

In May/June I will read and report on a novel by Muriel Spark from the ‘70s. Any recommendations?

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

So how would you respond to being told to remember that you must die? With anger, acceptance, agreement, curiosity about the speaker, avoidance, denial? The characters in Memento Mori by Muriel Spark react in ways that illuminate their lives and characters. They each receive a phone call. A voice merely says

Remember you must die.

With her sharp wit, sparkling style and genial good humour Muriel Spark leads us through the final months of her many characters, drawing less attention to the mystery of who makes the calls and becoming more concerned with their reactions to the calls.

This is my first contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. I look forward to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s in and around London, the story concerns a connected group of older people. Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, says the caller must be a maniac. He is fairly detached about it until he receives his own call. His wife Charmian, a novelist, accepts the reminder. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas and inheritances, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now a resident of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as Grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifesdtations of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going.

The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen … (185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do. We are reminded of this in the final pages, which list the fate of them all.

Muriel Spark

This was Muriel Spark’s third novel of the 22 she wrote. Her novels are very readable, mostly fairly short and written in a sharp style, but with depth. The focus of this novel could not be clearer, yet it is not preachy. We must acknowledge that we will die, not live as we did in our youth, when we could afford to image an endless future. Or go on holiday.

In a recent essay on her work in the Guardian Review Ali Smith quotes Muriel Spark and explains her wide reach and appeal.

Above all: “It is my first aim always to give pleasure.” This is how she described her raison d’etre as a writer, and to me she is one of the 20th-century writers most vitally, joyfully, seriously philosophically, aesthetically and politically engaged with the living materials of history, and with her own time, in a way that gives back to our time, and that will always give to readers no matter what time they’re embroiled in, whenever they read her.

Ali Smith also quotes her poem Author’s Ghosts, in which the ghosts creep back to update their texts. This is to notice that some books remain relevant. And Muriel Spark’s books have something important to say in our time, even if written more than 50 years ago, as Memento Mori. While we may live longer, on the whole, we see less of death in everyday life and we should all remember we will die.

I recently was given a copy of Jacob’s Room is full of Books by Susan Hill. She too admired Muriel Spark and makes several references to her style. Here’s an example of her wit, observation and lightness of touch from this novel. She is reporting the conversation of the Grannies in Miss Taylor’s ward and inserts this little grenade.

Mrs Reewes-Duncan, who claimed to have lived in a bungalow in former days, addressed Miss Valvona. (36)

I notice that both Ali Smith and Susan Hill are rereaders and this was my second reading of Memento Mori. I have mostly avoided rereading on the grounds that there is so much new to fill my reading hours, and I didn’t want to miss it. But now I am thinking that I don’t want to miss the pleasures that come with rereading. Expect more.

#ReadingMuriel2018

For March/April in this readalong I can choose between The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate. I have copies of both. One would be a reread the other a first look. Now which to choose?

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I reread the Virago version. 226pp

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Photo Credit: Muriel Spark: thomas ford memorial library on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

 

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