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Muriel Spark

Last night I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Marilynne Robinson in Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford. First Marilynne read two extracts, one from her latest book, the collection of essays When I Was A Child, I Read Books, and the other from her beautiful novel Gilead. The essay extract was an interesting piece about her childhood and the culture of the American West, where she grew up. It seemed to be a response to people who find it difficult to believe that she became a writer after growing up in Idaho, and are curious about how she could possibly have ended up being educated and writing books. The extract from Gilead described how the narrator, John Ames, fell in love with his wife after seeing her in the congregation of the church where he preached. I liked the way Marilynne read – it was very expressive but gentle and relaxed. She also brought out the humour of the passage, so that I was surprised by how funny it was (I remember Gilead as being a more serious and poetic novel).

The reading was followed by a discussion based on audience questions, which were mainly about her essays and her thoughts on religion, science, politics and history. I have read all (three) of Marilynne Robinson’s novels and like them very much (my favourite is Home which I liked even more than Gilead) but I have never read her non-fiction collections. Maybe because of this, I would have liked to hear more about her fiction (although I am a hypocrite and never dare to ask questions at these kinds of events!). I was interested to find out that she wrote Housekeeping partly in order to inform people about, or explore, the experience of living in such a remote place. I also liked a question that was asked about where the character of Ames came from. Marilynne’s answer was that Ames presented himself to her when she was staying alone in a hotel room – that she suddenly felt this man’s voice taking over her mind. She said she wasn’t surprised that she’d imagined a minister but she was surprised that he was a man who liked baseball! That must be an example of real inspiration. 

I have also read several books recently, all of which I quite enjoyed but none of which I feel compelled to write whole posts about, so I will be very quick! Wanting to read more by Muriel Spark, I chose The Driver’s Seat, a novella about a young woman who goes on holiday by herself to an unnamed foreign city. It proved to be a dark and twisted story with the atmosphere of a bad dream, if the dream also had some comic moments. The concept behind the novel was interesting and unusual enough in itself to keep me reading. I’m not sure whether this concept, a surreal crime story, is based on psychological insight into the character of Lise or is just meant to be bizarre and playful. I’m leaning towards the psychological interpretation because that’s what I find more interesting but there is a kind of distance and lack of emotion in the narration that makes me unsure. I also read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, another dark but not entirely serious tale, after Litlove’s review made me curious, and found the central mystery and the atmosphere of the novel quite compelling. And at the other end of the spectrum, I read The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith, which wasn’t dark in the slightest but was charming and whimsical.

A Far Cry from Kensington is the story of Mrs Hawkins, a young widow whose husband was killed in the Second World War and who works as an editor in 1950s London. Mrs Hawkins (no one ever uses or even seems to know her first name) lives in a ‘rooming-house’ in Kensington along with a varied cast of characters: Wanda, the mournful Polish dressmaker, Kate, a super-efficient and respectable nurse, William, a medical student with a love of classical music, Basil and Eva, a quiet and reserved couple, and Isobel, a young secretary with a wealthy father who lives in a whirl of parties. All these people, as well as her friends and colleagues, look to Mrs Hawkins for advice and help with their many problems. She is described by everyone in terms such as ‘reliable’ and ‘capable’, they all confide their secrets to her but no one expects her to have a life or feelings of her own.

The novel is narrated by Mrs Hawkins, looking back on her time in Kensington during long nights of insomnia years later. This reminiscing creates a nostalgic mood under the witty and lively surface of the novel. I liked Mrs Hawkins’ voice, the way she confided to the reader the private thoughts that lay behind her competent and helpful image, and offered pieces of practical advice on matters such as dieting and how to concentrate when writing (the answer is to get a cat, apparently), commenting that ‘I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book’.

I like Muriel Spark’s concise, sharp style, and the novel creates the atmosphere of Kensington and the rooming-house in only a few details. Mrs Hawkins’ fellow lodgers are first described in terms of the sounds she hears from their rooms – Isobel’s chatter on the telephone, Wanda’s tea-parties with her Polish ‘friends and enemies’, Kate dragging furniture around during her obsessive cleaning sessions. While reading this novel, I imagined 1950s London as a run-down and shabby city that was full of drama and eccentricity, especially in the publishing world, where people are constantly being sacked or arrested for fraud or engaging in various literary rivalries and disputes.

The plot of A Far Cry from Kensington is very unusual, beginning with some threatening anonymous letters received by Wanda, the dressmaker. At first the novel seems like a traditional mystery, with each of the lodgers being under suspicion. However, it doesn’t continue for long in this vein; Mrs Hawkins (obviously with the benefit of hindsight) reveals the culprit within a few chapters, although we still don’t yet know how or why this person decided to persecute Wanda or what the result of such malicious behaviour will be. It’s a surreal story that brings in radionics (apparently a method of curing people’s ailments using a strange electronic box that was all the rage in the 1950s) and creates connections between various characters in a fantastical and never fully explained fashion. 

The aspect of the book I liked best was the story of Mrs Hawkins, her various jobs in publishing companies, and how she began to make changes in her life and the way other people perceive her. I also enjoyed the atmosphere and sense of place in the novel. Although the overall tone of the book was witty and hopeful, I thought the last chapter (without giving anything away) was a little darker and more unsettling somehow. I think it’s because of Muriel Spark’s sparse writing style that she can leave the reader with this feeling of mystery at the end of her novels.

A Far Cry from Kensington is one of my favourite Sparks so far, along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, which probably means that I prefer her slightly more conventional novels (although they all seem to contain surreal and unexpected elements). 

This post is my rather last-minute participation in Muriel Spark Reading Week, but I’m definitely quite interested in reading more of Muriel Spark’s novels now.

Something I really enjoyed about the Easter holiday was going to a singing event at a local church on Friday.  Quite a large crowd of singers turned up and we spent the afternoon rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem with some instrumentalists, before performing it as a concert in the evening. I find Mozart’s Requiem such a beautiful piece of music, so I was quite excited about this event. The singing was aided by tea and hot cross buns served by some women from the church in a rather Barbara Pym-esque scene, and the concert raised money for the church’s new choir school so there were some cute little choir boys who handed out bouquets to the soloists at the end!

Another nice thing about the weekend was realising that I have acquired several new books that I am looking forward to reading. First of all, speaking of Barbara Pym, while I was at my parents’ house at the weekend, I managed to hunt down A Very Private Eye, a collection of Pym’s diaries and letters, and I can’t wait to find out more about the life and personality of a writer I admire. I think it is interesting when reading an author’s letters or diaries to see how much the person seems familiar from their novels and to what extent a different side to their character is revealed. I will be particularly interested to read Pym’s diaries from while she was studying in Oxford and her letters to Philip Larkin. He is one of my favourite poets so for a while now I have wanted to learn more about the friendship between them.

While rummaging through boxes of my old books at my parents’ house, I also unearthed a Muriel Spark novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, which (if I am organised enough) I hope to read for the Muriel Spark Reading Week at Stuck-in-a-Book. I have loved some of Muriel Spark’s books (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) while strangely there are others I have not liked much at all (Loitering with Intent is one I remember). I do find her interesting so I’m definitely looking forward to reading this novel, especially as a quote from the Sunday Times on the cover describes it as set in ‘a 1950s Kensington of shabby-genteel bedsitters, espresso bars and A-line dresses’. That sounds perfect to me.

One of my recent book purchases is The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, which I have already started reading. As I like her writing very much, I have decided to try to read as many of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels as I can over the next few months. She also published some travel writing (A Time in Rome) and wrote memoirs about her childhood (Seven Winters) and her family’s house in Ireland (Bowen’s Court), so I’d like to try these different genres of her writing as well. The House in Paris is so far a beautifully written and mysterious novel, and I hope to write more about it later.

Finally, I have also acquired a copy of The New Moon with the Old, a novel by Dodie Smith. I enjoyed I Capture the Castle but only discovered recently that Dodie Smith had written other novels for adults. The New Moon with the Old looks like an entertaining and magical story about a woman who becomes secretary to an eccentric family, so I’m saving it for when I’m in the mood to be cheered up by my reading.

Has anyone read (or would you like to read) any of these books?