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[643] The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

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” The ferry ploughs on across the North Sea, and home gets further and further away. The cold air from the vent seeps down the neck of his pyjama top and he turns over again. His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left. ” (Ch.1: Violets, p.7)

An unsettling and spare debut, The Lighthouse begins on the deck of a ferry that carries Futh, a middle-aged man who recently separated from his wife, to a holiday along the Rhine. Despite its seemingly strange structure, where fragments of memories over time are juxtaposed, sometimes within the same passage, at the evocation of a smell or of the sight of an object, the plot is very simple. It’s a sentimental journey. Futh remembers a previous trip on the same ferry with his father, both of whom bruised and angry after the sudden, but premeditated, departure of Futh’s mother.

Futh and Angela walked into the hotel dining room, Futh with one hand in his pocket, his fingers wrapped tightly around the little silver lighthouse. He always took the lighthouse with him when he travelled, as if it were his Saint Christopher. (Ch.7, Stewed Apples, p.80)

Futh also reflects on early trips he took with his parents and his estranged wife, who resents Futh’s constant perception of her as a mother figure. (Futh’s mother and wife happen to have the same name, Angela.) Thoughts also meander to the patched-together family his father builds with Gloria, the woman next door, and her son Kenny, in the aftermath of Futh’s mother’s disappearance. Parallel to Futh’s misery is Easter’s. She and her husband Bernard run the bed-and-breakfast Futh stays. There’s a piece of backstory about their history that, in its treatment of brothers, betrayal, and infidelity, incites a sense of ominousness. During his stay, Futh offends Bernard grievously that for the rest of the novel, as his long walk takes him back to his troubled past, reader’s sense of inevitable disaster becomes almost unbearable.

Ester does not remember when she started drinking in the morning or sleeping in the middle of the day. She remembers her first infidelity but she does not remember them all. (Ch.16: Moths, p.168)

The Lighthouse explores grief and loss, and the patterns in the way we are hurt and have hurt others. The interchangeability of names and events takes a bit getting used to, but this sense of ambiguity also seems to speak the novel’s main theme: we go in circles, repeating the past, feeling trapped and claustrophobic, helplessly re-experiencing our earliest, sometimes life-forming, hurts.

183 pp. Salt Publishing UK. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[640] The Sense of An Ending – Julian Barnes

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” It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others. ” (Part Two, p.80)

The second time around The Sense of An Ending is even more hard-going. The subject matter is heavy and grim despite the short length of the book. It’s a mystery of memory and missed opportunity. Right off the bat the reader knows Tony Webster, who narrates in first-person voice, is unreliable. The unreliability is not a result of aging, but a deliberate effort on his part to avoid things rather than facing them. He’s a cautious, divorced man in his 60s who “had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded.” (99). He receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he’d met only once, some 40 years earlier. The mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, has bequeathed him a legacy that unsettles him, forcing him to get in touch with Veronica and seek answers to certain unresolved questions.

I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure. And that opens the field, doesn’t it? It also leads straight to the matter of Miss Veronica Ford. (Part Two, p.81)

The matter involves a diary of his best friend, Adrian Finn, for whom Veronica left Tony. The relationship ended very badly and Tony wrote Adrian and Veronica a vitriolic letter. Had he loved her? At the time, it was an emotion he had lacked the spine to own up to. As Tony assembles his willfully forgotten past impressions and actions, it’s obvious that he has been spineless his whole life. He has lived so carefully, avoids being hurt and calls it a capacity for survival. His life’s modest wages have resulted in the accumulation, the multiplication of loss, quoting his word. So his tragedy really is not the damage he has caused others, but the fact that he avoids deep connection rather than embracing it, for fear of risking its loss.

One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain? Well, there was all this to reflect upon, while I endured a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt—and inflicted for precisely that reason. (Part Two, p.142)

Remorse is the whole point of The Sense of An Ending. Tony Webster is more than the unreliable narrator—he is a total mystery to himself, clueless of the damage incurred on others while he is concerned only to avoid conflict, pain, and hurt. He plays safe but that’s just cowardice. The novel is beautifully written, full of the narrator’s own conversation bubbles. It reads a like short story infused with mislaid facts and suppressed memories that resurface at the whim of his mind. The corroboration he seeks only comes as a painful revelation of how he just resembles the people he fears.

150 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[639] The Year After – Martin Davies

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” They all wanted Tom unchanged, I could see that now. Lady Stansbury, Margot, even young Bill Stansbury. Tom was dependable, Tom was a rock. Tom was their link to the past, something that had survived, something solid to build on. No one wanted to believe there were any cracks. (Ch.12, Tom, p.380)

Set in 1919, The Year After concerns Captain Tom Allen, a soldier who has recently returned to England following the First World War. Feeling alone and unsettled in austere post-war London, Tom accepts a timely invitation to spend the Christmas season at Hannesford Court in Devon, home of the Stansbury family. The visit draws him back to the high society haven where he spent his pre-war years.

Behind the majestic decor and aside from the genteel façade, the war has been very tough on Hannesford. A son lost, another maimed, both daughters robbed of advantageous marriages. It seems inconceivable that the delicate, unworldly hostess, Lady Stansbury, could have survived such accumulation of sorrows. She asks Tom of a favor—to speak at the memorial service of the family’s golden boy, Harry. While Hannesford contrives to restore a festive air, the place, once full of boisterous young men who frequented raucous parties, is strangely empty.

Sturdy, honest folk. Yet I knew what Anne had said was true. I too would have found it much pleasanter to believe in an Eden free of serpents. (Ch.10, Tom, p.302)

The return to Hannesford prompts Tom to re-examine a dark, long-forgotten episode, just before the war, that occurred the annual grand ball in 1914. The death of a German professor marred the idyllic days of the house before the outbreak of the apocalyptic war. With the help of Anne Gregory, once the house nurse but now living in the vicarage, he uncovers a web of secrets and deception—and suddenly it dawns on him that none of the Hannesford inhabitants, or those were revered, is what they appeared to be. The family rather buries their shameful secrets along with the dead.

They were all the past. Nothing was the same. They were fragments of the world I’d thought we were defending. Yet it was gone already, despite those endless ranks of wasted lives; gone without anyone really noticing its passing. (Ch.8, Tom, p.255)

The Year After is not a war story, but one of love, loss, and the struggle to adapt to the world in the aftermath of the most destructive of conflicts. The bulk of the plot actually occurred back in 1914, unfolding at the expense of Tom and Anne’s remembrance and soul-searching. It is told in first person from Tom’s perspective, but much more intriguing, and revealing, despite the brevity, is the voice of Anne, whose accounts intersperse Tom’s. Her narrative fills in the gaps of happenings at Hannesford Court in Tom’s absence. Redolent in the pages ate lofty themes of unrequisited love, blind war pride, bereavement, and the whole british awkwardness as a result of a deliberate denial of reality and truth. The book shows how memory can be an uncertain witness and emotions can affect time’s malleability. Davies’s prose is a feat of lyricism, evocative of the period and life.

401 pp. Hodder/Hachette UK. Paper 2012. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[598] Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene

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” It was as though I had escaped from an open prison, had been snatched away, provided with a rope ladder and a waiting car, into my aunt’s world, the world of the unexpected character and the unforeseen event. There the rabbit-faced stranger was at home, the Czech with his two million plastic straws, and poor O’Toole busy making a record of his urine. ” (Part 2, Ch.3, 202)

Ambiguously titled to suggest a non-fiction, Travels With My Aunt is a bit of an oddity consider that Greene’s other works have gravitated on espionage and wars. Set in the mid-1960s, the book centers around Henry Pulling, a retired English bank manager who has lived life so prudently, safely and meticulously that he comes to realize he has left no consequential living memory in anyone he’s ever met. Single, never been married, unburdened by an familial obligation, his interests are dahlias and literature.

I despise no one, no one. Regret your own actions, if you like that kind of wallowing in self-pity, but never, never despise. Never presume yours is a better morality. (Part 1, Ch.13, 111)

Pulling’s monotonous life all changes when his mother dies. For the first time since he was a toddler he meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta, an old lady who is neither sober nor serious. She has long been absent, traveling through Europe, doing what later crosses my mind as intelligence work. She whisks her nephew away on excursions, at her own expenses, across Europe, through Paris, Brighton, Istanbul, and on the Orient Express. Regaled for Henry are stories of her entangled romances, petty criminality, and foreign intrigue all over the world. Most shocking of all to Henry is the story of his parents.

Obviously the main point of the book is about how people choose to live their lives. Aunt Augusta in the foremost provides the most food for thought: to live for the moment (surrender to extravagance) and to pursue her heart desire. the eccentric skein of character—the hippies, the CIA man, the war criminal, the charlatan, the man who puts both mistresses in the same hotel—all takes on dimension. That said, the book is not without its flaw. It’s parts are better than the whole, with bursts of humor and sober moments full of life’s instruction. Travels With My Aunt can feel meticulous and slow, but it’s worth a read for its keen observation on human dilemmas and eclecticism. When Pulling’s unforeseen adventure runs out of steam, one realizes the novel is not as light-hearted as it seems. Pulling finally “lives” as he is immersed in the streak of anarchy. Life really is fully of ironies if not an irony itself.

265 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[518] The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

“Her prime of life. A teacher of mine, she was full of culture. She was an Edinburgh Festival all on her own. She used to give us teas at her flat and tell us about her prime. ” (Ch.2, p.26)

Early 1930s, in Edinburgh, at the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a teacher named Miss Jean Brodie is truly different from the rest of the faculty. SHe is unmistakably and outspokenly in her prime. She has a passion for art and culture, proclaiming that “safety does not come first. Goodness, truth, and beauty come first.” (7) She is a preposterous woman who selects her elite group, seizes upon these docile, impressionable 12 year olds (whose parents she trusts will not lodge complaints) and influences them with her over-romanticized worldview. She spins tales about everything irrelevant to the curriculum. Her unorthodox teaching method without doubt raises many eye-brows and sets her at a disadvantage with the headmistress.

There were two exceptions on the staff, who felt neither resentment nor indifference towards Miss Brodie, but were, on the contrary, her supporters on every count. One of these was Mr. Gordon Lowther, the singing master for the whole school, Junior and Senior. The other was Mr. Teddy Lloyd, the Senior girls’ art master. They were the only men on the staff. Both were already a little in love with Miss Brodie . . . (Ch.3, p.49-50)

The six girls Miss Brodie singles out for her special pruning are known as the Brodie set. They are the most remarkable and brightest girls in spite of their aloofness. Under the calculating scheme of the headmistress, who sets her heart in breaking the set with a single stroke, the girls are assigned to different houses when they reach Senior school, for team spirit will cut across their individualism. Although these girls have little in common with each other outside their continuing friendship with Miss Brodie, later in life they would reflect that the first years with their progressive teacher have been some of the happiest time of their life.

Thus the narrative communicates back and forth in time, in sparing but brief omniscient interruptions, informing readers what will become of the Brodie girls: Mary will die young; Monica becomes a mathematician; Sandy, Miss Brodie’s betrayer, will become a nun; others will marry stolidly.

It was plain that Miss Brodie wanted Rose with her instinct to start preparing to be Teddy Lloyd’s lover, and Sandy with her insight to act as informant on the affair. (Ch.5, p.116)

Obviously Spark’s characterization is devoutly starved. Miss Brodie, outlandish and eccentric, is reduced to a collection of aphorisms throughout the novel. She is, in other words, not really known to readers, who are no more than her pupils in terms of knowing her. What they know about her—her attraction to the married art master, whom she renounces, and the affair with the bachelor music teacher, is what the headmistress craves to glean in order to discredit Miss Brodie.

This is a brilliant novel, funny and poignant at the same time. Brodie is a rebel, her influence malign. But the novel leaves the feeling that something unfulfilled and even desperate about her—for she is obviously ahead of her time and her progressiveness renders her alone. In spite of her folly, she has indubitably left her mark in the girls. Her defective sense of self-criticism has not been without its beneficient and enlarging effects.

137 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[516] Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor

” She re-read the letter for the third time, wondering how she could decently prevent Martha from coming, who could recreate the nightmare, letting slip placenames, which must never be mentioned to her again; but she knew that she could not decently prevent her, after all that she had done. ” (Ch.6, p.52)

Paring the purely descriptive element to the bone, Blaming barely holds up a story. What takes place here looks fairly simple: Amy, whose husband Nick dies suddenly while they are on vacation in Istanbul, is helped through the practical difficulties surrounding her loss by Martha, an American novelist whom at first Amy is reluctant to contact again after the two women have gone separate ways. Once back home, in the caring hands of Ernie the butler, Gareth the doctor and her son James, Amy allows grief to run its course, knowing that bereaved people are a great burden to others.

Once reconciled to the fact that, despite delays and excuses, Martha must eventually be invited, Amy had done her best, had bought flowers, which she did not do nowadays, and arranged them carefully, had tried to see her faded, but pretty house through the eyes of a foreign stranger . . . (Ch.7, p.63)

Earlier on the trip, in which Nick, recovering from a surgery, had been trying on Amy’s patience. The intrusive Martha befriended the couple and hoped for a growing acquaintance with them. Tragic circumstance has inevitably brought her closer to Amy, who is ungratefully reluctant to maintain the friendship. Eventually Martha secures an invitation to visit. Her presence in Amy’s life is irritatingly intrusive, but a curious bond begins to form between the two women. “In a way, Martha became part of the passing time,” yet Amy continues to resent her prodigality and impulsiveness. Amy herself develops an ever-clear liaison with the family doctor Gareth Lloyd, who has been a widower, under the gaze of her son and daughter-in-law James and Maggie, altogether less endearing than their two children.

The prevailing mood of Blaming is one of subdued bleakness. Though the characters themselves—fretful and grievous Amy, restless and impulsive Martha, aggravating James and inquisitive Dora seem to forge relationships with one another through a medium of disappointed expectations, Taylor invokes through them a sense of confusion and frustration because often time human imperfections are what make of life. Taylor’s characters are all so truthful because, above all, she was a great virtuoso of dialogue. She really knew how people talk. Taylor can be unforgiving towards her characters’ behavior; but she knows exactly why they behave in such a way.

190 pp. Virago Modern Classics. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[506] The Sea, the Sea – Iris Murdoch

” What shall I do with it, I asked her, what shall I do now with my love for you which you so terribly revived by reappearing in my life? Why did you come back, if you could not content me? What can I do now with the great useless machine of my love which has no wholesome work to do? . . . Perhaps when I was living alone and being everyone’s uncle like a celibate priest I would keep this fruitless love as my secret chapel. ” (456)

In his early 60s, Charles Arrowby retires from theater and pours his entire saving into a seaside brick house where he plans to live a quiet life of meditation and to write his memoir. Despite the meager amenities of the dilapidated house, he is absorbed and contented by this paradise that permits him genuine solitude—but not for too long. A series of strange events and unexpected visitors puncture this retirement regime. The novel-diary, which records his daily routine of swimming in the dangerous sea, buying groceries in the village, and making his obsessively detailed meals, becomes a continuum filled with allusions to myth and magic. The arrival of his guests subjects him to a confrontation of his own vanity, new possibility of romance, and unresolved bitterness.

You’ve lived in a hedonistic dream all your life, and you’ve got away with behaving like a cad because you always picked on women who could look after themselves. And my God you told us the score, you never committed yourself, you never said you loved us even when you did! (183)

Indeed Charles Arrowby is a cold fish with clean hands! He’s free from relationship obligations but memories of his past romances capitulate him. He pines for Lizzie, an actress whom he cares for but can only love dispossessively and platonically. Hartley, his first love from 40 years ago, is the main cause of his discontent in life. She appears in the hamlet where Charles lives, locked up in her own nightmare of a marriage. After the horrid interview with her husband, Charles sets out to rescue her in a campaign that covers long segments of the book. Hartley is haunted by her own demons, her reckless attempts to enrich her married life by adopting a son, which wound up creating only jealous suspicions in her husband’s mind about the child’s paternity She recognizes Charles’ affection for her but she believes she must remain in her marriage not because it’s right but because it defines her.

I’m not calling her a ghost. She is real, as human creatures are, but what reality she has is elsewhere. She does not coincide with your dream figure. You were not able to transform her. You must admit you tried and failed. (349)

In an important sense Charles Arrowby’s is the story of someone who violently and bullheadedly persists in all the wrong directions until time and experience—both under great pressure—and love form an unexpected quarter partially redeem him. Almost the entire novel is a derailment from his original intention—to write about his mentor with whom he had an affair. Clement, so her name was, is a shadow. Charles does not succeed in a renewed affair with Lizzie. He has deluded himself throughout by the idea of reviving a secret love all which all his relationships fail which did not exist at all. He is deeply self-deceived. He is so egotistic that he fails to conceive of a world outside his own head. This book has left me thoroughly divided. It’s as flawd and exhausting as it is exhilarating.

495 pp. Penguins Classics. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[505] The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst

” It was true of course that the lyric of grief was often attended, of followed soon after, by a more prosaic little compulsion, the unseemly grasp of the chance to tell the truth—and since the person involved could no longer mind . . . There was a special tone of indulgent candour, amusing putting-straight of the record, that wandered all too easily and invisibly into settling of scores and something a bit shy of objective life. ” (Part 5, Ch.1, p.412)

Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel in seven years since The Line of Beauty is about the life and legacy of a gay war poet, a minor one who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many great masters. The book, which consists of five parts and each occupies a different era over 90 years, shows how truth is compromised by the erasures of remembrance and history. The Stranger’s Child deals with the short but dramatic life and posthumous reputation of Cecil Valance, a Georgian poet whose lyrical outpourings are given huge poignancy by the carnage of the trenches.

Freda Sawle did say that Cecil had made a terrible mess in his room, and it had sounded petty of her, to say such a thing of a poet and a hero who had won the Military Cross. She alluded, in addition, to his ‘liveliness’ and the various things he had broken—widow’s mites, again, pathetic grievances. What she couldn’t begin to say was the mess Cecil Valance had made of her children. (Part 2, Ch.7, p.144)

In the summer of 1913, George Sawle brings Cecil Valance, a classmate from Cambridge with an aristocratic root, to his family’s home outside London. Cecil has an atmosphere and appeal of the unmentionable lust. The socially confident lad soon mesmerizes the entire family, including the servant who attends to him. he is George’s lover but soon after his arrival in Two Acres, George’s sister, Daphne, is equally besotted. She longs to be in Cecil’s company, but wanders off with George to the privacy of the wood. Hints of their fumblings become known to George’s mother when a bundle of letters arrive. The attraction between George and Cecil is amplified by its illegality in a way that makes it more powerful. The entire novel, as it unfolds over the next 90 years, hinges on that one weekend when Cecil Valance visits Two Acres and composes, for Daphne, on whom he takes a shine on, a poem that, after he is killed in the Great War, elevates him to fame.

Daphne always fell for different men who couldn’t love her properly—they couldn’t give her what she wanted. (Part 4, Ch.7, p.355)
Paul pictured George with the half-naked Cecil on the roof at Corley, and smiled distantly, at a loss as to how much of this she believed or expected him to believe; and to how much she might quite willingly have forgotten. (Part 4, Ch.8, p.370)

The Stranger’s Child is elegant, erudite, but also difficult and demanding. As Cecil’s slim reputation is fought over by scholars, ex-lovers, and a mother who makes a cult of him, an ambitious biographer emerges to unearth a tragic story that is spun over time, and its truth is known only to mother, daughter and son behind the door at Two Acres. The mysteries of the story focuses instead on the delusions of people around him. The true contours of lives—how they were truly experienced, disappears into haze. Daphne’s three marriages also render the paternity of her children mysterious. Hollinghurst recreates the life of Cecil through reminiscences of family and friends. He leaves readers to fill the vague well-intentioned space between those spoken memories and imaginings of them. I find his writing on buried homosexuality very repressed; and the book gets flatter as it paces steadily toward its revelations.

435 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[497] A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

” You’ve sinned. I suppose, but your punishment has been out of all proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable of only good. ” (Part Three, Ch.4, p.156)

Despite the shocker of unbearable violence and an obscure, invented lingo that takes a while to get the hang on, A Clockwork Orange is deeply philosophical. Set in the future, fifteen-year old Alex is a vicious teenager who is bent on senseless violence. He and his droogs unleash their destructive power at night, “razrezzing and giving the old in-out.” These thugs are on a spree of petty crimes, from mugging to car theft to gang fight and robbery, thinking they can get away with their alibis. What finally does him in is a break-in in which he beats an old lady to death.

You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence or to offend in any way whatsoever against the State’s Peace. I hope you take all that in. I hope you are absolutely clear in your own mind about that. (Part Two, Ch.3, p.95)

Released from state custody, he is subjected to treatment meant to impart goodness in him. The form of treatment involves an injection, and to arouse in him a moralistic sense through experiences of visual repulsion. Alex is shown, while handcuffed to an armchair, films that depict very tragic and atrocious violence that reminds him of his own crimes—and induces discomfort.

The pain I felt now in my belly and the headache and the thirst were terrible, and they all seemed to be coming out of the screen. So I creeched. ‘Stop the film! Please, please stop it! I can’t stand any more.’ (Part Two, Ch.4, p.105)

The premise of A Clockwork Orange is simple: the important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita also echoes this theme and goes farther since Satan is one of the characters. In this case, when the state undertakes to reform him, forcing him to to walk a tightrope of imposed goodness, they have gone too far. The government has entered a region beyond its covenant with the citizen; it has closed to its victim a whole world of non-moral goodness. What Burgess was trying to say was that it is better to be bad of one’s free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing. In other word, as a result of this reform, Alex is deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice. A human being is endowed with free will—he can use this to choose between good and evil.

The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within, 6655321. Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man. (Part Two, Ch.1, p.83)

This lesson sticks out like a sore thumb. In the author’s own words, if a person can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange, meaning that “he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by Good or Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.” The novel, written in a very articulate and invented lingo, has a three-pronged narrative that depicts moral progress: from the total evil to a total good rid of criminal propensities, and the ultimate reconciliation that evil and good must coexist because they justify one another. It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be completely evil.

The writing can be hard going at the beginning. But the invented lingo seems systematic in the way that words are repeatedly use to convey the same meaning. I read the edition with a chapter that was originally left out when the book was published in the United States back in 1962. The edition is also devoid of a glossary of the teenager’s language but I got a hang of the language after three chapters.

192 pp. Norton Paperback Fictions. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[496] A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark

” My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious. ” (Ch.11, p.130)

My first Muriel Spark novel will not be last. I have refrained from perusing her works because I do not know where to begin since she has a long oeuvre of forty some novels. The semi-autobiographical A Far Cry from Kensington merits a double recommendation: a friend with trusted reading taste and an endorsement from The King’s English Bookshop book lists. this jewel of a book is pure delight for a day of reading in the sun.

Mrs. Hawkins is the narrator in retrospection. Now living in Italy, she is a war widow looking back on her life in London thirty years earlier when she lived in a South Kensington rooming house and worked in publishing in 1954. (This really evokes 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff.) Besides her day job as an editor at a small press that, despite its quality serious books, barely survives the austerities of war-time, she dispenses advice to the tenants at the house. Though at a relatively young age of 28, she is of sufficient charm and her personality magnetic enough to attract even her boss, who struggles to keep the publishing firm afloat, to confide in her matters that later used as evidence against his fraudulent activities. (Sadly, he was out of his wit, thinking perhaps he might have a shot at getting back to his first love—books).

In the months between my abrupt departure from the Ullswater Press and Martin York’s arrest I wasted my time with a sense of justified guilt. I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. (Ch. 5, p.53)

Things take a sinister turn at the rooming house when Wanda Podolak, an immigrant Polish dressmaker, receives a mysterious letter accusing her of evading income taxes to some authorities. Petrified that she shall be deported back to her homeland, she only seeks the consul of Mrs. Hawkins, whose investigative effort amounts to nothing. This incident finally takes a preposterous turn for worse when Mrs. Hawkins finds herself being the culprit. From there Wanda has a nervous breakdown.

Meanwhile, our upright narrator, whose forthright, no non-sense manner puts her career at stake. When a self-congratulatory hack writer, Hector Bartlett, stalks her to get his drivel published by her press, she sneers at him and tells him in his face that he is a pisseur de copie, the French term for hack writer who urinates books. Unbeknownst to her, and therefore sadly, this hanger-on has an affair with a well-regarded author, Emma Loy, who has a “morbid dependence” on him—and Mrs. Hawkins loses her job.

In A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark, with glows of lyricism, delivers a narrative that focuses on the book publishing industry in post-war England and Mars. Hawkins’ career as an editor. Balancing her profession is her investigation on the perpetrator who contrives to force ot a tenant in her rooming house. Not only does Spark’s writing hums with creations, she also brings alive the life of London and its skein of diverse residents. Nancy Hawkins will be memorable for her integrity (and her maxim “No life can be carried on unless people are honest.”) and, no offense, her fatness, which she anatomizes convincingly, with a tingle of self-depracating humor. It’s her physical attribute that breaks ice and invites confidence. In a way, her fatness camouflages her spikiness.

189 pp. New Directions Classic. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]