"A Far Cry From Kensington" is set in post-WWII England and is the story of Mrs Hawkins--a sizeable war widow in her late 20s who resides in a boarding house in Kensington and works at the publishers, Ullswater and York. The eminently sensible Mrs Hawkins occupies respectable positions in both her private life and in her professional life. At work, people confide in her--including her employer, the desperate Mr York who is madly, busily forging his way to a hefty prison sentence. At home, fellow tenants also look to Mrs Hawkins as a confidante, so when nervous boarder, Wanda Podolak, a Polish refugee receives an anonyomous threatening letter, Mrs Hawkins becomes involved in more ways than she could imagine.
This excellent novel is full of deliciously odd characters--Martin York, the publisher whose life is spiralling out of control; Emma Loy, the famous novelist who dresses in grey and insists on promoting nasty Hector Bartlett--a would-be author; Mackinstosh and Tooley--the publishers who seem to have a predilecation for employing peculiar people, and Wanda Podolak, the hysterical dressmaker who has something to hide. "A Far Cry From Kensington" is part mystery, part drama--but all highly entertaining. Particularly amusing, are the scenes in which Mrs Hawkins deals with novelists. She offers frank advice to those who seek publication, and then there are also those who refuse to listen. The insights Mrs Hawkins possesses about some of the writers are priceless. This is my first Spark novel, and it certainly won't be my last. I am delighted by her characters and her style--displacedhuman.
Told from the point of view of Mrs. Hawkins, looking back on her years in a failing London publishing house during the years following WW II. It mixes a tale of deceit within the publishing world with the eccentric characters of her seedy boarding house. Spark's scathing wit and marvelous way with words is sprinkled lavishly over everything, like salsa on an already terrific plate of nachos.
By turns hilarious, witty, sarcastic, and wryly endearing, it's a masterpiece.
Lise, 34, is a product of scrubbed clean and prepackaged modern society, and is or has become a kind of tight - lipped clockwork cog blandly caught in the dull hierarchical social and economic machinery of life. Emotionally sterile and spiritually vacant, only the briefest glimpses into the inner workings of Lise's mind are made available. However, Lise, who habitually erupts into unprovoked barking laughter, has had "years of illness" of the psychological kind, the results of which have left her office coworkers quietly terrified of her presence. Lise is a walking pathology, a brittle death's head effigy who is likely to collapse or collapse a building at any moment should her precarious self regulating control system fail. Lise is a shark fin cutting the surface of life, a breathing but not necessarily living crash test dummy, a combustible wax work 'other' lacking a genuine human presence and an authentic resemblance to mankind. Spark hilariously underscores Lise's tragic monstrousness by giving her the Bride of Frankenstein's hairstyle, skunk stripe rising up from middlebrow to high pile above.
Subtly coerced by her coworkers to take a vacation, Lise already has extensive plans to do so. She will travel by plane from her own northern country (probably Sweden) to a southern country (most likely Italy), leaving behind her modern pine walled apartment, which has been constructed so that all furniture and appliances fold smoothly away into the walls (even the toilet). Lise keeps the few visible household trappings perfectly ordered and devoid of personal touches, leaving the apartment like a hotel room in a perpetual state of readiness for the next guest. Lise's home is her 'pine box.'
Only elderly, sweet natured, and met - along - the way traveling companion Mrs. Fiedke, who can neither see nor hear properly, can stomach Lise's company as Lise searches endlessly for a "boyfriend" she is unable to recognize or describe. In an effort to assist, Mrs. Fiedke asks, "Will you feel a presence? Is that how you'll know?" "Not really a presence," Lise famously replies, "the lack of an absence, that's what it is." Strangely, Lise becomes briefly more human as the narrative winds to a close; she momentarily regrets the plan she has precipitated, even while there is still more than enough time to bring it to a halt. She misses "the lonely grief" of home, and offhandedly says, "I wished my parents had practiced birth control." Readers will find Lise's brief manifestation of humanity starkly poignant.
By revealing that Lise's present condition has been partially caused by her being "neither pretty or ugly," and her continuing isolation due to her intrinsic status as a nondescript person in a world of mediocre, bland, and unremarkable people, Spark underscores the process by which some individuals perpetually overlooked as 'ordinary' can become extraordinary deviant and dangerous. Encouraging already indistinct members of society to assume generic personalities and rigid, conformist lifestyles, Spark seems to be saying, doesn't force the evolution of the New Man, but causes permanent spiritual deformities and creates abominations.
The Driver's Seat is filled with eccentric characters, but unlike other Spark novels, there are no outright sinister eccentrics other than Lise. The Driver's Seat equates evil with processed sterility and blankness rather than with the more traditional concepts of Christian sin and violation of grace and virtue. Here, vacuous stupidity (when Lise and Mrs. Fiedke are surrounded by cavorting hippies, shrewd Mrs. Fiedke says, "They are hermaphrodites. It isn't their fault"), solipsism, witless opinion, groundless protest, and trendy hedonism are merely the new norm, the to - be expected detritus of newly destabilized Western life. Even meek Mrs. Fiedke, representing the decaying old guard, believes all "homosexuals should be put on an island" and doesn't hesitate to say so. In the Driver's Seat, both civilization and nature, both the old order and the new, are at a dead end.
In an absurd world, can a person seize complete control of his or her destiny? If so, to what degree, and to how many possible outcomes? Can man successfully usurp God's role? These are the questions Spark raises and unsettlingly addresses here.
A story of a woman in search of the perfect man, and of two people perfectly suited for one another finally meeting, The Driver's Seat turns every fairytale and romantic notion painfully upon its head. Upon finishing the book, Spark landed in the hospital, apparently suffering nervous strain and exhaustion, which gives potential readers a hint of its macabre power. Highly recommended.
The foreshadowing, sometimes subtle sometimes obvious, allows Spark to play around with the genres of the thriller, the detective story and the holiday romance. But it is in the self-consciously deliberate way that Muriel Spark at the same time obscures and reveals Lise to us that the genius of the author is demonstrated.
It's not a happy holiday read, it is an addictive and provocative story, told with considerable narrative skill.
The plot is fascinating and a constant undertow back into the same themes of the true reality of a book. Is this memoir (fictional) told by an unreliable narrator? I think so. It's hard to know. Some events seem Kafkaesque in their bizarreness, but then turn out to have plain explanations.
Ultimately, evil bizarrely destroys itself; good triumphs with sacrifices. All is never as it appears with Ms. Spark.
Aside from Nathalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones," no other book has impacted my writing career as much. I recommend Ms. Spark's work to youg and old writers. I use "Loitering with Intent" as text book for character development in writing workshops. There is no other writer, male or female who can do what she does with the development of a character. In addition Ms. Spark's notion that "in life no experience is without value, nothing is lost" preceded the "Celestine Prophecies" by at least two decades.
I call the book a metaphor for life because in the process of inspiring others, it is one of the books I always suggest they read. Muriel Spark is truly one of a kind. Her gift to the writing life in "Loitering with Intent" is priceless. She is to writing, what Quentin Crisp was to style.
This perspective, of honest and thoughtful youth, I find refreshingly sane. The protagonist triumphs completely over the obstacles set before her by employers, publishers, and especially, friends, ultimately realizing her full potential and achieving success. She also defeats passion to some extent, by remaining thoughtful and true to herself, a lesson I find extremely important for young people in modern society, where so little guidance is offered in this area. Though overcoming passion, Fleur is by no means dispassionate, nor is she judgmental or moralizing. She simply recognizes and accepts others for what they are, choosing to spend her time at things most important to her. The clarity of self-perception Spark offers us is, I feel, poetic and inspirational. She manages to convey strength as a force of will and self-worth, rather then the all to frequent hodge-podge of money, appearance, peers, employers, etc., offered by the mass media to young people today.
I hope that this book would be used in cirruculum for teenagers or summer reading programs.
THE BACHELORS has a lot of both--the "medium" Patrick is one of Spark's most chilling portraits of evil. The scheming Spiritualists resemble more typical Spark "villains" (like the literary circle in LOITERING WITH INTENT), but are perhaps even more harmless in and of themselves. However, unwittingly they touch on something far grimmer--Spark demolishes the Spiritualists by showing that the only thing worse than their nonsense is when they stumble upon something genuine.
The "good" bachelors' interactions with this group provide an entertaining and equally true view of things, preventing the chill from permeating the book.
But it is her wit that causes Ms. Spark to rise above her contemporaries. She renders the worlds she creates with such slyness, one wishes he could have cocktails with the author every single night of the week. Or at least on weekends.
List price: $24.95 (that's 30% off!)
Candidate 1 recites her favorite (Protestant) English poetry rather than the Psalms, supports a strong sense of societial class, and uses electronic eavesdropping as a mere extention of listening to convent gossip as a way to maintain proper order.
Candidate 2 is compulsive regarding order in her sewing box, maintains an all-too-public liaison with a young Jesuit (outdoors rather than linen closets), and leads the sewing nuns to dreams of freedom.
Add to this a missionary nun using Machivelli to deal with cannibal and vegetarian tribes, young Jesuits bungling break-ins, a nun cross-dressing to deliver hush money ... and you have an absolutely hilarious study in justification of means to insure one's "destiny".
Literary blathering aside, this is also one of Muriel Spark's funniest books, which makes it doubly wonderful.