Wednesday 25 April 2012

Pisseur de copie

(Ok, the first thing I don't like about the new Blogger interface is that you can't position your images left or right, it just puts them in the middle without asking.)

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark. I started reading this last week, to get a head start on the Muriel Spark Reading Week. Although written in 1988 it has this wonderful 1950's atmosphere. I have found Spark is very much a character writer and this book is no exception, and every single one of them could quite easily be described as somewhat quirky, all in different ways, from Mrs Hawkins (our protagonist) through to the minor players at the office, like the woman who's father is a mass murderer. The story follows Mrs Hawkins (or Nancy, as it turns out) through her home life in a slightly shabby boarding house, and her various employment within the publishing industry. I get the impression that it was a parody of Spark's own experience of publishers and the industry in general, a closed and insular little world. Her defining feature, by both herself and those who know her, is her reliability. People turn to her for advice, and she does not stint on handing it out. It is her encounter with a man called Hector Bartlett that sparks the chain of events that befall her. He is a smarmy, untalented little man and in a fit of annoyance she tells him he is a 'pisseur de copie' (someone who pisses hack journalism). It is a blunt and honest summation of him, appearing cruel, except that she does not suffer fools gladly and due to her editing experience is a good judge of writing. 

"What he wanted from me was an introduction to Martin York and through him to his uncle, a film producer.
Pisseur de copie! Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.
'Mrs Hawkins, I take incalculable pains with my prose style.'
He did indeed. The pains showed. his writing writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long Latin-based words." (p.43-44)

Despite it causing her the loss of her job she never regrets the comment, and indeed, repeats it on more than one occasion. It comes to be repeated with uncharacteristic venom, and by the time she encounters him at the end of the book I was almost (only almost) feeling sorry for him. 

I liked Mrs Hawkins, and watching her friendships with the people around her, the ins and outs of the little group that shares the boarding house, but it was her perceptiveness about herself and others that made her so interesting. She recognised people's weaknesses but did not judge them for it (with the exception of Bartlett). She looks critically at her own life, prematurely widowed and resigned to quasi middle aged sexlessness, she decides to take control and recreate herself. But all the time something more sinister is going on in the background, that justifies her negative judgement of Bartlett. 

Lovely understated writing. I recently watched the film of 84 Charing Cross Road (though have not read the book) and the description of the atmosphere in the office of Ullswater Press reminded me very much of that:

"The morning clattered on, with the sound of Ivy's typewriter and Cathy the bookkeeper's muttering, the sound of all our shoes on the bare boards of the office floor and the rattle of cups as one of us made the tea." (p.48)

And here is Sir Alec, her second employer:

"Sir Alec was thin and grey and his voice matched his looks. It sounded like a wisp of smoke wafting from some burning of leaves hidden by a clump of lavender." (p.71)

All in all a very satisfying read, highly recommended.
Other books I have read by Muriel Spark: The Driver's Seat, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Not to Disturb. I started listening to Symposium on CD over the washing up this morning but was not taken with it so will move on to Finishing School. Please visit over at Stuck in a Book and see what other people have been reading this week.


  1. Lovely! Darlene (Roses over a cottage door) also reviewed this, and now it's one I really, really want to read... luckily I have a copy somewhere.

    And I find on the Blogger interface that it automatically puts things in the middle, but if you click on the image it should give you the option to move it to left or right... good luck!


  2. I enjoyed the play version of 34 Charing Cross Rd too.

    Yes re the pictures - you can have left, right or middle and they hop bit when you add captions but it helps to do so in case it is being read by a machine to someone who cannot see.

  3. Enjoyed your review. I read the same book. Have yet to pen my thoughts on it. You are correct about the book being a reflection on her publishing life.

  4. Have just started 'A Far Cry From Kensington' and I am already drawn into its world of faded, 50s, London, bed sit land. The comparison to 84, Charing Cross Rd is apt.


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