A few weeks ago in my post ‘Nothing New under the Sun’ I wrote about diets in fiction, and the other day it occurred to me that I had missed out a novel I much admire, Muriel Spark’s A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON. I have it next to me as I write and it is the most beautiful hardback copy, published by Virago in 2008, twenty years after it first came out, with a cover design,’Calyx,’ by Lucienne Day, originally a textile designed for Heal’s and launched at the Festival of Britain in 1951. That is fitting, as the novel is set in 1954. The world of rationing and boarding-houses and poorly paid jobs in publishing is brilliantly evoked. The character of the first person narrator gives the novel a warmth which hasn’t tended to be there in the other novels by Spark that I have read. Mrs Hawkins, always addressed that way though she is only twenty-eight, is a war-widow and – not to put too fine a point on – fat. There is a connection between these two states. And it is after she begins to fall in love with William, the upstairs lodger, about a third of the way through the novel that she decides to go on a diet. Earlier she offers this piece of advice, ‘As an aside, I can tell you that if there is nothing wrong with you except fat it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. If you are handed a plate of food, leave half: if you have to help yourself, take half. After a while, if you are a perfectionist, you can consume half of that again. On the question of will-power, if that is a factor, you should think of will-power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future or the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained . . .’ She adds ‘I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book.’ And I should say it is probably worth the price of the book. A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON is only incidentally a love-story. Naturally, as it is a novel by Muriel Spark, something much darker is going on, nothing less than an examination of the nature of evil. In a brilliant piece of plotting, when Mrs Hawkins begins her diet and rapidly loses weight, it has a very unexpected bearing on the main plot and, well, I won’t say more in case you haven’t read it. It is a brilliant novel and I wish I could write something half as good.
Or in the original French, Maigret s’amuse, and, yes, I am reading it in the original French – on my Kindle with the aid of an electronic French dictionary. It’s wonderful: all I have to do is touch a word for a definition to appear. Mind you, it’s not perfect. It sometimes doesn’t have a definition and it translates into American English. When ‘boondoggle’came up I was none the wiser and had to look it up in my Concise Oxford Dictionary to discover that it means a useless undertaking or fraud. Still, it’s good enough for me to be grasp the gist of the novel fairly easily most of the time. I’ve been meaning for a while to brush up my French – years and years ago I did ‘A’ Level French – and the Maigret novels are perfect for this. They are quite short and fairly straightforward in their syntax, not too many past historic tenses or present subjectives. And they are good stories too. I think Simenon too must have amused himself with this one. Maigret has had quite a serious illness and has been told by his doctor that this year he must have a holiday. When their plans fall through he and Madame Maigret decide to spend the time having days out in Paris, and he promises not to go into the office. But of course his interest is piqued when he see in the newspaper that a woman’s body has been found stuffed into a closet in a doctor’s surgery. He sets himself the task of solving the crime without taking part or interfering in any way with the police investigation. How this will work out, I don’t yet know as I am only a fifth of the way through. Reading it in French has revealed some interesting aspects that you really wouldn’t be aware of reading it in translation. I am fascinated to see that Maigret addresses his old friend Dr Pardon as ‘vous’ even though they have dinner at each other’s houses every month. The novel dates from 1957, more formal days. Of course it makes ‘tu’ that goes back and forth between Maigret and his wife seem all the more intimate. I am confident that I can get to the end of Maigret s’amuse, but I am not sure that I am up for reading Camus’s La Peste in French. That is our book group choice for July. We’ll see.