In Muriel Spark’s splendid novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, finds herself at a dinner-party sitting next to a retired Brigadier General. She gives him advice on how to get down to writing his memoirs. Get a cat. She explains: ‘Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp . . . and the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind the self-command it has lost.’
The advice bears fruit. Three years later the Brigadier sends her a copy of his war memoirs. ‘On the cover was a picture of the Brigadier at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it “To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.” The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that the cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’
Here is my own writer’s companion, sitting among the reference works.
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.