A Far Cry from Kensington is set precisely in 1954 and ’55. It is narrated by a woman called Nancy Hawkins who is looking back, decades on from the 1950s, on her early life. The young Mrs Hawkins in 1954 is a war-widow and 28 years old (Spark was 26 in 1954 and separated from her husband). Mrs Hawkins is very fat: “I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside.” Mrs Hawkins – which is how she is referred to through most of the novel – is living in a boarding house in Kensington. The “Far Cry” of the title reflects the distance she has travelled since then. Her reminiscences centre around life in the house, with its assorted, eccentric tenants, and her rackety career in two London publishing houses, from the small and indigent (the Ullswater Press) to the large and prosperous (Mackintosh & Tooley) and, eventually, an intellectual magazine called the Highgate Review. However, what seems aleatory and anecdotal soon begins to take on narrative shape in the figure of a self-important, talentless man-of-letters called Hector Bartlett. Bartlett, mysteriously, like a virus, begins to infect all areas of Mrs Hawkins’ life – her job, her home, the people she knows. Very quickly she begins to hate Bartlett and describes him – to his face and to everyone who has connections with him – as a pisseur de copie. “It means,” Mrs Hawkins explains, “that he pisses hack-journalism, it means that he urinates frightful prose.”
Bartlett’s intrusion into Mrs Hawkins’ life provides the narrative momentum to A Far Cry. He blackmails a fellow lodger; his liaison with a chic, successful novelist called Emma Loy gets Mrs Hawkins fired from two jobs; Bartlett’s appalling manuscripts keep landing on her desk; but, in a significant way, the plot of A Far Cry is not what makes it beguiling. The novel is dominated by the character of Mrs Hawkins and her tone of voice and is full of her bons mots and theories about how to make the most of life. For example:
“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.”
“Cultured people are not necessarily nicer people . . . Frequently, the reverse.”
“[Friendship and loyalty] are ideals that can put too much of a strain on purposes which are perhaps more important.”
Mrs Hawkins is hugely confident and, in a real sense, a life force. People are drawn to her; people confess to her; people think she is wise and all-knowing; people ask her advice about what they should do in all manner of difficult and compromising situations. And so, as the story of Mrs Hawkins’ reminiscences plays out, this comedy of manners in post-war London, with its bomb-sites and poor food, its meagre pleasures and low-rent aspirations, delivers many riches. Spark has the publishing world dead to rights; she understands the feeble ploys and manoeuvres of people on the make in the most modest and unassuming of ways; she relishes life’s inherent absurdity.
In this sense she reminds me of Chekhov – that other gimlet-eyed observer of the human predicament – who wrote, in 1888, that the writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness… It’s time for writers, especially writers of real artistic worth, to realise that in fact nothing can be understood in this world.” - William Boyd