September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

by Muriel Spark

Anyone evaluating Spark’s latest novel could do far worse than crib a critique her protagonist, a book editor, gives an author in he charge: “Nobody could ever deny that she was a marvelous writer…. After the drivel had been dealing with, Emma’s work was a decided relief, it was sheer pleasure, that way of composing a book like a piece of music.” The melody lingers long after the reader has finished A Far Cry from Kensington. The novel, set in the London of 1954, centers or Mrs. Hawkins, a no-nonsense war widow who is relentlessly capable of transmogrifying chaos into order and relentlessly incapabable of calling a spade anything but a spade. Mrs. Hawkins has a first name—Agnes—but no one at the rooming house where she lives or at any of the publishing houses that employ her dreams of using it: “Although I was a young woman of 28, I was generally known as Mrs. Hawkins. This seemed so natural to me and was obviously so natural to those around me that I never at the time thought of insisting otherwise…. There was something about me, Mrs. Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside.” Mrs. Hawkins’ discomfort begins when she insults Hector Bartlett, the poster child of literary hangers-on, by calling him a “pisseur de copie”— “a urinator of journalistic copy.” The insult sets off a chain of events, some comic, some tragic, all wonderful for the reader caught in Spark’s thrall. There isn’t an extraneous word in the novel, nor a character who is less than memorable. Mostly, there is Mrs. Hawkins, a trustworthy narrator and a font of advice about matters dietary (“eat and drink half”) and literary (“Now, it fell to me to give advice to many authors…. So I will repeat it here, free of charge…. ‘You are writing a letter to a friend…. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity… so that your true friend will read it over and over.’ “). She also provides marital counsel (“first see the other person when drunk”) and muses about human nature—”It is not because we are rats that we tend to abandon people who are down, it is because we are embarrassed.” Such insights make it clear what a far cry most novelists are from Muriel Spark. (Houghton Mifflin, $17.95)

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