Mrs. Hawkins, the narrator and main character of this novel by Muriel Spark, is a 28-year-old war widow who lives in a rooming house and works as an editor at a small publishing firm in 1950s Kensington. In her home and professional life, she’s surrounded by people who need her help. Mrs. Hawkins has strong opinions, but she puts on a kind and maternal face and keeps her more mean-spirited thoughts to herself. Instead, she shares her acerbic thoughts with her readers in statements like this:
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. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.
Overweight and on her own, Mrs. Hawkins is a spectator on other people’s lives. In one sequence early in the book, she joins her landlady on the stairwell of the rooming house to eat chocolates and watch the neighbors fight in the house next door. When she eventually calls the police, the officer joins them on the staircase to see how the show proceeds. Mrs. Hawkins observes, intervening only when absolutely necessary. She’s adjacent to life, not part of it.
Her work as an editor suits her tendency to judge and to advise, and she seems to be good at her job. Authors bring their work to the small publishing firm where she works, and she accepts the writing with potential (about 9/10 is rejected) and helps make it the best it can be. Some authors have difficulty with rejection and are always looking for ways to get in the good graces of the firm and its owner, Martin York. Mrs Hawkins notes that many of these authors’ works are highly unworthy:
I forget which of the French symbolist writers of the late nineteenth century denounced a hack writer as a urinator of journalistic copy in the phrase ‘pisseur de copie’, but the description remained in my mind, and I attached it to a great many of the writers who hung around or wanted to meet Martin York; and finally I attached it for life to one man alone, Hector Bartlett.
Hector Bartlett is a particularly persistent character, haunting Mrs. Hawkins’s steps in the park, and finally one day, to her own astonishment, she calls him a pisseur de copie right to his face. Mrs. Hawkins may be right that Bartlett “vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it,” but she didn’t take into account the fact that he was also well-connected, and these hasty words have consequences that unspool so slowly that she’s not even aware of them until the thread has rolled right off the spool.
That slow unspooling makes this a particularly ingenious novel. There are lots of things going on—Mrs. Hawkins’s neighbors and coworkers each seem to have a story, and each one seems to matter, even if only because of what Mrs. Hawkins’s commentary about them says about Mrs. Hawkins herself. But these details add up and become more than just window dressing. These people who seem like adjuncts to Mrs. Hawkins’s life are profoundly affected by her presence, and not always in the ways she intended. The actions of the observer, the editor have an impact.
Mrs. Hawkins tells her story from more than 30 years after the events of the novel. She has lost weight and now goes by her given name, Nancy. Her life is a “far cry” from what it was, and she doesn’t seem to regret that. But at night, she lies in bed and thinks back, and I wonder if she’s haunted by another “far cry” that calls out from the past. Mrs. Hawkins’s manner of telling her story makes me feel she’s maintaining a deliberate distance from it. She wants to be the clever and knowing person who is above and outside the drama, but more than 30 years later, this is the story she thinks of when she lies awake at night, continuing the “habit of insomnia” that began in those days. She can’t help herself. That faraway cry continues.
I’ve read two novels by Muriel Spark before this one (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Aiding and Abetting), and I find her work difficult to pin down. I get the impression that a lot of people feel this way about Spark’s writing. I enjoyed this book more than the other two I read, but I still couldn’t get a handle on whether it’s meant to be comic or introspective or melodramatic, or a little of everything. I suspect it’s a little of everything, with the reader left to determine which tone dominates. The same is true with Mrs. Hawkins herself. Are we supposed to like her, laugh at her, pity her, applaud her? All of the above? None of the above? This ambiguity of tone makes her work interesting, but strange. Have others found this to be true?
So I’m not at a point of loving Muriel Spark. In a lot of cases, when I feel ambiguous about an author after three books, I stop bothering to read more, but I find Spark’s writing—and my feelings about it—so intriguing that I’m also not at the point of giving up. Any suggestions of other books of hers I might try?