“So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence. Eventually, I fell asleep contented, filled with soundlessness, but while I was awake I enjoyed the experience of darkness, thought, memory, sweet anticipations.”
Does that remind you of anything? Yup, me too: surely we’re not wrong in thinking of the first page of Swann’s Way, when the narrator says “For a long time I would go to bed early” and goes on (and on and on …) to discuss the process of falling asleep, invoking darkness, thoughts, memories. When I first read A Far Cry from Kensington back in 1988 Marcel Proust was the furthest thing from my mind but now that I’m sleeping with him, I see him everywhere. I wouldn’t care to sit at a seminar table and defend a Proustian reading of A Far Cry… but there are interesting parallels aside from the opening and aside from Spark’s recurrent insistence on sleep.
Her narrator, Mrs. Hawkins, is looking back on a certain period of her life — a year or so in 1954-5, when she lived in a rooming house in South Kensington. She works at several successive literary enterprises, two publishers and a literary magazine. In the course of the novel, she transforms herself by losing a great deal of weight. In the process, her life is altered because everyone interacts with her differently. She becomes, actually, younger, shedding her authority as she sheds pounds.
The tone is miles from Proustian. Spark’s bracing prose is a marvel of economy and grace. What’s more, the novel is funny. Mrs. Hawkins takes against a literary hanger-on named Hector Bartlett who wants her to promote his career. Early in the novel he asks her, “Won’t you call me Hector?” and she replies, “No, I call you Pisseur de copie” — a term that she claims originates with a French symbolist writer. They become enemies, of course, in the small world of post-war English publishing. But there are further complications involving a lady novelist, a Polish seamstress, and a psuedo-science called “radionics.” It’s all very entertaining and wry.
So, then… Proust? Spark stitches the narrative back and forth in time, bringing us up to the present, diving back into the past, lying in bed and thinking things over. And what seems most Proustian to me is her emphasis on the slippery quality of perception and judgment. From a mere name (say, “the princess of Guermantes”) Proust’s narrator invents a character, a past, an entire milieu. Mrs. Hawkins, sure of her own good sense, does likewise. She makes assumptions and fills in gaps, erroneously. As she says, late in the book, “What did I really know of all the people I had met in the offices where I had worked, day after day?” There are other common points: the emphasis on literature, the gay couple who are her last bosses. I could amuse myself by comparing Mrs. Hawkins’ attendance at a formal dinner party to any one of a number of Proustian social events. The contrast between Proust’s curlicues and Spark’s declaratives gives me great pleasure, even if this is just my little literary conceit.
And for those of you who are keeping track, this is another treat from the magical laundry-room book shelf. A first edition, no less!