From A Far Cry From Kensington, Muriel Spark, 1988:
I went to lunch at a pub nearby to eat half a delicious ham sandwich and drink half a cup of watery coffee and half a glass of port.[ … ]The place was soon full of people and noise, the smell of cigarettes, beer and of people. The door swung open and shut as more and more people came in. One man had a spaniel on a lead. He let it loose and it ambled around everyone’s legs to see what treats it could pick up from friendly customers by way of bits of sandwich or sausage rolls.
Anyone with a feeling for the cultural moment will be aware of Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, a short story first published in The New Yorker in 2017 that went on to become the most discussed short story in the history of the internet. The unprecedented online response to this ‘Me-Too’-ready story secured a book contract and film deal for Roupenian. Last week it was revealed that Roupenian used real-life models for her fictional protagonists: a man she had once known and the man’s younger girlfriend, who Roupenian did not know but whose personal attributes she was able to glean from social media. The model for ‘Robert’, the ageing creep (he is 34) of Roupenian’s story, was described in warm terms by his actual ex-girlfriend, one Alexis Nowicki, in her own account of how she discovered herself to be a character in a Zeigeist-serving work of fiction. She also disclosed that the model for ‘Robert’ died in 2020.
This episode highlights the danger an author runs when smuggling living, breathing human beings into their work. Naturally, there are plenty of august literary antecedents for hurt feelings being caused by authors transplanting genuine personalities directly onto the page. Leigh Hunt was deeply wounded by Dickens’s portrayal of him as Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, and Ottoline Morrell never forgave D.H. Lawrence for sending her up in Women In Love. The novels of Waugh and Anthony Powell are stuffed with easily recognisable personalities who are not always treated kindly. And so on, fair game for novelists and dramatists, etc.. But I will confess to being intrigued by what the process reveals about the writer attempting the transformation. Reading up on Fitzrovia’s literary pubs I became interested in one Derek Stanford, a minor figure on the post-war literary scene whose involvement with Muriel Spark began as romantic and literary camaraderie but ended up souring in spectacular fashion. In the 1940s the two of them were a force in London’s notoriously febrile poetry world and so close personally that at one point they were actually engaged. However, something went very badly wrong, and by the time she wrote A Far Cry From Kensington she detested Stanford so much that she used him as the model for that book’s villain.
A Far Cry From Kensington is a roman-à-clef, and draws on Spark’s experiences in publishing during the London of the mid-1950s. For all its inventiveness and atmosphere – drawing on the boarding-house seediness of post-war west London – it possesses a certain smugness of tone, a retrospective self-satisfaction that reminds me of Evelyn Waugh at his most complacent. The narrator, a Mrs. Hawkins, a war widow of twenty-eight, describes herself as ‘fat’ in the early pages of the book, and her remedy to this condition is presented thus: ‘You eat and drink the same as always, only half, and adds: ‘I offer this advice without fee: it is included in the price of this book.’ (As someone who has struggled with his weight for most of his life, all I can say to that is ‘Oh yeah?’) By contrast to the omniscience of Mrs Hawkins, the villain, a literary chancer called Hector Bartlett, is so larded with villainy that his misdeeds threaten to upend the narrative. Spark’s Mrs Hawkins calls him a ‘pisseur du copie’, i.e. a talentless hack who ‘vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it’. The pisseur reference is repeated at least two dozen times throughout the book, sometimes multiple times on the same page, to the extent that it becomes an idée fixe. It is so resolutely applied to Bartlett by Mrs. Hawkins that it gets her sacked from her job at a publishing firm. But beyond being a pisseur, Bartlett is described as a boor, a thief, a con man and possibly even a blackmailer whose activities have prompted a suicide. Just in case we are left in any doubt about Bartlett’s utterly base nature, Spark includes a little episode in a pub; the excerpt quoted at the top of the page continues:
It was at the bar now, and was nosing a sausage roll which a man was idly letting hang from his left hand while his right hand was holding a glass of beer. Rather comically, the dog just helped himself to a bite of this dangling sausage roll. The man turned and swore at the dog. I now saw who this man was: Hector Bartlett. All in one second, he now took a large dab of mustard from the pot on the counter, dabbed it on the rest of the sausage roll, and gave it to the greedy dog.
In English fiction being labelled as cruel to dogs is as low as it gets, so what did Derek Stanford do to Muriel Spark to merit such a damning memorial in fiction? Spark suspected that Stanford had pilfered some papers of hers when she was in hospital, papers that he sold at auction many years later, by which point Spark was a fully established novelist. That is a pretty damning accusation; also, he wrote a study of Spark’s work without clearing it with her first, which is undeniably graceless. Yet at one point they were very close, and Stanford’s own Memoirs Of The Forties describes their relations with a sort of shrewd fondness. But Muriel Spark was a great writer and Stanford most definitely was not; yet the venom towards the pisseur in A Far Cry From Kensington seems so out of proportion as to damage the texture of the novel. It feels too much like a heavy-handed attempt to settle a score in the real world, in much he same way that Mrs. Hawkins’s happy ending feels like an assertion of the author’s moral superiority rather than a natural outcome of the narrative.
In Kingsley Amis’s Stanley And The Women, the author’s resentment at his recently- departed wife – Elizabeth Jane Howard – infuses the narrative, and the bitterness of the real, lived experience is the major reason that the book fails to deliver: the reader simply refuses to side with ‘Stanley’ against his wife. The author’s bile, distributed as if by a firehose, wrecks his own novel. In any case Elizabeth Jane Howard was a very considerable writer so for all the personal hurt she was, eventually, able to set out her own views on Kingsley in her memoir Slipstream. (Incidentally, Kingsley being such a conspicuous drinker we have already written about his opinions on booze and behaviour when drinking it.) The model for the Cat Person of Cat Person had no obvious means of redress; it just so happened that his former girlfriend, who recognised herself in the story despite not knowing the author, was herself a writer. (Roupenian has apologised to her about retaining real-world details in the story.) But what was Roupenian’s beef with this man, this ‘Robert’? It is hard not to wonder what prompted the animus, especially as the ending of Cat Person fails to convince in much the same way that the ending of Stanley And The Women falls flat: lived experience remains undigested, reality is not transmuted, unprocessed feelings have got in the way.
So where does any of this get us? Bad people make for good characters in morally uplifting works of fiction? Or decent people, improperly understood, make good writers look a bit shitty? Never offer a sausage roll to a dog in a pub? Never go on a date with a writer, let alone marry one? Yes, that’s it. Stick to plumbers, dentists, chartered accountants – or hedge fund managers.
Muriel Spark The Biography by Martin Stannard.