‘Can you decide to think? – Yes, you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time. You can sit peacefully in front of a blank television set, just watching nothing; and sooner or later you can make your own programme much better than the mass product. It’s fun, you should try it. You can put anyone you like on the screen, alone or in company, saying and doing what you want them to do, with yourself in the middle if you prefer it that way.’

What do we do with our lives? How do we employ ourselves? How do we view our pasts, and more, how do we survive them to really inhabit our futures? And what do we do if those pasts keep us awake at night? A Far Cry from Kensington is one of Muriel Spark’s most liberating, liberated and meditative novels. Spark is a writer who can take the meditative and make it mercurially funny, playful and mischievous; alongside the grim ‘cry’ at the core of this novel there’s a force of fun, and a force of calm light-heartedness in its analysis of the creative process in the light of free will, imagination, truth, history.

[Spark] is an artist profoundly drawn to a morality in the art process.

First published in 1988, it is a conscious exercise in looking back – a novel that announces its own preoccupied insomnia. But its insomnia is unexpectedly pleasant, a ‘beloved insomnia in the sweet waking hours of the night’ – as if the usual dark night of the soul has been replaced by something much, much lighter. We begin in the future, intimate with its narrator awake in her bed listening, in the silence, to the noise of thirty years ago, the noise of the mid-1950s, a time when Mrs Hawkins, publishing assistant, literally larger than life, large enough in a post-war time of rationing and utilitarian discomfort to suggest a comforting abundance to everyone who simply looks at her, lives in a shabby, decent rooming-house in down-at-heel Kensington – how things change over time! – run by Milly, an Irish landlady of great kindness and frankness.

Mrs Hawkins has a lot on her plate, as it were, which is something she learns practically and literally to deal with in the course of the novel. She has simply spoken the truth, out loud; she has told a rather bad writer called Hector Bartlett, to his face, exactly what she thinks – that he’s a bad writer, a ‘pisseur de copie’. (‘It means that he pisses hack journalism, it means that he urinates frightful prose.’) Bartlett happens to be having an affair with a famous novelist, Emma Loy, whose character is a shining piece of sardonic creation by Spark. Emma Loy has a lot of sway in the book world – and this particular London is full of people surreally chasing jobs in the publishing industry; part of the novel’s high entertainment is its satire of the book business. ‘Jobs in publishing, Mrs Hawkins, are very hard to come by. You might bear that in mind. I could put in a word for you in many quarters. Only you must, simply must, retract.’ The power struggle is swift. Pretty soon Mrs Hawkins is out of a job.

Over at the rooming-house, ‘from Wanda’s room came a long, loud, high-pitched cry which diminished into a sustained, distant and still audible ululation.’ Wanda, the Polish dressmaker, has started receiving anonymous threats. ‘We, the Organisers, have our eyes on you.’ Everyone at the rooming-house suspects everyone else; everything polarizes down to the single question – are you a friend or an enemy? But Mrs Hawkins, eyes like the hawk in her name, notices how cheap the threatening letters look, how fake, like ‘a deliberate literary performance of poor quality; an attempt at parody, if a lame one.’ Is Wanda ‘guilty’? Of what? Why has she, like many others in this slim, far-reaching novel, fallen so completely for the hype about a mesmerizing, modern yet medieval-sounding contraption called the Box, which, its proponents claim, has the power to cure all ills? And what exactly is the Box, with its ‘radionic’ power in the new radioactive age, its special resonance for the radio and TV generations reading this book in the 1980s?

When these three different farcical stories come together, Mrs Hawkins finds herself at the centre of a cheap detective mystery on the one hand, and on the other a set of metaphysical tests concerning power and truth. ‘No life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest.’ Meanwhile, post-war London comes back to life – ‘strange grasses and wild herbs had sprung up where the war-demolished houses had been’ – and because in many ways this is a novel distinctly about revival, particularly about the aftermath of the war, how such trauma can be healed by its walking wounded, A Far Cry from Kensington is, in the end, a beautiful – and still suitably utilitarianly ‘sober’ – celebration of a whole new blossoming. This wonderful blossoming is the real mystery, in a novel which doesn’t just sort the frauds from the true but also the good frauds from the bad frauds, and which becomes a conscious act of revitalization, not just of a city, but of its people and also their potential literature.

A Far Cry was Spark’s eighteenth novel and, incidentally, takes place around the time when, in her own life, she was living in London and first writing her own fiction; her first novel, The Comforters, was completed in the mid-fifties and published in 1957. This particular time in her life is very entertainingly dealt with in her only volume of autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1992), a book she published four years after this novel and whose voice, wry and calm, witty and sharp, is very close to that of A Far Cry’s narrator.

Spark had spent the latter war years working in intelligence for the Foreign Office. When the war ended she made a career move which must have seemed very farcical indeed after such work; she took a post at the Poetry Society, editing its periodical, Poetry Review, and by all accounts enduring a series of mini-wars, battling with every mad faction imaginable in the London literary world; after this she took a position three days a week with Peter Owen, ‘a young publisher who was interested in books by Cocteau, Hermann Hesse, Cesare Pavese. It was a joy to proofread the translations of such writers. I was secretary, proof-reader, editor, publicity girl … in the office at 50 Old Brompton Road, with one light bulb, bare boards on the floor, a long table which was the packing department,’ as she writes in Curriculum Vitae. Much of her Poetry Society experience slipped into her marvellous novel Loitering With Intent, written seven years earlier, which dealt with the years just prior to those depicted in A Far Cry. With its lambasting of literary vicious circles and all their bombast and fakery, and by dint of its sheer post-war joyousness, Loitering With Intent can be seen as a sister-volume, the bright noon to this ‘wide-eyed midnight’ of a novel.

But in Spark’s work the lightness of things is always a serious business, and a literary vicious circle is likely to be one of the worst forms of viciousness, since she is an artist profoundly drawn to a morality in the art process, and especially to the function of fiction in the real world. For Spark, who converted to Roman Catholicism at about the same time as she wrote her first fiction (and consequently at about the same time as A Far Cry is set), the religious process, the writing process an the processes of art are inextricably intertwined. Her belief system gifted her a ‘balanced regard for matter and spirit ,’ as she called it, and a vision of all our realities, all our ‘real’ histories, as a kind of parallel fictional work; this gives the recurring notions in her work of the relationships between fiction, truth and lies, between real and fake, between author, authority and free will, a particular slant.

Here the trivial, intimate history of the novel apes the reality whose setting it is, in a plot which resembles a mini-Cold War, a mini-descent into 1950s post-war paranoia. Where the novel’s surface is scattered with the authentic references that make the obvious links between fiction and real time (‘Billy Graham, Senator McCarthy, Colonel Nasser . . . Lucky Jim’); where its general theme might be said to be a people getting back into shape in the post-war years; its subtext is Spark’s endless preoccupation, the ‘supernatural process going on under the surface and within the substance of all things’. The novel’s own preoccupation is moral – the makings of good and bad – in this case, what makes a good or a bad writer, in a novel where gratuitous viciousness and power-mongering, and ‘bad’ and ‘untrue’ writing, come together as the same thing. It’s a book that knows it’s a book – it is always announcing its status to its reader. ‘I offer this advice,’ our narrator says, ‘without fee; it is included in the price of the book,’ a book very much about the act of narrative skill, about the uses of foreground, background, foresight, hindsight, or the basics of narrative structure. Mrs Hawkins, the ‘scrupulous’ proof-reader and editor, almost suggests this novel is a casebook for those who would wish to write well.

Its subject is the thoughtful self, making sense, from an objective distance, of the meanings of both silence and voice. Its first refrain is the pained cry of the lost, wounded woman at the centre of its plot, and to some extent also Mrs Hawkins’ own silent cry, which readers learn of when they come upon the story of her war marriage. Its other, more pervasive refrain is much sweeter, and arises from emotional distance, from the meditative future which will, it is promised, simply put the past into its proper context. ‘I came to realise the answer later,’ as Mrs Hawkins repeatedly says. ‘I’m a great believer in providence,’ Spark herself wrote. ‘It’s not quite fatalism, but watching until you see the whole picture emerge.’

Above all, the novel is a fiction about what happens when you speak the plain truth out loud, how to survive the consequences, and the damage that happens to those taken in by, convinced by, the opposite of truth. It asks us not just to sense that we’re being watched (in both the cheap 1950s paranoia plot as well as in a much larger metaphysical context), but more, to watch ourselves and, like Mrs Hawkins, to be ready to change, to change our own bad habits, to put ourselves blithely to rights. This blitheness is the key to survival in a novel in which the bruised, haunting dark of the past is ever-present, but dealt with, as it were, with a combination of unsentimental affection and satisfying, score-settling wit – a perfect model of what critic Ruth Whittaker calls Spark’s ‘aesthetic of detachment’ and, in the form of this novel, a prelude to every kind of revitalization.

Spark often takes south London – and not the north of the city, which is the usual literary stamping-ground of novelists – as her subject in her books about the city. She likes to reveal alternatives; she comes, after all, to this most English of narratives, shot through with its references to the Brontës, Dickens and Forster, from a quite alternative position; for this most European of English novelists is a Scottish novelist, gifted in a particular otherness of authority, brought up between the wars in Edinburgh, where she ‘imbibed, through no particular mentor, but just by breathing the informed air of the place, its haughty and remote anarchism. I can never now suffer from a shattered faith in politics and politicians, because I never had any.’

‘Can you decide to think?’ This permissive education in the art of thinking, this laughing history of post-war literary London, this pensive and merry laying of old ghosts, is a book that knows its mere place as a book, and argues back about the importance of truth and art, and truth in art, with every fictive bone in its body. Masquerading as a chatty, realist piece of fiction, it is another revelation, as each of her novels is, of Spark’s art of merciful litheness, and the far-reaching after-effects of language well used. ‘That cry, that cry,’ the far cry at its core is both idiomatic and actual, painful then distanced, examined and understood, by means of the Sparkian balance of artifice and truth. It all adds up to something huge – a sprightly philosophical rejection of twentieth-century angst, with all the carefree carefulness, all the far-reaching economy, all the merciless, sharp mercy, that characterize the art of Spark.