Better Boundaries, With Muriel Spark

Better Boundaries, With Muriel Spark

by Maud Newton

Though I am no longer by any metric young, this year I’ve taken to heart a lot of Choire’s advice to young people on the subject of “operators, divas, drama queens, vampires, bitter underminers and soulless careerists.” To those categories one of my other favorite advice-givers, Nancy Hawkins, would propose an addition, or at least a subset: the pisseur de copie.

Mrs. Hawkins, the young widow narrator of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington is probably best known for her diet tips: “It’s easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. If you are handed a plate of food, leave half; if you have to help yourself, take half. After a while, if you are a perfectionist you can consume half of that again. … I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book.”

She has plenty of other suggestions, too. “It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on.” “My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious.”* “When you have to refuse any request that admits of no argument, you should never give reasons or set out your objections; to do so leads to counter-reasons and counter-objections.” “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat.”

Googling around on the subject of Mrs. Hawkins and her advice, I came upon a post by T.D. Whittle, a fellow fan I’d already discovered on Pinterest, who cites this great bit on sleepless nights: “Insomnia is not bad in itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? — Yes you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time. Who lives without problems every day? Why waste the nights on them?” And this, on looking for work: “When you are looking for a job the best thing to do is to tell everyone, high and humble, and keep reminding them please to look out for you. This advice is not guaranteed to find you a job, but it is remarkable how suitable jobs can be found through the most unlikely people.” And more and more and more.

People mistake Mrs. Hawkins’ interest and diligence for warmth. She can be engaged, and occasionally compassionate, but mostly she’s a listener, an observer prone to judging — sometimes cruelly, always entertainingly, often secretly. “It is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do,” she says. “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.”

On the subject of the pisseur de copie, though, Mrs. Hawkins can’t keep her opinion to herself. Said to be based on an old lover of Spark’s who gossiped about her private life, sold her letters, criticized her novels, and never wrote anything memorable or good, the character Hector Bartlett “knew the titles of all the right books, and the names of the authors, but it amounted to nothing; he had read very little.” Bartlett fancies himself a writer. He’s cultivated Emma Loy, a bestselling novelist, who champions him. And he sees Mrs. Hawkins, an assistant at a small but prestigious publishing house, as his entry to her bosses. Mrs. Hawkins has other ideas. “I had once, some years before, put him in the way of a job that would have suited him very well: door-to-door encyclopaedia-pushing in the suburbs. He would have been able to blab and enthuse about the encyclopedias, and impress the housewives.”

His writings, she says, “writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words. … Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.” “Pisseur de copie,” she hisses at him one morning in the park where he faux-casually lies in wait for her.

“’Won’t you call me Hector,’” he says, after pretending not to hear and cajoling her for a while, when she dismisses him with a “Mr. Bartlett.”

“’No,’” she says, “’I call you Pisseur de copie,” and takes her leave. And though it costs her two jobs, she insists on continuing to call him this, not only to Hector himself but to everyone else, just about every time his name is mentioned. It’s almost involuntary, she says, “like preaching the gospel.”

I can’t decide whether it’s more narcissistic or more fair-mindedly self-critical to compare oneself to cretinous novel characters, but I do it all the time, and the negative example of Hector Bartlett is something I increasingly reflect on now when I’m thinking of posting my opinion on some subject or considering whether to take an assignment. I think: Is this something I really care about? Am I actually informed about this, or do I have enough time and interest to become genuinely informed about it? Do I have, if not yet a clear picture of exactly what I want to say, a conviction that I have something to say? I’ve used roughly the same metrics in the past, but they’re stricter now. While I adore and have benefitted greatly from being alive in a time when anything I want to say can be published online immediately, the instant gratification machine that is the Internet also has a high potential to encourage indiscriminate urination of prose. Also, life is short, I am still not finished with my book, and there is more than enough tergiversating to go around.

A pisseur de copie on the level of Hector Bartlett sounds like a rare breed — a subset, perhaps, of what Choire calls a soulless careerist, with more than a bit of vampire mixed in. More than a few critics have dismissed him as broad caricature.

In a mixed 1988 review of A Far Cry from Kensington for the London Review of Books, Susannah Clapp accuses Spark of snobbery and score-settling. It’s a tricky thing to conflate an author and her characters the way Clapp does in the piece, but while I adore the novel and wouldn’t change a word of it I can see her perspective. Her theories about the characters are worth transcribing here, insofar as they have bearing on the dangers of appeasing a pisseur. Spark, Clapp says: “has talked about this novel in connection with her early days and associates in literary London. Some of these associates were bad writers: ‘I could see that not all of them were good … but they were my friends, charming people, and I didn’t do anything about it. Perhaps I’m doing something about it now.’ Perhaps. Not everyone will feel that something has to be done about friends who don’t write well. But it is difficult to resist the idea that something needed to be done about the pisseur, whose pollutions extend beyond his prose, and who sets out first to use and then to harm two women: the fat Mrs Hawkins, and the striking, successful (and presumably slim) novelist, Emma Loy. These two women may seem to make one Muriel Spark.”

On the subject of the novel as autobiography, Spark told The New York Times in 1988 that ‘’’The first-person story is difficult to start,’ … ‘since the aim is getting the right tone and the right style. I had to write as I felt Mrs. Hawkins would write — it’s her story. Good plain English prose, but not artistic, not over-literary. It’s not my style, it’s her style. But of course it’s mine.’’ Also: ‘’I did work with several publishers. I was an editor, I was a dogsbody, a secretary, almost everything in the houses I worked for. And I worked for the Falcon Press, whose owner really was rather mad, and who really did go to prison for forging checks. But I don’t describe any publishers to the life.” And finally: ‘’There have been a number of men in my life like Hector Bartlett … but Hector Bartlett is not based on any one of them; there again, it’s a conglomerate picture. But authentic. There are plenty of them still around.’’

Whether or not Mrs. Hawkins and Emma Loy are both in some way stand-ins for Spark herself, it is in Hector Bartlett’s relationship with his champion, the bestselling novelist Loy, that he is especially dangerous, and especially cautionary. For it is Loy who works to further the pisseur’s career, Loy who gets Mrs. Hawkins fired from her jobs for insulting him, and Loy who (spoiler alert) ultimately is surprised when the pisseur turns on her. Far from being grateful for Loy’s efforts on his behalf, the pisseur ultimately uses their relationship to publish “his accounts of Emma Loy when he knew her, the falsities and the vaunted sensational revelations and the pathetic inventions.” Loy, Mrs. Hawkins tells us, knew all along that Bartlett was a talentless striver but perversely tried to “promote and appease him… with the idea of getting rid of him easier by making him out to be some sort of equal.”

Had Loy turned to Mrs. Hawkins for advice, I like to think she would have offered some combination of Choire’s instructions for dealing with vampires and soulless careerists. I recommend reviewing those so you’ll be prepared in the unlikely event you should ever be hounded and barraged by a pisseur de copie. My favorite part of his advice reads like something out of Proverbs. “Let them have no traction,” he says.

* This is a great corollary to Joan Didion, another great boundary-preserver, on self-respect and the specter of the unanswered letter.

Previously in series: On Advice To Kids

Also by this author: Remembering Harry Crews

Maud Newton is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn.