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Return of the narrator: reader, note what Mrs. Hawkins says

A Far Cry from Kensington, by Muriel Spark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 189 pp. $17.95. After a long period of quiescence, during which English teachers felt constrained to apologize to their discriminating students for Thackeray's peculiar habit of addressing his audience, the intrusive narrator has been making a comeback. Unlike Charlotte Bront"e's Jane Eyre, who dramatically announces, ``Reader, I married him,'' the intrusive narrator's tongue is somewhat in cheek these days. But he - or she - is still out to advise and instruct us.

Fay Weldon uses the device to such extent in her latest, ``The Hearts and Minds of Men'' (Viking, 1988), that the constant commentary becomes as much the point of the story as the events themselves. Iris Murdoch gave a cameo role to a loquacious narrator (``N'') in ``The Philosopher's Pupil'' (Viking, 1983). And in Muriel Spark's new novel, ``A Far Cry from Kensington,'' the narrator not only comments on the action and addresses herself directly to the reader, but she also serves (like Jane Eyre) as the story's heroine.

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She is only 28 when the story opens in 1954, but by virtue of her status as a war widow and her plump, matronly presence, everyone calls her Mrs. Hawkins. Only in time - as she diets away the excess weight and allows her shrewd, discomfiting, irreverent persona to emerge from the ``comfortable'' image of the kindly widow - does she insist on the name Nancy.

Told from the perspective of more than 30 years later, this is a tale of literary life in the respectable penury of postwar Kensington. Here, middle-class people lived on small salaries in plain but homey rooming houses. Kensington - and London - and England may have changed in all those years, but our narrator has not. She was confidante and adviser to her colleagues at work and her fellow boarders in 1950s Kensington.

Now, as she tells us her story, she is still busy giving advice. Indeed, I counted 10 occasions in this slender, 189-page novel when the narrator breaks off to tell us: how to lose weight; how to find a job; how to write a novel; how to concentrate; and what to do in a variety of other circumstances, from choosing a suitable spouse to falling out with a witty, talented friend. All of this, she assures us, is included at no extra charge in the price of the book.

Novels once functioned, among other things, as models for behavior. It has become a literary clich'e (and perhaps an overstatement) to note that Samuel Richardson wrote ``Pamela'' so that decent servant girls - a burgeoning audience for novels - would know how to conduct themselves when confronted by the cavalier attitudes of the upper classes for whom they worked. Advice books and how-to books fill that gap today, and I sincerely doubt that Muriel Spark intends to supplant them.

But what does interest her is the novelist's role as critic - or judge - of the world reflected, represented, and created in her novels.

In an earlier book, ``Loitering with Intent'' (Coward, McCann & Georghegan, 1981), Spark gave us a heroine-narrator who was also a novelist. Fleur Talbot's fiction had an uncanny way of anticipating real life. The characters she dreamed up for her novels would turn up in fact - which is what happens sometimes to writers who are keen observers of human nature.

Compared with Fleur Talbot, Mrs. Hawkins has a narrower range. She is not a novelist; she is not particularly creative. She works as an editor, on the fringes of the literary world. Her role is to advise and criticize. Yet this, too, has its aesthetic, even hedonistic, aspect: ``I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature,'' she remarks at one point.

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The focus of the novel is not on what Mrs. Hawkins does, but on what she says. The story hinges on the rapierlike insult she can't resist delivering whenever she runs into one Hector Bartlett, a pretentious hack writer. Speaking the truth gives her a deep moral and personal satisfaction that can only be called delight. Such pleasure, however, is not without peril, and before the close of this tartly engaging novel, we get a shocking glimpse (one expects no less from Muriel Spark) of the nature of the evil concealed beneath Hector's banal-seeming pretensions.

There's more than a hint of smugness about Mrs. Hawkins, but Spark has loaded the dice in her favor, presenting her as a bastion of common sense standing firm against silliness and chicanery. It is a measure of Spark's skill that we find her heroine's self-righteousness a rather appealing trait.

Novels, Spark seems to be saying, can and do moralize - and not only because novelists may wish to improve society, but also because novelists - like many other people - enjoy moralizing. As Oscar Wilde has one of his comic heroines declare to her rival in ``The Importance of Being Earnest'': ``On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure.''

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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