“My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It’s in the apartment somewhere.” (Steven Wright)

This week’s theme stems from a very boring reason. But I try to pick themes that relate to my life or what’s happening in the world in some way, and my life is very boring. In fact, the most remarkable thing about it is just how dull it is. So brace yourself reader, and try & stay awake while I tell you that I am a leasehold flat owner.

I’ve always hated this because my managing agents are inept slimebags truly reprehensible human beings, but I spent an evening last week consoling a friend who is a share-of-freeholder and is engaged in a long dispute with her one of her neighbours/fellow freehold sharers, which has now turned vaguely medieval and who she refers to by a most unsavoury nickname.

If you’re still with me, you deserve a little treat. Here’s a trailer for one of my favourite ever films which is rather apt:

So as I spent a long time thinking about flats recently, the theme is novels set in apartment blocks. Firstly, Paradises by Iosi Havilio (2012, trans. Beth Fowler 2013). Apparently this is a sequel to the author’s previous novel Open Door, which I haven’t read, but it didn’t seem to restrict my understanding of Paradises, which I found compelling. Following the death of her partner, an unnamed woman leaves her country home with her small child, Simon, and moves to Buenos Aires. She gets a job at the local zoo:

“Something about the gloomy light, the small of the enclosure, the watchfulness of the snakes in captivity produces a hole in my stomach, an anguish that forces me to increase my pace. I skirt the large tank of water turtles, ignore the lizards walk past the door saying nursery and go outside.”

The janitor, Canetti, takes a shine to her. He used to be a bank treasurer before losing his job through fraud and is filled with bitterness. He shows the woman the el Buti squat, presided over by the obese, immobile, morphine-addicted Tosca.  She moves in:

“And yet despite the filth, the heat, those intestinal noises, and the smell of shit that rises in waves, at some point in the early hours Canetti’s words from the first time he brought me here come to mind: We’re safe here. I even babble them to myself to confirm it. And so I relax and rest a bit, although still without sleeping. On the third day I cover the windows with black bin bags to prolong the night.”

The voice of the young woman is matter-of-fact and she presents her extreme circumstances almost indifferently (Paradises has been compared to L’Etranger). This, combined with the present-tense, captured the numbness of grief and the sense of just getting through each moment. Yet according to the introduction by Alex Clark, the narrator’s passivity and weird equanimity was present in Open Door too, so maybe it’s just her character. Either way, I found her voice distinct and engaging. We follow her through her life as she juggles motherhood, work, relationships with idiodyncratic but wholly believable characters: seemingly spiky Iris who cares for Simon; the unpredictable Eloisa who seems to have no boundaries at all and drags the narrator along with her; the various residents of el Buti.

“each of us has to devise our truth in relation to the other”

The squat is surrounded by paradise trees, whose berries are poisonous and whose bark holds the cure. This duality is repeated throughout the novel: alienation sits alongside connection, love and grief are side by side. Paradises is an unsettling novel but at no point did I feel alienated from the unusual, detached woman telling the story. A remarkable achievement.

Let’s take a Vincent Cassel break (that’s definitely a thing, isn’t it?)

Secondly, A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988) is set at “14 Church End Villas, South Kensington, that rooming house, shabby but clean, that today is a smart and expensive set of flats, gutted and restructured, far beyond the means of medical students, nurses, and the likes of us as we were.”

Narrated by the young widow Mrs Hawkins, she describes her time at the rooming house in the 1950s.  She moves between jobs in publishing with little respect for her employers:

“Sir Alec was thin and grey and his voice matched his looks. It sounded like a wisp of smoke wafting from some burning leaves hidden by a clump of lavender.”

“I had a sense he was offering things abominable to me, like decaffeinated coffee or coitus interruptus

Spark’s satire of publishing and writers is a joy, but A Far Cry From Kensington is also about capturing a moment in time when society is on the cusp of change. Relationships between the sexes are changing, and Mrs Hawkins pushes against societal expectations of women in the mid-20th century. She is resentful of being characterised as a capable widow (she feels this is partly due to her size and begins determinedly losing weight).

Meanwhile, there is tension in the house as someone is sending threatening anonymous letters to Wanda, a European seamstress who rooms there. The different residents begin to suspect each other while landlady Milly is certain it’s an outsider:

“Milly was upset at the suggestion that it was someone in the house, to the point of being almost mesmerized by the idea. She also feared further letters. ‘These things happen in threes’ said Milly in her way of uttering bits of folk-wisdom; she was spooning tea into the heated teapot. She always mixed tea with maxims.”

Mrs Hawkins is a great narrator: matter-of-fact, funny, uncompromising.

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do.”

The plot around the victimisation of Wanda is frankly a bit bonkers and easily the weakest point in the novel, but despite a weak plot A Far Cry From Kensington is full of Spark’s wit and razor-sharp observation. Not a word in this short novel is wasted.

To end, a video putting the brutalist architecture of the Thamesmead flats to good use:

20 thoughts on ““My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It’s in the apartment somewhere.” (Steven Wright)

  1. What a great post, madame bibi. I absolutely love Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. I’s my all-time favourite film – I watch every year around Christmas time. When I joined Twitter some time ago I wanted to use Miss Kubelik as my twitter handle, but as you can imagine it was already taken! Oh well…

    L’appartement is another excellent film. And A Far Cry from Kensington gets a mention too. So much to enjoy in this post…Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jacqui! The Apartment is such a great film. They really don’t make them like that anymore. Miss Kubelik would be a great twitter handle!

      This theme did give a couple of excellent films to link to. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s lovely to have you back in the blogosphere 🙂


  2. Amazing post (as ever, Madame Bibi) And you got me with everything in this one – the books, the films, the last electric video.

    However, the music of L’appartement was much closer to my own taste – who did the music – the track on the trailer was actually teasingly familiar

    I’d half forgoptten how utterly enchanting young Shirley MacLaine was…..or at least, how she was cast in parts where being utterly enchanting was needed

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lady F! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      Peter Chase is the composer for L’appartement and I think he’s quite prolific in French cinema so it may be you’ve heard a lot of his work?

      Shirley really was an absolute joy. In later years they tended to cast her as quite acerbic characters, not how she started out at all! But she’s always great 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent post even if it was inspired by tribulations. And I’ve just found that I have a copy of A Far Cry from Kensington on my shelves, or perhaps I should say ‘our shelves’ as I have no memory of either buying or reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very entertaining, if not guilt inducing (at being entertained by your gripes)! And it’s made me realise I haven’t seen The Apartment! Serious gaff on my part. One of my favourite Jack Lemmon films is The Odd Couple, also set in an apartment. The ‘green sandwich’ skit is genius :0)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Odd Couple! I haven’t seen it in so long, I’ll have to have a re-watch soon, you’ve inspired me.

      The Apartment is great, such a lovely film with wonderful lead performances, I really hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to watch it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love Brutalist architecture – I’ve even got a skirt with the Trellick Tower on it. I have such a huge tbr problem right now I’m resisting all temptation – or trying to, but the quotes from the Murial Spark are just fabulous. I must have it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Aaaaah, peak Vincent Cassel! Thank you very much for that! And great mention of many favourite books there. Of course, for more dystopian vision of flats, no one can beat Ballard’s High Rise. And I’ve just embarked upon the utterly bonkers The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka, which is all about clinging to a council house leasehold after the death of the original tenant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s always time for peak Cassel 😀

      I’ve not read High Rise but I keep meaning to, I saw the film and Ballard fans told me the book is miles better.

      The Lubetkin Legacy sounds intriguing, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


  7. Well, now I’ll have to watch The Apartment – it’s getting lots of praise in the comments!
    I love hearing the inspirations behind your posts. Who knew one could be inspired by boredom? Or apartments? The Pigeon, I think, would fit into this theme as well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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