Muriel Spark

Dear Elvira: Regarding [Literary] Diets and Cats

Muriel Spark in 1960. (Source: Getty Images)

This piece was posted on 30 August 2012 in Little Patuxent Review.

. . .

Dear Elvira,

My precious pup Pudgie was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome and put on a strict diet. In a matter of months, he not only lost a substantial amount of weight but also regained his masculine swagger. I attempted to emulate his regimen, but to no avail. I’m a busy literary publisher and have neither the time nor the temperament for calorie-counting. Is there any relevant reading you could recommend?

Best regards,


PS I’m also attempting to write a novel but find I can’t maintain concentration. Perhaps you could suggest some nutritional supplement that might be beneficial in this regard.

Dear Ted,

In keeping with the time-honored principle formulated by William of Ockham, I always recommend beginning with the simplest solution, obtained in the simplest manner.

Thus, for starters, I offer a single paragraph from Muriel Spark’s novel A Far Cry From Kensington, written in the voice of one Agnes Hawkins. Mrs. Hawkins is not only well-versed in your métier, having worked at postwar London publishing houses where people are entirely mad, but also shares your predicament, having put on pounds. True to form, she figures out how to reduce her girth as efficaciously as she learns to reduce hack Hector Bartlett, a “pisseur de copie,” to the ridiculous. This is what occurs after she considers her role at MacIntosh & Tooley and takes a look at herself in her nightdress:

From that night I decided to eat and drink half. Only half of everything I normally ate, in any circumstances. And I decided to tell nobody at all about my plan. Just to say, if pressed, that I’d had enough. And just to consume half, or perhaps even a quarter, until I reached a reasonable weight and size. And I started next morning eating less, drinking less.

While Mrs. Hawkins succeeds swimmingly with the diet that she devised and I whole-heartedly recommend, I must add that Spark herself, though ending up in the same place–Florence, Italy–failed to achieve the same outcome. Shortly before death at age 88, she had recovered from a nervous breakdown brought on by reliance on diet pills and cups of strong coffee in place of regular meals. Would that writers took even a fraction of the care in considering their own actions that they routinely lavish on those of their characters!

Moving on to your other concern, let me start by saying that the only supplement I recommend without reservation is The Times Literary Supplement and again turn to Mrs. Hawkins. Here, with apologies to Pudgie, is how it goes when a retired brigadier general claims he couldn’t possibly write a book because his concentration is so poor:

“For concentration,” I said, “you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?”

“Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.”

So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from the lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impeded your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of the cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

Three years later, the military man sends Mrs. Hawkins a copy of his published war memoirs, complete with a photo of him at his desk with a large alley cat called “Grumpy” sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. The inscription thanks Mrs. Hawkins for her advice, without which, the author openly acknowledges, the book would not have been written.

In an aside to her readers, Mrs. Hawkins allows:

The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.

So, based on the sound advice regarding diets and cats that I have provided, I fully expect that in due time you will send me something similar to the brigadier general’s as a memento. I look forward to seeing 50 percent of you depicted on the dust jacket, together with a half-full plate of a photogenic culinary delicacy and, at safe distance, a serene cat lounging under a light. Naturally, inside content of some literary value would be a boon.

Sincerely yours,


PS If you hold out hope of my actually reading your novel, please ensure that it is available in some standard downloadable format accessible to my tablet.

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