Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Loitering With Intent

Loitering With Intent - Muriel Spark

Like champagne bubbles being burst with a scalpel, Spark's novels are outrageous fun with a bitingly sharp edge. Loitering with Intent tells the story of Fleur Talbot who, while writing her first novel, takes on a job with Sir Quentin Oliver's Autobiographical Association. They prove to be a strange group and to bear an odd resemblance to characters and events in Talbot's first novel.

And although I am not overly familiar with Spark's life, my sketchy knowledge is enough to inform me that there are resemblances between Fleur Talbot and Ms Spark. The Autobiographical Association in which Fleur finds a job bears some resemblance to the Poetry Society, where the young Spark worked. The graveyard in which the book opens was one in which Spark spent much time writing poetry. Dexedrine plays a part in both Spark's life and the book.  At the same time the book is not so much realism as a series of games.

The Autobiographical Association is populated by Wodehousean grotesques, and Fleur decides to stay as much from the excitement of finding out more about the group as for the money she so needs. "I wasn't alarmed, for although he (Sir Quentin) was plainly some sort of crank and it struck me, of course, that he might be up to no good, there was nothing in his voice or manner that I felt as an immediate personal menace. But I was on the alert, in fact excited."

She is always searching for material that can be recycled into her work, while insisting that the work is not a portrayal of anyone. There are repeated refrains of how any parallels between Fleur's life and her novel is co-incidental. In fact, she tells us, it appears that life is copying her novel. "I didn't think for a moment of portraying Sir Quentin as he was. What gave me great happiness was his gift to me of the finger-tips of his hands touching each other, and, nestling among the words, as he waved towards the cabinet, 'In there are secrets,' the pulsating notion of how much he wanted to impress, how greatly he desired to believe in himself." But she also has an insatiable curiosity to discover what really motivates people. "I was aware of a demon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more."

I love her asides, often as perfectly true as they are witty - "I acknowledged his witticism with the smug smile which I felt was part of my job." Who hasn't had a job where stroking the boss's ego was more important than working? It seems to me that Spark catches the fluid relationship between observer and observed and that once you are familiar with the abstruse angle from which her narrator views the world her focus becomes ever more dazzlingly sharp. She creates a point of view which is immediately recognisable as her own.

This book is enriched also by the playful way it juggles Fleur Talbot the reader ("I always desired books; nearly all of my bills were for books.") and aspiring writer ("I want to write. Marriage would interfere."). There is a refusal to accept a strong continuum between life and fiction. It is broken up by the artist's instincts, by the imaginative process. "The process by which I created my characters was instinctive, the sum of my whole experience of others and of my own potential self."

Similarly, similarities arise between the 'real' characters in Loitering with Intent and those in the book within the book, Fleur's first novel Warrender Chase. "It was almost as if Sir Quentin was unreal and I had merely invented him, Warrender Chase being a man, a real man on whom I had partly based Sir Quentin." When Fleur adds to and alters some of the auto-biographies rather than simply typing them up it is merely one step in a merry dance. ("Typing out and making sense of these compositions was an agony to my spirit until I hit on the method of making them expertly worse; and everyone concerned was delighted with the result.") Were they 'true' in the first place? Probably not. "When I had the time to think at all, I was momentarily puzzled by the fact that in the autobiography Clothilde had been eighteen in 1936 whereas now in 1949 she was well into her fifties."

The novel has a lot of characters and it is one of Spark's greatest skill that she can create a fully differentiated character in a sentence. "I noticed that she held this handle threaded through her fingers like a horse-rein; I wasn't surprised to learn, later on, that Maisie's paralysed leg was the result of a riding accident." In fact she can manage it with a deliberate typo and some unrestrained double entendres. "'It was during the war that I lost my faith,' declared Father Egbert. 'For me, too, it was a moment of climax. I wrestled with my God, the whore of one entire night.'"

Indeed, although Spark was, famously, a Catholic convert she was anything but pious. She rather revels in the discomfort of Dottie, the very pious wife of a husband who is adulterous with Fleur and others. Dottie considers Fleur a friend and is a regular caller at her flat, and becomes a member of the Autobiographical Association. She even comes to Fleur to tell her that her husband is cheating on her with someone else: "' a young poet, a man, I know for sure,' said Dottie. 'The love that dare not speak its name.'
'A homosexual affair,' I said, daring to speak its name somewhat to Dottie's added distress.'"

Fleur is rather offhand about her religion and very far from pious. However she professes faith and says that "years later when she (Dottie) made dramatic announcements that she had lost her faith, I was rather relieved since I had always uneasily felt that if her faith was true then mine was false." She also dismisses some of Dottie's practices with the line "I've never held it right to create more difficulties in matters of religion than already exist."

There are so many reasons to enjoy this book that it is tiring just listing them, even without trying to explain them. The opportunity to make pronouncements on writing, writers, and their lives, whether serious or not, is taken eagerly by Spark. Fleur talks of a poem she liked a lot but couldn't get published, and her pronouncement on it's failure crackles with the static of experience: "it had been rejected eight times, returning to roost in my own stamped and addressed envelope among my punctual morning letters, over a period of a year." She  gives a rationale for her often blank and humorous style of describing awful things: "it seems to me a sort of hypocrisy for a writer to pretend to be undergoing tragic experiences when obviously one is sitting in relative comfort with a pen or paper or before a typewriter." She never forgets, or lets us forget, that these are not real people, even if they have their roots in real people. We are often reminded "how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life."

Writing, for Fleur is presented as a sort of compulsion. She talks about how neither success nor failure drive her, nor was she "writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person." Many of Fleur's thoughts on writing and her style sound like they are Spark's own -  "I knew I wasn't helping the readers to know whose side they were supposed to be on. I simply felt compelled to go on with my story without indicating what the reader should think."

And although continuously telling us that Warrender Chase is not based on Sir Quentin and his coterie she goes on to tell us that "whether I have liked it or not, I have written about them ever since, the straws from which I made my bricks." Indeed the narrative voice, which is that of an older Fleur, gives off a sense of how much she has enjoyed writing, and how good it has been to her. Indeed, some phrase might seem a little too self-satisfied and like the opening of a fawning academic treatise. "The true novelist, one who understands the work as a continuous poem, is a myth maker, and the wonder of the art resides in the endless different ways of telling a story, and the methods are mythological by nature."

I simply flew through this book, eager to find out if Warrender Chase gets published. (There are many twists in the tale.) Like the potential publisher who "said he thought Warrender Chase 'quite evil, especially in its moments of levity'"but seemed prepared to publish it. I also wondered who, if any, would escape from Sir Quentin's manipulations and who, if any, might be destroyed by them. No more nor less than she distrusts Sir Quentin, Fleur distrusts many of the members of his Association. Indeed she coins an aphoristic reason for doing so: "it is elementary wisdom to fear weaknesses, including one's own; the reactions of the weak, when touched off, can be horrible and sudden."

I realise that my thoughts are meandering all over the place so I will come to the point. There is no weakness to fear in this novel. Anyone who is interested in writing or reading or genius should read it.


  1. Sounds great (the Father Egbert line was a doozie!), but would you recommend this or another title to a Spark novice? I should try and end my Spark-less streak before the end of the year, I guess... On an unrelated note, I lost my willpower today and picked up Stegner's Angle of Repose (probably due to the malicious influence of your recent used book bounty post). Any interest in reading it with me next month or are you all booked up for September already?

    1. Hi Richard - This, The Girls of Slender Means or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would be my recommendations to make a start on Spark.
      An Angle of Repose readalong sounds good. I've nothing planned other than returning to Finnegans Wake but that's something I'll be continuing in fits and starts so breaks are not an issue.

    2. Thanks for the Spark recs, Séamus. Those seem to be more or less the consensus picks for her, so those titles should be easy to keep in mind (for eventually).

      Somewhere around the middle of the month sound OK for the Stegner? I'd like to start/keep reading now (enjoyed about the first 25 pages earlier today), but we could push it back another week or two if you like since I'm always capable of being distracted mid-read (plus, I've other reads I've "promised" different people).

    3. Keep on with the Stegner and I'll start reading it as soon as I finish my current (not too long or heavy) read. That should give me plenty of time to get it read and digested for the middle of Sept.
      My problem at the moment is usually getting to write as I have been a bit busier in my offline life which, I guess, is no bad thing.

  2. I have to agree with Richard, this sounds fantastic (you had me at the opening and your line on champagne bubbles being burst with a scalpel!). I might start with Memento Mori as a comparison to the Elizabeth Taylor, but I'm glad my set of Spark novels includes Loitering. The Girls of Slender Means remains on my wishlist - I recall your recommendation of that one. Much to look forward to here!

    1. I'm trying to decide which Spark to read this year myself. I feel the need to read at least one. Memento Mori is a good one.