Tuesday 19 October 2010

Loitering With Intent - Muriel Spark

32. Loitering With Intent - Muriel Spark

I do love the blogosphere... all the bloggers and blog-readers, and all the talk of books going on all around the place. I am probably a little hypocritical, in that relatively few of the books I read come from blogger recommendations. So much of my reading time is taken up with book group choices and the occasional review copy (not to mention, of course, all the books I have to read for my studies) that when I can be self-indulgent and simply pick something off the shelf, nine times out of ten it'll be something I've been saving for years, or know that I'll like. If I read a great review, quite often I'll buy the book or pop it on a bit of paper somewhere, but it's not all that often that I'll have the reading space for it to swoop to the top of the pile. Bloggers - you're setting me up for my retirement. I just need the career bit in between.

Which makes me realise that I should find some more hours in the day, to fit in all your fab suggestions. If it weren't for the blogosphere, I probably wouldn't have bothered with Muriel Spark again. I'd read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, and not been bowled over by either of them. It was a couple of bloggers who made me pick up The Driver's Seat, and I loved it. I reviewed that novella here, and it led to a discussion of 'Third Time Lucky' - when the third book you read by an author is the one to grab you.

Well, if third time was lucky, fourth has unearthed a gold mine, if that mixing of metaphors works. When I wrote about The Driver's Seat I asked which Spark I should read next, and 'N' (gosh, isn't that mysterious?) recommended Loitering With Intent. I have a feeling someone else did, maybe even in Real Life - and so I took myself off to the library and borrowed it. The return date was hastening, and I thought I'd take it with me to Devon.

All of which is a lengthy introduction to saying that Loitering With Intent (1981) is possibly my favourite novel read this year, and certainly proves to me that Spark is very much my cup of tea. (By the by, I don't think I like any of the covers I've seen, so I've just gone with the one I read. Spark deserves a nice cover designer! I hope someone's listening...) Maybe it's too well known to get onto my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, but I won't take the risk of not broadcasting how good it is...

Loitering With Intent somehow manages to be an incredibly clever novel, without being in the least self-congratulatory or off-putting. Even more dangerous, Spark's novel is narrated by a novelist, and largely concerns the writing of a novel - so many pitfalls to avoid, and so much potential pretension - all of which Spark skirts around without even a hint of self-importance. Fleur Talbot is writing her first novel, Warrender Chase, and it is occupying all the time that she isn't at work, and quite a lot of her thoughts when she is at work. Her job is as a secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver and his Autobiographical Association - he has gathered luminaries and 'characters' to write their memoirs, which he will seal in a vault for seventy years.

Fleur is not dissimilar from her near-namesake Flora in Cold Comfort Farm, inasmuch as she sits back and records the eccentrics and strange creatures around her. But where Gibbons' Flora documented - she got involved with their lives no end, of course, but never really seemed unduly affected by their idiosyncrasies - Fleur isn't so invulnerable to the bizarre behaviour by which she is surrounded. It rather seems to rub off on her. She grows varyingly attached to various members of the Autobiographical Association, such as snob and scented Lady 'Bucks' Bernice Gilbert, and young(ish) Maisie Young, who has one permanently disabled leg and is fixated upon the Cosmos and 'how Being is Becoming'. Above all, Flora develops a fondness for Quentin's mother Edwina - a mad, lively, incontinent, and be-pearled old lady bursting with character, but somehow more 'real' than many old-women-with-gusto who crop up in fiction. In amongst these weave a whole cast of wonderful creations - focally, Dottie: the wife of Flora's lover. Flora is an odd sort of Catholic...

As I have said, Flora is not invulnerable to the group's eccentricity - and we're never quite sure how far we can trust her narrative voice, or to what extent we are supposed to identify with it. Which, since Fleur is an authoress, is interesting. Throughout the novel the reader gets glimpses of a treatise or two on novel-writing - how much of it is Spark's own view? Does Loitering With Intent have, hidden within it, the rudiments for a how-to of creative writing? Impossible to judge... but here are three snippets which I enjoyed pondering:

But since then I've come to learn for myself how little one needs, in the art of writing, to convey the lot, and how a lot of words, on the other hand, can convey so little.

** (I changed "beautifully" to "very well" before sending the book to the publisher. I had probably been reading too much Henry James at that time, and "beautifully" was much too much.)
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.

But Fleur's writing doesn't end with her work-in-progress. As part of her secretarial duties, she has to edit the submissions of the Autobiographical Association. Spark is very funny about Fleur's low estimation of the group's writing abilities, and the manner in which Fleur augments the perceived dullness of their memoirs:
The main character was Nanny. I had livened it up by putting Nanny and the butler on the nursery rocking-horse together during the parents' absence, while little Eric was locked in the pantry to clean the silver.
As a hint of what is to come, it turns out that Fleur's flight of fancy does, in part, turn out to be truth. Which Stuck-in-a-Book reader could fail to notice similarities to Miss Hargreaves?

This becomes the crux of the novel - where does Fleur's imagination end, and where does plagiarism begin? Similarities between the Autobiographical Association's activities and the manuscript of Warrender Chase grow ever greater - how much is coincidence, how much does Fleur absorb, and how much does she write before it happens? The parallel stories - both (of course) fiction, but one accepted as 'true' in the novel; fiction and meta-fiction, if you're feeling in that mood - intertwine and overlap, and Spark does it all so very, very cleverly. I won't say any more.

As with all my favourite novelists - and Spark could swiftly join that group - style contributes heavily to my appreciation. Spark is sharp, witty, and sees straight through any form of dissemblance. I need to revisit The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means sometime, as I must have missed something. I'm late to the party on this one, but the latest converts are the most enthusiastic - I foresee more Sparks being read before 2010 is over. Thank you, blogosphere!


  1. I love Muriel Spark and this sounds right up my street! I will be borrowing it from the library asap. After all, anything along the lines of Cold Comfort Farm has to be fabulous. Great review!

  2. "Which Stuck-in-a-Book reader could fail to notice similarities to Miss Hargreaves?"

    Simon, you know all too well that the answer to that question will be me!

  3. Great review!! I haven't read anything by Muriel Sparks but this seems like a good place to start.

  4. Ah ha! I thought you'd like it!
    N x

  5. I adore Muriel Spark but I have to say that I didn't fully "get" this one; however I liked it well enough that I will read it one day (the same goes for A Far Cry from Kensington, which I wasn't bowled over by but felt I should as it is one of her publishing-influenced novels). My favourites so far are The Driver's Seat and Memento Mori. Spark is deliciously scathing of her characters and of society and I revel in her cruelty.

  6. I know you probably won't read it, but there is a great new book out there called "Homer's Odyssey" by Gwen Wilson. Homer, just so you know, is a 13 year old cat. :-)

  7. I wonder if it was me that recommended it verbally? I read it a year or so ago and thought it was brilliant. I've tried one or two other Sparks since and they have not measured up. Great book, and great review -- so glad you loved it.

  8. why do you say "she is not dissimilar" instead of "she is similar"?

    I've noticed other writers using same double negative form ... sounds contrived and precious

    I expect you'll knock me off your reading list now

  9. Oh, do try again with Jean Brodie. It's one of those books that you get something new from every time you read it.

  10. Love that cover, reminds me a little of the latest covers for Mallory Towers! The only spark I've read is Miss Jean Brodie and I didn't enjoy it much. I ought to try again.

  11. I read two of her books a couple of months ago and it did nothing for me. I will take up your enthusiastic recommendation and go look for this one.

  12. Your review was wonderful as always but the image of Nanny and the butler on the nursery rocking horse sealed it.

    Love your witty sketch!

  13. Nice sketch! I haven't ever tried Spark myself, so found your review esp. interesting.

  14. Naomi - I'd better get it back to the library, then! I should take it back on Weds or Thurs, methinks...

    Peter - surely you noticed the similarities even without having read it!

    Willa - yes, I think you'd know whether or not you liked Spark from reading this, although she is quite varied. Give it a go!

    N - I can't thank you enough!

    Claire - Spark does seem to have many different books which people consider her best - which is no bad thing. Memento Mori is one I'm really looking forward to reading... but The Comforters is up next.

    Paul - and again, my interest is piqued!!

    Harriet - thank you, if it was you! Did you write about it? I searched your blog and couldn't find a review...

    Janice - I've posted on your blog about this now... For me - for most British people, I think - 'similar' and 'not dissimilar' are, ahem, dissimilar!

    Mary - one day I definitely will, I think I must have missed a lot

    Thomas - thanks :)

    Nicola - maybe, like me, you'll grow to love Spark - I'm so glad I kept going after a couple of lukewarm responses

    Mystica - hope you fare better with Loitering With Intent! Which two did you read?

    Darlene - thanks! And isn't that bit with the nanny fun? There is such joie de vivre lurking in the novel.

    Susan - hope you manage to try Spark out :)


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