“I always hope the readers of my novels are of good quality. I wouldn’t like to think of anyone cheap reading my books.”
~ Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent.
I was delighted to read about Muriel Spark’s new collection of essays ‘The Informed Air’. Spark is one of my favourite novelists, and this is a review of one of my favourite books of hers.
“I was aware of a daemon 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”, says Fleur Talbot, the fiesty heroine of Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark’s semi-autobiographical gem of a novel. One of Fleur’s most delightful traits is how she views the people around her with amused detachment, analysing them as characters to be written in future books. And then, characters from her first novel start to come alive around her.
Lauded by many as one of the finest of Spark’s works and indeed one of the finest books ever, Loitering with Intent takes the reader on a pleasurable journey through London in 1949 through the recollections of Fleur who is writing her first novel at the time and is surviving on her job “on the grubby edge of the literary world,” as secretary to Sir Quentin’s Autobiographical Association. Sir Quentin’s group consists of an eccentric mix of snooty aristocrats who have led tediously plain lives, and Fleur amuses herself by embellishing their memoirs with spicy details as she types and tidies their manuscripts. All her thoughts and energy are focused around the manuscript of her novel Warrender Chase which she holds in higher regard than her part time job, employers, friends and boyfriends.
As the members of the autobiographical association begin to get depressed, hysterical and eventually killed, Fleur suspects that the snobbish Sir Quentin may have been blackmailing his flock, exerting his power over them not unlike the protagonist of her novel. When Quentin steals her manuscript in order to plagiarise from it, she finds herself drawn into the plot of her book. As she manages to retrieve her book from his clutches, she watches scenes from her book play out in real life even as she loiters happily around London all the while, rejoicing in her art and her life.
This is a quintessential work of metafiction, one in which the narrator as novelist is writing a book, creating a world of words which manifests around her as she had imagined it. Questions on the relationship between art and the artist, how art is created, the nature of faith, friendship and love are raised and explored through the effervescent narrative voice. The characters are remarkably sketched and memorable, from the manipulative Sir Quentin, his geriatric mother Lady Edwina (a ninety year old incontinent woman who dresses up in pearls and chiffon and makes for some wonderful comic scenes in her interactions with her son and with Fleur, with whom she strikes up an unlikely friendship), the assorted members of the autobiographical association who fall into Sir Quentin’s trap, the housekeeper Beryl Tims and Fleur’s ‘English rose’ friend Dottie, a weak woman who is easily led by Sir Quentin into supporting his malevolent plans.
Fleur Talbot knows her place in the world as an artist, her priorities in life and is so much in tune with them that the minor frictions caused by interactions with lesser beings around her do not affect her as much as amuse her, as she quotes her beloved Benvenuto Cellini and ”by the grace of God, goes on her way rejoicing.”
Shades of Loitering… can be found in Curriculum Vitae, Spark’s autobiography that provides glimpses into her brilliant, enigmatic mind. She looks dispassionately at the world and muses on it critically and objectively without a scrap of superfluous sentiment. Spark comes across as a spirited woman who rejoiced in her life and her art, considered happiness to be a natural birthright and after all her struggles, actually found it.