April 30, 2008

Muriel Spark: Loitering with Intent

Posted in Spark Muriel at 7:57 am by John Self

When Muriel Spark was mentioned in recent comments on this blog, I realised how long it is since I read anything by her. A few years ago, I worked my way through most of her novels, and probably overdosed. I found her brilliant but frustrating, her fiction paradoxically crystal clear but at times as hard to grasp as fog. She has a coolness toward her characters – and the reader – which wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But there were so many great things – the bold opening move of having a character in her debut, The Comforters, know that she was in a novel; the prescient portrayal of a celebrity age in The Public Image; the sharp-edged and brutal novella The Driver’s Seat; and that’s not to mention her justly famous titles such as Memento Mori or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – that it was impossible not to keep coming back for more.

Loitering with Intent

So I fished out Loitering with Intent from my shelves, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981 and reissued last year as a Virago Modern Classic, with a jaunty cover illustration and paper so cheap and thin that the book weighs no more than an airmail letter.

In common with most of Spark’s later books, Loitering with Intent is – comparatively – gentler and warmer than her earlier titles, but retains their cleverness. In its knowing play with notions of the role of the author and the sources of fiction, it’s much more modern than its quaint setting suggests. It’s set, in fact, in 1950 – “one day in the middle of the twentieth century” – the year in which Spark was first published, in a short story competition in The Observer. It’s personalised by having, unusually for Spark, a first person narrator who is working on her first novel; and so the encouragement to associate character with author is all the stronger.

The narrator is Fleur Talbot, her novel is Warrender Chase, and to support herself as she writes she takes a job as secretary to the Autobiographical Association.

‘You could write your autobiography,’ I said. ‘You could join the Autobiographical Association where the members write their true life stories and have them put away for seventy years so that no living person will be offended.’

The Association is run by Sir Quentin Oliver, and Fleur quickly comes to suspect him of foul play against his vulnerable members. Furthemore, she is alarmed to discover that her novel seems to be coming to life.

In my febrile state of creativity I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character. I could see that the members of the Autobiographical Association were about to become his victims, psychological Jack the Ripper as he was.

The scene is set for a farcical tale of detection, betrayal and missing manuscripts. Readers like me, who are almost as interested in the process of how a book comes to be as they are in books themselves, will be delighted by the scenes dealing with the writing process, publishing contracts and the dismal lot that is an author’s. Spark, in Fleur’s voice, also gives us some insight into what she knows to be criticisms – and strengths – of her own fiction:

I knew I wasn’t helping the reader 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. … I never described, in my book, what Warrender’s motives were. I simply showed the effect of his words, his hints. … When I first started writing people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism.

It is these ‘aspects of realism’ which can be so foxing in Spark’s spiky fiction. The space left where other authors would indicate motive or tell the reader what to think, gives the book, like her others, a clearness and breathability which enables it to respond quite differently to each reader’s approach. “Complete frankness,” Fleur observes, “is not a quality that favours art.”

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14 Comments »

  1. Mark Thwaite said,

    Hiya John,

    “It’s much more modern than its quaint setting suggests” — I’d want to rewrite that and say, “it’s much more *modernist* than its quaint setting suggests”!

    Spark was indebted to the writers of the nouveau roman who in turn looked back to Modernism. The “coldness” that you mention, and the paradoxical clarity and impenetrability, define this for me.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks Mark – I was on the brink in fact of adding an -ist to my modern but I am never quite sure I know enough about such terms to bandy them about. I appreciate the clarification.

    And can I just apologise for the automatically generated “Possibly related links” which WordPress has decided to grace its blogs with. Nicholas Sparks indeed! I will see if these start to improve and if not, will get rid of them pretty sharpish.

  3. Stewart said,

    You tease! I read this a couple of years ago and, like most books, can’t remember anything about it. Your mention of the Autobiographical Association sparked (yes, pun intendend) some memories, but not enough to allow me to recall the story and not have to read it again. In fact, the only Spark that I can recall, even though it’s purely on the ending, is The Driver’s Seat and it was this short book that I was reminded of when reading Gilbert Adair’s Buenas Noches Buenos Aires.

  4. Matthew said,

    Like many of the books you have reviewed, I haven’t read any of Muriel Spark’s books. But her detached attitude toward her characters would be something I’d like to explore. As usual, after reading your post, my reading list only gets longer!

  5. Tony S. said,

    You did not mention my favorite Muriel Spark novel, “Girls of Slendor Means” about the bombing of England during World War II. I appreciate Muriel Spark also, because she can put so much into a short novel.

  6. John Self said,

    Yes Tony, another strong one. Really, she wrote so many that it’s hard to keep track at times!

    Matthew, I hope you try her and post on your blog about it. A good place to begin is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most famous novel, and only 120 pages!

    Stewart, yes it took me a while to get around to this didn’t it? Agree that The Driver’s Seat is pretty unforgettable for its ending. It’s the kind of ending that might even enhance a new reader’s pleasure by being told it in advance, but best stick with tradition I guess.

  7. Isabel said,

    Thanks for the background on Sparks.

    I am sad the UK publishers are following US publishing trends on printing on cheap paper. Sigh.

    Maybe they want us to nudge us to downloading books?

  8. Richard said,

    I’m a newcomer to Spark (I only read her for the first time last year, but then I read five of her books); it’s always nice to see a post about her work. Thanks.

    But I want to comment on Isabel’s comment. I’m curious what she means by “UK publishers following US publishing trends”. In my experience, as an American reading primarily American editions, the UK editions I’ve read from the last several years are of VASTLY inferior quality to the American ones. Books on the Vintage imprint are the worst. The books are lighter, the paper clearly cheaper, the bindings break down in the midst of an initial reading. I know it’s often the case that the US leads the way in producing things more cheaply, if possible, but in this case, for whatever reason, it hasn’t seemed to be the case.

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks Richard. For some reason your comment was caught by my spam filter so I had to manually release it; hence it didn’t appear immediately.

    Isabel must speak for herself but perhaps she is making a distinction between US mass-market paperbacks and ‘literary fiction’ paperbacks? The former in my experience are scruffy, brittle and cheap, whereas the latter have that enviable floppiness and tight binding which makes the spine almost impossible to break. In the UK all books whether mass-market or higher-end tend to be of similar production values. Penguin are good though, with heavier, cleaner paper in their paperbacks (at least in their Classics and Modern Classics ranges).

  10. Hi John – Nice post. I just re-read Loitering with Intent myself, along with a couple of stories that were new to me, one of which was quite challenging, “The House of the Famous Poet.” I think you’ll find two posts by Philip Weiss about Spark’s career and history with The New Yorker fascinating. You can find them here: http://www.observer.com/node/33081, and here: http://www.observer.com/node/33083.

  11. John Self said,

    Fascinating indeed Benjamin – thanks for the links. I had no idea that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in its entirety in The New Yorker! I must now look out ‘The House of the Famous Poet’ along with the other stories mentioned in the pieces, from my edition of her Collected Stories at home. I’ve only read a few but I do recall thinking that she excelled more in the short story form than in the novel.

    I don’t necessarily agree with Weiss (in the first piece) that The Girls of Slender Means was her last great novel, nor (in the second piece) that The Driver’s Seat was awful. I also have a soft spot for some of her slighter stuff like The Public Image. But I’d agree that most of her later stuff is not terribly interesting; there are a few mid-period novels, like The Only Problem, Territorial Rights and The Hothouse by the East River that I haven’t read also.

  12. I can’t presume to any certainty about Spark’s overall output, as I’ve read so little of it myself. I’m not familiar with most of the work of hers that you named, so I can see I’ve got my work cut out for me.

    As for “House of the Famous Poet,” I encourage you to read it – I’d be very curious to know what your thoughts are. Mine are here: http://emdashes.com/2008/06/in-the-house-of-the-famous-wri.php. But that’s a story where it’s very important, I think, not to read any criticism until you’ve read it yourself.

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks again Benjamin. I couldn’t resist clicking your link I’m afraid, but just skimmed the content and will return to it when I’ve read the story.

  14. […] written about Muriel Spark before on this blog – was it really over five years ago? - but that was one of her later books, as by then I’d read most of the novels from her […]


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