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.
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.”