Finally, I am able to make my contribution to Simon and Harriet’s Muriel Spark Reading Week! I always feel like I should have stronger reactions to Spark’s books, which is part of why it has taken me most of this week to finally get around to posting. Her books are fascinating and inventive and suitably thought-provoking but I’ve never really clicked with any of them. I always finish each book thinking how well-crafted it was rather than how much I enjoyed that. There are certainly worse responses one can have but it is not a particularly satisfying way to feel. With the exception of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, there has never been a moment where Spark has engaged me emotionally and I’ve never felt particularly eager to reread any of her books. Spark has a sense of humour I enjoy and I appreciate that she feels no need to create likeable characters (I can’t think of any in the six of her books that I’ve read) but I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel so coolly towards her.
Spark’s books are generally a touch bizarre and Loitering with Intent is no exception. Fleur Talbot, aspiring poetess and novelist, finds herself employed by the shady Sir Quentin Oliver as secretary for his Autobiographical Association, a group of dull but august persons intent on writing about their lives in as illiterate a manner as they are capable. Fleur is hired to ‘polish’ these manuscripts, “to rectify any lack or lapse in form, syntax, style, characterization, invention, local colour, description, dialogue, construction, and other trivialities.” As she is drawn into the association and gets to know its members, all captivated by the mesmerizing Sir Quentin and easily cowed by his judgements, it does not take long for her to notice the eerie parallels between her new acquaintances and the characters in her first novel, Warrender Chase. And what is even more bizarre is how, long after the novel is finished, events keep unfolding exactly as she had written them.
Part of the charm of the book is how completely awful all of the characters are. They are each, in their way, repellent and that is what makes them so appealing. Sir Quentin is the most repellent and, it necessarily follows, the most fascinating. He is comically snobbish and criminally manipulative and I wish there had been more of him. Fleur, with her single-minded focus on the fate of her novel, is equally selfish but rather less interesting to me. This is a bit of a problem since the entire novel is narrated from her point of view, from her perspective as an older, established author looking back on her beginnings. That premise itself of course begs questions about how reliably she is relating her own history: is this what really happened, or has she taken the same liberties with her own autobiography as she did when she was ‘improving’ the autobiographies of the members of the association? Are the allegations of plagiarism as unfounded as she claims?
Like any Spark novel, the best thing about Loitering with Intent is all the questions it leaves you pondering long after you’ve finished reading. Spark is not a simple author and the real benefit from her books comes in the days and weeks after you’ve closed the cover, when you’re left remembering a certain character or wondering if there was more to the story than you’d originally thought.