Muriel Spark – Loitering With Intent

Posted on | June 11, 2010 | 8 Comments

There’s a thin line between reality and fiction; they oft’ reflect each other very closely, so much so that the line is indiscernible. But – what happens when reality starts imitating fiction?

That’s the basic premise of Spark’s 1981 novel, starring Fleur Talbot: an aspiring writer in London in the 1950s. She’s writing her first novel, Warrender Chase, but she needs a job to get by while she finishes it. And so, she takes up the position of the secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, and his brainchild: The Autobiographical Association.

The Autobiographical Association comprises of a bunch of people who write their memoirs, which are to be published in the future, when anyone and everyone mentioned in the autobiographies are dead. In a manner of speaking, it’s almost like a time capsule.

A myriad of entertaining characters are created by Spark, to fill in the roles of the members of the Association – each more warped than the other. Fleur, the narrator, ends up “enriching” their otherwise mundane autobiographies. However, right before her eyes, the scenes from the office start resembling her novel – which she had started before taking the job! What’s is Sir Quentin’s end goal? And to what lengths is he ready to go to in order to achieve his end goal?

In Fleur, we have a witty likeable narrator, who says it as she sees it.

I always desired books; nearly all of my bills were for books. I possessed one very rare book which I traded for part of my bill with another bookshop, for I wasn’t a bibliophile of any kind; rare books didn’t interest me for their rarity but their content. I borrowed frequently from the public library, but often I would go into a bookshop and in my longing to possess, let us say, the Collected Poems of Arthur Clough and a new Collected Chaucer, I would get into conversation with the bookseller and run up another bill.

She befriends Sir Quentin’s mother, Lady Edwina, who is an eccentric character, with a mischievous side. And then there’s the despicable Beryl Tims – the apparent love interest of Sir Quentin – who works with him, and finally, Sir Quentin himself – a character who’s extremely unlikeable and becomes a shade more repulsive with each turn of the page. It’s these characters that carry this work of metafiction, and makes it a fascinating read.

I think I didn’t get enough out of the book, by virtue of not knowing much about a couple of authors (Benvenuto Cellini and John Henry Newman) whose works Fleur (and a couple of other characters) refers to at regular intervals (quoting passages as well), setting them as model autobiographies.

I also thought Warrender Chase sounded like a pretty dreadful book (not one I’d like to read, anyway). Maybe in a parallel universe, where novels are actually a byproduct of reality, this book exists, and the “lucid readers” are singing a different tune. If not that, maybe it has a “cult” following. What do I know?


8 Responses to “Muriel Spark – Loitering With Intent”

  1. Literary Kitty
    June 12th, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    Interesting! I quite like Muriel Spark but after reading this I’m not sure this is one for me. I often find over-referential novels a bit of a turn off! I kind of feel like a book should always be a complete work in itself – no supplementary reading required!

  2. Claire (Paperback Reader)
    June 12th, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

    I don’t recall this being an overly-referential book and preferred it -and its exploration of publishing- over A Far Cry from Kensington.

    Spark this year has very much become a must-read-everything author and I highly recommend Memento Mori or The Driver’s Seat for your next foray into her work.

    Also, suggestion for site: subscribe to comments option please?

  3. anothercookiecrumbles
    June 12th, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

    @Literary Kitty : It’s not over-referential, per se. There are just many references to these two authors, whose works I’m not familiar with at all. I have an inherent need to know more about everything :S

    @Claire : Think Driver’s Seat is next on the cards for me. It sounds absolutely fantastic. Agree with you on the must-read-everything bit on Spark, despite having read just the two books.

    By the way, thanks for the suggestion on comments subscription – completely missed that out. Have added it now.

  4. Claire (Paperback Reader)
    June 12th, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    The Driver’s Seat is fantastic and I must find my copy (I think it’s in Glasgow) to reread it.

    Thanks for the quick fix re comments!

  5. Aarti
    June 13th, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

    Congratulations on your own site! I will have to update my feed reader :-)

    I haven’t ever read any Muriel Spark, and now I’m not sure if I’m literary enough to read this one. But maybe a different one.

  6. Sarah
    June 14th, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

    This was my first Muriel Spark, and it left me kind of puzzled, and feverishly racing over to Wikipedia to check out those names you mention. Which didn’t help me a great deal.

    I also felt I didn’t get everything out of this book. It’s reassuring to be in good company!

  7. anothercookiecrumbles
    June 16th, 2010 @ 4:54 am

    @Claire : Thanks for pointing that out to me. I’d genuinely forgotten about it!

    @Aarti : This one is still a very enjoyable read. There’s just parts of it that I wish I’d understood more. I started with A Far Cry From Kensington, which I thought was quite amazing. Probably going to take Claire’s advice and read Driver’s Seat or Memento Mori next.

    @Sarah : Ah! Solidarity, how I love thee. Are you planning on reading any more Spark soon, or not for the time being?

  8. Mystica
    June 21st, 2010 @ 4:14 am

    Muriel Spark is very popular amongst several book bloggers and I took three of her books from our library. I was so very disappointed as none of them appealed to me at all but I did read two of them fully as I was determined to see what there was in the books which appealed to so many. Sadly didnt do anything for me.

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