Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Of the Muriel Spark novels I’ve read so far, Loitering with Intent is perhaps the most playful. In some respects, there are similarities with Memento Mori, Spark’s wonderful social comedy on the challenges of ageing – another vehicle for her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. I had a lot of fun with Loitering, a marvellous slice of metafiction about the work of writers and the fine line between fiction and reality.

Loitering is narrated by Fleur Talbot, now a seasoned author with a long and successful career under her belt. In order to compile her autobiography, Fleur looks back on her early days as an aspiring writer in the mid-20th century, a time when she was eager to gain a foothold in the literary world.

The setting is London, the year 1949. Fleur takes a job working as a secretary for Sir Quentin Oliver, a rather odd character who runs the Autobiographical Association, a ‘special circle’ designed to support a small number of individuals in the production of their memoirs. By night, Fleur toils away on her debut novel, Warrender Chase, a dark and sinister story which she claims to be a work of fiction. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop her from taking inspiration from the world around her.

I was finding it extraordinary how, throughout all the period I had been working on the novel, right from Chapter One, characters and situations, images and phrases that I absolutely needed for the book simply appeared as if from nowhere into my range of perception. I was a magnet for experiences that I needed. Not that I reproduced them photographically and literally. I didn’t for a moment think of portraying Sir Quentin as he was. What gave me great happiness was his gift to me of the finger-tips of his hands touching each other, and, nestling among the words, as he waved towards the cabinet, ‘In there are secrets,’ the pulsating notion of how much he wanted to impress, how greatly he desired to believe in himself. (pp. 7-8)

Sir Quentin insists that the work Fleur is to undertake at the Association is top secret, to the extent that the opening chapters of the autobiographies are kept in a locked cabinet in his London apartment. It is alleged that the contents of the memoirs are incendiary, full of revelations that ought not to be revealed for several years in case they cause distress to certain persons still alive. In reality, however, the drafts are rather dull and poorly written. As a consequence, Fleur is encouraged by Sir Quentin to spruce up (and maybe even spice up) the texts, giving her licence to act as an editor of sorts as she goes along.

The members of the Autobiographical Association (AA) are an eclectic bunch. There are six of them in total including a French Baroness of indeterminate age, a defrocked priest who has experienced a loss of faith, and an elaborately dressed woman who was raised at the Czar of Russia’s court. Another writer might have chosen to expand on the lives of these characters in more detail, but Spark decides – rather wisely in my opinion – to keep the focus on Fleur and her immediate world.

As Fleur goes about her work at the AA, she begins to suspect that Sir Quentin is involved in some kind of sinister racket – possibly one that involves blackmail, although the financial circumstances don’t seem to fit. He appears to be quite wealthy while most of the members of the Association are not; some of them are actually quite hard up.

To complicate matters further, the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ begin to blur. Some of the people Fleur encounters in her job start to resemble characters from her novel, Warrender Chase. Certain events from her book play out in real life. Particular phrases reverberate and echo through each story as life begins to imitate art.

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. (p. 42)

To reveal many more details of the plot might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that Spark has a lot of fun in playing out the rest of the novel, a story that involves theft, duplicity and a dash of intrigue.

There are some brilliant characters here. Sir Quentin is quite clearly a crank and a terrible snob, in thrall to a social class that is rapidly fading away.

Fleur herself is a very engaging narrator – funny, independent and a little bit absurd. She is very protective of her novel, Warrender Chase, even though she believes at the time that it may never be published. I don’t think we’re meant to take her entirely seriously, especially as there appears to be an element of unreliability in her narration. Maybe trying to disentangle ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ is all part of the fun here.

Sir Quentin’s elderly mother, Lady Edwina, is another marvellous creation – complete with her glamorous tea gowns and immaculately painted nails, she has a penchant for the dramatic entrance. In spite of the fact that Sir Quentin and his housekeeper, the rather bossy Beryl Tims, believe Lady Edwina to be a little senile, Fleur quite correctly intuits that there is nothing wrong with this lady’s mind. Far from it; she is quite sharp with a wicked sense of humour to boot, all of which makes for some interesting interactions with Mrs Tims.

In this scene, Lady Edwina enters a meeting of the AA ‘as if it were a drawing-room tea party, holding up the proceedings with the blackmail of her very great age and of her newly revealed charm’. It’s a real delight.

She knew some of them by name, enquired of their families so solicitously that it hardly mattered that most of them were long since dead, and when Mrs Tims entered with the tea and soda buns on a tray, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Tims! What delightful things have you brought us?’ Beryl Tims was amazed to see her sitting there, wide awake, with her powdered face and her black satin tea dressed freshly spoiled at the neck and shoulders with a slight face-powder overflow. Mrs Tims was furious but she put on her English Rose simper and placed the tray with solicitude on the table beside old Edwina, who was at that moment enquiring of the unfrocked Father, ‘Are you the Rector of Wandsworth in civilian clothing?’ (pp. 30-31)

All in all, Loitering with Intent is another excellent novel by Muriel Spark, full of ideas and knowing nods to the power of fiction. (I find her a consistently inventive writer.) There are stories nested within other stories here: Fleur’s recollections of her time at the AA; the biographies of the AA members, ultimately augmented by various developments in the book; Fleur’s novel Warrender Chase, of which we learn more as Loitering unfolds.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Fleur as she reflects on her work as a writer, an observation that seems just as applicable to Spark herself.

When I first started writing people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism. (p. 65) 

I am a little early for Ali’s #ReadingMuriel2018 schedule, but you can discover more about her project to celebrate Spark’s centenary here.

Loitering with Intent is published by Virago; personal copy.

40 thoughts on “Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s definitely one of my favourites as well. I sometimes wonder whether Spark was too inventive for her own good, but in this case she pulled it off splendidly!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think she knows what she’s doing, for sure. It’s a very funny take on the foibles of the literary world of the day. Definitely recommended, especially as you’re rather partial to a good bit of metafiction.

      Reply
  1. realthog

    Many thanks for such an engaging review, Jacqui. I really must give this one a try. It’s many years since last I read a Spark, despite occasional resolutions to remedy this. Loitering sounds like the one that could stiffen my resolve. Off to the library catalogue I go . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it definitely feels as if it’s in a similar kind of place in her oeuvre as Memento Mori. (To my mind, they are recognisably the work of the same writer.) I’d be very interested in your view on that, especially as you’ll have read most of her work by the time the year is out.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank, Grier – I’m glad you enjoyed it. I absolutely LOVED Lady Edwina. What a hoot she turned out to be, streets ahead of Sir Quentin in terms of playfulness and verve!

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui. I think this is definitely one of my favourite Sparks. I love the life imitating art element – such fun! And her wit really is razor-sharp as you say. As a novelist she was *so* not what I was expecting!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I really like the life imitating art aspect too. Spark uses it in such a clever way in this book – part of the fun comes from trying to spot where she’s going with each development in the narrative as you try to disentangle ‘fiction’ from ‘reality’. I haven’t always clicked with this author in the past, but this one turned out to be winner for me.

      Reply
  3. Guy Savage

    I’ve read a few Spark novels and even an autobiography. Wasn’t as wowed by The Prime of Miss JB as I expected to be. I’ve read several of her very minor titles for some reason. haven’t read this one. Loved A Far Cry From Kensington.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really liked A Far Cry from Kensington, too – especially the evocation of the period, which felt very true to life. Have you read Memento Mori? If you enjoyed that one, there’s a fair chance you’ll take to Loitering, too. They feel quite similar to me, particularly in terms of tone and style. Plus, I think you’d have a ball with Lady Edwina – it’s worth reading Loitering for her priceless appearances alone!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, Godfrey and his obsession with losing one’s faculties! I loved the dynamic between him and Charmian. Spark was uncannily good when it came to painting these mature characters in the twilight years of their lives. I can’t recall how old she was when she wrote Memento Mori, but I think she was still fairly young.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Barbara Pym had a similar knack for getting into the minds of middle-aged gentlewomen. I think she was in her early twenties when she imagined what life would be like for the Bede sisters in Some Tame Gazelle.

          Reply
  4. Caroline

    I always wanted to read this because I’ve heard such good things. You confirmed my impression.
    So far, she was hit or miss for me. I can’t even remember all of the titles i’ve read because of that. I’d love to read The Driver’s Seat soon. “Psychological Jack the Ripper” is a great description of this type of guy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s really, really good. So clever and inventive, and Fleur is such wonderful heroine that you’ll be rooting for her from the start. It’s an interesting one from a technical perspective too with the nested stories aspect to the structure. I’ve had mixed experiences with Spark as well as I didn’t particularly take to her first novel, The Comforters. Mind you everything changed when I read Memento Mori, the book that turned out to be the gateway drug for me.

      I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on with The Driver’s Seat. It’s a book I’ve shied away from in the past on account of its reputation, but that may well change in the future especially if you like it.

      Reply
  5. Jonathan

    I’m reading ‘The Public Image’ at the moment which is pretty good. I’m not sure if I’ll blog about it though as I’ve not been blogging much lately. As ‘Momento Mori’ appeals to me so this one does as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, nice. I like the sound of that one. I read somewhere that it was the source for the name of John Lydon’s band Public Image Ltd. That’s as good a reason as any to read it.

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I find Spark a fun and very clever writer, perhaps a little under-rated which is a shame because her short, sharp novels are a real pleasure. I must get around to reading more of her work, thank you for the reminder.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Only too happy to act as a reminder! This would certainly be the year to return to Spark given the celebrations around her centenary – and Loitering is certainly sharp and clever enough to fit the bill. I hope you get a chance to read a little more of her at some point.

      Reply
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  8. 1streading

    Echoes of Dougal Douglas’s fictional biography of Maria Cheeseman in The Ballad of Peckham Rye! So glad you enjoyed this – I’m still making my way through her novels (Not to Disturb is next) and looking forward to this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How interesting! I don’t have a copy of the Ballad of Peckham Rye, but that may well change in the future especially if there’s a loose connection with Loitering. I think you’ll have a ball with this whenever you get around to it, maybe later this year if you’re thinking of reading it as part of the centenary?

      Reply
  9. BookerTalk

    The blurring of fact/fiction is very similar to the idea in her first novel The Comforters. That was featured an author writing a book who is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions. That was the most interesting aspect of the book. If it had been my first experience of Spark I’m not sure I would have wanted to read anything else by her. It seems that in Loitering she had matured the idea and it was more successful as a result

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I need to try again with The Comforters at some point! I read it a few years ago after a long absence from Spark’s work (my only other experience had come via Miss Jean Brodie around the time of the TV adaptation with Geraldine McEwan), but it didn’t really hit the spot for me. Now that I’ve read a few more of her novels, I might fare better with it – especially as her particular brand of humour can be a bit of an acquired taste.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s great to see so much interest in her work. I’m a bit ahead of Ali’s official schedule with this review, but I’m sure that doesn’t matter too much. It’ll be interesting to see what others make of it later this year…

      Reply
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  11. lonesomereadereric

    Thanks so much for suggesting I read this next – sounds perfect! I love the sound of how it layers stories within stories and mines this section of the literary world for commentary on the reading/writing process itself as well as finding so much poignancy and humour there.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Eric. I genuinely think you would enjoy it. There are times when I wonder whether Spark can be too creative for her own good, but in this instance I think she gets it just right. The novel is inventive and playful without feeling overloaded with different ideas – and Fleur, the central character, is almost certain to win your over. All in all, it’s a very knowing look at the absurdities of a certain corner of the literary world. A very British novel in many respects!

      Reply
  12. Brian Joseph

    I have been meaning to read Spark for years. The plot and characters of this one sound like a lot of fun. I also find that books, that incorporate fictional books within them, to be generally neat.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, this would be the year to read Spark given that it’s the centenary of her birth. I would recommend either this one or Memento Mori as a good way of getting a feel for her style which is very sharp, clever and inventive. There are times when she seems to relish taunting certain characters, but it’s probably her way of highlighting some of the flaws and absurdities of human nature.

      Reply
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