Comic Schemes

Loitering With Intent

by Muriel Spark
Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 217 pp., $12.95

Accomplished, successful, and prolific, Muriel Spark conveys an impression of almost insouciant ease where her writing is concerned. In her new novel (her sixteenth!) she assigns these words to her novelist-narrator, Fleur:

I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work. I am sparing no relevant facts.

Now I treated the story of Warrender Chase [the central character of the novel she is writing] with a light and heartless hand, as is my way when I have to give a perfectly serious account of things. No matter what is described it seems to me a sort of hypocrisy for a writer to pretend to be undergoing tragic experiences when obviously one is sitting in relative comfort with a pen and paper or before a typewriter.

There is no reason to postulate any great distance between fictional narrator and author ‘in this instance. While one might assume that Muriel Spark is no stranger to the agonies of the creative process, such an assumption must remain the reader’s, without reinforcement from either the novelist’s interviews or her work. An air of playful disengagement hovers over even so morally severe and “profound” a work as Memento Mori, that marvelous anatomy of old age, illness, and death.

Akin to what in the Renaissance was known as sprezzatura—an aristocratic “contempt” for one’s own productions—this attitude has served the writer both well and badly in her recent work. In a brilliantly faceted novel like The Takeover (1976), the offhand treatment of characters and events is integral to her comic vision of the decline and fall of the international rich and enhances our sense of an ornate structure reduced to glittering chaos. In Territorial Rights (1979), however, where the bubbling of absurdity is less in evidence, we find something different: a refusal of fictional responsibility that verges on the contemptuous. Characters are simply thrown away at the end, and the annoyed reader wonders why he should care what happens when the novelist apparently doesn’t.

Loitering With Intent is a much better book than its immediate predecessor. I had a very good time reading it. But the light hand to which Fleur refers creates certain problems having to do with fictional credibility and commitment within a comic scheme, problems that will become apparent after I have given a brief summary.

In London on a June day in 1950—at the precise midpoint of the century—a nearly penniless but resolute and cheerful young writer, Fleur Talbot, is sitting in an old graveyard in Kensington. She is eating a sandwich and composing a poem. She doesn’t know it yet, but her first novel (called Warrender Chase after its protagonist) is, following some very strange vicissitudes, about to be accepted by a good publisher. The chief reason for her high spirits is that she has just escaped from a curious job that had supported her during the preceding ten months when she was writing and then attempting…

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