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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 to publish her novel. In an extended flashback that makes up the bulk of Loitering With Intent, Fleur tells us the story of this job with the nonprofit Autobiographical Association and the ways it affected her novel (and vice versa).

The Autobiographical Association is the brainchild of a pompous baronet in late middle age—Sir Quentin Oliver. He has gathered together a little group—“men and women of great distinction living full, very full, lives”—in order to help them write their memoirs—“which they haven’t time to do.” These memoirs are to be devoted to “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” and they are to be sequestered for a seventy-year period because of British libel laws. Fleur relishes Sir Quentin as a character.

His snobbery was immense. But there was a sense in which he was far too democratic for the likes of me. He sincerely believed that talent, although not equally distributed by nature, could be later conferred by a title or acquired by inherited rank…. I suspect he really believed that the Wedgwood cup from which he daintily sipped his tea derived its value from the fact that the social system had recognized the Wedgwood family, not from the china that they had exerted themselves to make.

Accepting the top-secret job, she goes to work as a secretary in his London flat. There she encounters two other characters whom she relishes—Mrs. Beryl Tims, the housekeeper, whom Fleur types as an “English Rose,” at once simpering, avaricious, and judgmental; and Sir Quentin’s alarming Mummy, the nonagenarian Lady Edwina, a wild-eyed crone elaborately costumed and garishly made up. Selectively incontinent and capable of abusive and even foul-mouthed commentary, she is regarded as gaga by her son and his housekeeper. Soon enough Fleur encounters the other members of the Association, who, far from being VIPs, are a broken-down, depressed, and depressing lot: a couple of retired knights, a horsy, upper-class girl of thirty with one leg in an iron brace, the titled, hard-up widow of a minor diplomat, etc. Collectively, they seem to represent the detritus of the prewar Establishment.

As Fleur begins to type up the memoirs, none of which has gone beyond the first chapter, she finds that, boring and largely illiterate as they are, they share a number of factors in common: “One of them was nostalgia, another was paranoia, a third was a transparent craving on the part of the authors to appear likeable.” Unable to endure the dullness of the memoirs, Fleur—ever the novelist—begins touching them up here and there, making them expertly worse. To her surprise, Sir Quentin and the memoirists themselves generally approve her emendations, though they murmur at times that she is going too far. Conversely, as Fleur works on Warrender Chase at night, she finds that the people encountered through the Association become increasingly assimilated to the characters she is developing in her novel. Sir Quentin actually begins to resemble Warrender Chase himself, who was, she protests, outlined and fixed long before she saw Sir Quentin.

There are many Sparkish complications. The ancient Lady Edwina takes a great liking to Fleur and, dolled up in her chinchilla cape, escapes the watchful Quentin and Beryl to visit Fleur in the bed-sitting room where she lives. Dottie, the “awful” wife of Fleur’s boyfriend Leslie, informs Fleur that Leslie is using both of them as a cover for a homosexual affair with a mousy young poet named Gray Mauser. Mischievously, Fleur persuades Dottie, who is a pious, mealy-mouthed Catholic version of the “English Rose,” to seek relief by joining the Autobiographical Association and writing the story of her life.

And so on. Fleur’s manuscript of Warrender Chase is stolen by Dottie. Sir Quentin copies passages from Warrender Chase into the memoirs. The latter, in turn, are stolen by Fleur. Meanwhile, life continues to imitate art at a disquieting rate. The suicide of one of the members of the Association seems to have been prefigured by the suicide of a character in Warrender Chase. As Sir Quentin more and more takes on the sinister personality of Warrender (“a sado-puritan” who evilly dominates the lives of his followers), plying the members of the Association with Dexedrine and manipulating their weaknesses for obscure purposes of his own, an overwhelming question arises: will Sir Quentin meet the fate that Fleur has already established for Warrender Chase by the end of the first chapter of her novel? A secondary question also arises: to what extent has Fleur been contaminated by the atmosphere of the Association?—to what degree is her own memoir to be trusted?

I will, for plot’s sake, leave the former question unanswered and comment upon the latter, which touches the thematic core of the novel. The acquisitive nature of the novelist is a major concern of Loitering With Intent. “I was aware of a daemon inside me,” writes Fleur, “that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever they were, and more, and more.” Her novelist’s appetite for seeing and appropriating is insatiable. Unpleasant people (Mrs. Tims and Fleur’s landlord) and evil people (Sir Quentin) are as much her delight as are colorful eccentrics like Lady Edwina. Even people of weak character, like the members of the Association, are of use to her, but they need touching up in order to achieve the greater truth of fiction.

…I might as well remark here that to make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory, somewhere a paradox. And I’d already seen where the selfportraits of Sir Quentin’s ten testifiers were going all wrong, where they sounded stiff and false, occurred at points where they strained themselves into a constancy and steadiness that they evidently wished to possess but didn’t.

Thus the novelistic and autobiographic impulses are at odds. The writers of both will take liberties with fact but for different ends. Thus Fleur will tamper with the memoirs “to cheer things up rather than make each character coherent in itself.” As a novelist examining the autobiographic impulse, she offers the exuberant, extraverted, and novelistic example of Cellini’s autobiography as an antidote to the selfscrutinizing, defensive, and somewhat paranoiac Apologia of Cardinal Newman.

Fleur is unscrupulous in behalf of her novel. She will lie and steal. She will make mischief, do “evil,” for the sake of the truth she is seeking to establish. Though there is much joyousness in her enterprise, she is also subject to psychic dangers, to the whisperings of paranoia and the temptations of megalomania. Her achievement, finally, is to become a kind of prophet. As an artist she foresees the destinations toward which lives and events are tending; they fall into a prearranged pattern that she has already traced. Is Fleur perhaps a little crazy?

Much of this is interesting—and fun. Clearly Muriel Spark intends us to entertain seriously (as well as be entertained by) the Pirandelloesque confusions of fact and fiction, of autobiographical truth with artistic Truth, as they emerge from Fleur’s own memoir. I wish, however, that Fleur’s creator had taken more care to make the major premise of the novel—the existence of an Autobiographical Association—as believable, fictionally, as it needs to be. As a device it is too weak to pull very effectively the thematic load attached to it. One longs for a great comic machine, no matter how bizarre, to which the author could commit a full measure of her energy and imagination. Similarly, the figure of Sir Quentin needs, I think, to be made more monstrous, more Tartuffian. As it is, he is little more than the tedious English snob to whom we have been too often introduced. All sorts of evil and sinister motives are attributed to him, but the evidence is inconclusive; his ruling passion remains unclear, and once again we are left to wonder about Fleur’s reliability. There is an element of perfunctoriness, too, in the other characterizations. We have encountered obstreperous old ladies and homosexual young men before in Mrs.Spark’s fiction, and I am not sure that these new manifestations do more than ring a familiar bell. While the term “English Rose” is amusing as applied to Beryl Tims and Dottie, its implications are not substantial enough—at least for an American reader—to do the job of characterizing that the author evidently has in mind. (What the term produced in my mind, inappropriately enough, is the image of a somewhat younger and dimmer Mrs. Thatcher.) The touch is too light, even for comedy.

These deficiencies, as I see them, would matter much more were it not for Muriel Spark’s stylistic aplomb, the constant play of her wit, and above all the inspired creation of Fleur as her narrator-heroine. For Fleur, despite the ambiguities of her makeup, is a true heroine, one who engages the reader’s sympathies; we cheer her on. Endowed with liveliness, self-confidence, and a touch of real madness, she is the perfected medium for voicing and enacting the paradoxes that have engaged Muriel Spark’s fancy in this novel. She has the energy that the chief plot device lacks; she is the one character whose observations, actions, and imaginings supply the comic brio that sweeps the reader happily past all hesitations and dissatisfactions to the high-spirited finale. It is Fleur who makes me laugh when she warns Dottie not to try to hold on to her errant husband by getting him with child. It is Fleur who mischievously suggests to the pretentious Mrs. Tims that “fluxive precipitations” is the proper term for Lady Edwina’s floor-wettings and is then delighted when the phrase catches on. And it is she who sounds the proper note of exultation as the full realization of her magical power as a novelist dawns upon her:

It then came to me again, there in the tax, what a wonderful thing it was to be a woman and an artist in the twentieth century. It was almost as if Sir Quentin was unreal and I had merely invented him, Warrender Chase being a man, a real man on whom I had partly based Sir Quentin.

Though she has written three or four of the finest English novels to be published since the Second World War, my impression is that Muriel Spark is taken somewhat for granted these days and that she has received much less critical attention than, say, Iris Murdoch or Doris Lessing. Perhaps that light hand is partly to blame—that, and the exceptional lucidity of her style. She is, of course, a major resource of contemporary British fiction and likely to astound us again with a work as powerful as Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or The Girls of Slender Means. If Loitering With Intent does not achieve that level, it is nonetheless intelligent comedy of a sort that will give more pleasure than nine-tenths of what is acclaimed as good fiction today.

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