Muriel Spark is one of my Pantheon authors (see here). As such, I hope to read as many of her books as I can over however many years I have left. Of Spark’s twenty-two novels, I’ve now read . . . seven. Not too bad! But, at not quite a third, it does show I have work to do, especially since she’s not the only author on my Pantheon list (and I will likely add to it some more in the future).
Now, while I was looking to read something by Spark a few weeks ago, I actually didn’t intend to read this one. It was a mistake! I stumbled into it. On Goodreads, we’ve been doing our third annual Mookse Madness, and this year had four books by Muriel Spark in the running. Loitering with Intent was competing against A Far Cry from Kensington, and as I’d never read either I picked up A Far Cry from Kensington so I could vote for one without my normal degree of ignorance. I read ten or fifteen pages of it and was enjoying it immensely. I went somewhere and grabbed the book on my way out so I could keep going, and, lo and behold, I’d accidentally grabbed Loitering with Intent! So I read it instead (I’ll get back to A Far Cry from Kensington soon).
Loitering with Intent is, based on the whisperings I have heard, one of Spark’s best. As is my usual experience with her, I started it with a great amount of joy, wondered if I’d even like the book at all at about the halfway point, and then got sucked in and enjoyed it thoroughly at the end.
When the book begins we meet our protagonist and narrator, Fleur Talbot. It’s the early 1950s in London (similarly set, then, as what I read of A Far Cry from Kensington), and Fleur is an independent woman who is writing her first novel. Of course, writing a first novel is not a way to create an immediate income, so she gets a job with the strange Sir Quentin Oliver, the director of the Autobiographical Association. In that group Fleur meets a handful of eccentric individuals with boring lives trying to write a boring autobiography. Sir Quentin would like to help them make their books more fun. Fleur, as a novelist with a strong perspective, is expected to give the books a literary quality. I thinks she’s a good candidate. Here is how she introduces herself — as an opposite:
Fleur was the name hazardously bestowed at birth, as always in these cases before they know what you are going to turn out like. Not that I looked too bad, it was only that Fleur wasn’t the right name, and yet it was mine as are the names of those melancholy Joys, those timid Victors, the inglorious Glorias and materialistic Angelas on is bound to meet in the course of a life of change and infiltration; and I was met a Lancelot who, I assure you, had nothing to do with chivalry.
But all is not as it appears. Fleur’s interest in the members is, well, exploitative. She’s the one loitering with intent — the intent to mine their personalities and quirks for her own novel
I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more.
Sir Quentin himself may be the primary force providing shape to her book. She thinks, after all, that Sir Quentin’s own interest in the group is exploitative. Could he be collecting their lives in order to blackmail them? And what will happen if he stumbles upon Fleur’s manuscript? At the very least, it will provide good material for the next novel:
People often ask me where I get ideas for novels; I can only say that my life is like that, it turns into some other experience of fiction, recognizable only to myself.
As I mentioned above, I truly enjoyed this novel, though only after getting through a few chapters of Spark’s rather cynical and even sinister descriptions of the rather pathetic characters. Spark’s Fleur is proud of her insights (as you can see in her quotes above), and she cannot help but establish the characters in some scenes that were a bit long and meandering for my taste, when it comes to this kind of lark.
And, yes, I do consider Loitering with Intent a lark. But that’s my favorite kind of Spark. Here her cruelty toward her characters amplifies the silly situation. Sure, there are some real concerns going on here — exploitation and the relationship between life and fiction, come to mind — but in the end it’s a fun game of cat and mouse, well written and clever.