Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark (1981)
I discovered Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark by accident last year when I was reviewing novels to teach in a class focused on the 20th century British novel. I just completed my third reading of this book, and with each reading I like it more and more.
The protagonist of the novel is Fleur Talbot. Fleur is writing her memoir, and the specific period of time she is recounting is the middle of the twentieth century, from September 1949 to June 30, 1950. As she unfolds the events of the past, we learn that it was during this time that Fleur was writing her first novel, Warrender Chase. Because she wasn’t yet a successful, published author, it was in September 1949 that she found herself in need of a job, and her search leads to a secretarial position with the Autobiographical Association, established and led by Sir Quentin Oliver. Fleur explains that the purpose of the members of the Autobiographical Association is to write their memoirs and once completed, to lock them away for seventy years in order to avoid any accusations of libel. One of Fleur’s responsibilities is to edit the drafts of the memoirs, but she takes the liberty of “livening up” the memoirs by adding events, details, and people that never really happened or existed. Though the writers at first find the changes disturbing, they eventually allow and accept them to the point that they begin to believe fiction to be reality. Further still, the nature of Fleur’s own autobiography becomes questionable when we come to learn of the two autobiographies she admires most—that of John Henry Newman which she calls a “beautiful piece of poetic paranoia” and that of Benvenuto Cellini which appears to embellish the truth to the extent that it is difficult to believe everything in it to be true. Consequently, the reader questions whether Fleur’s autobiography is a piece of poetic paranoia or if it is embellished to the point of fabrication. Or is it a little of both? These threads of the narrative allow Spark to deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction and question the nature of autobiography.
The line between fact and fiction is further blurred by Fleur as she relates the creation and evolution of her first novel, Warrender Chase. As the story continues, it becomes difficult to be sure if Fleur is telling us the truth when she claims that none of the characters or the plot of her novel were inspired by Sir Quentin, his mother Lady Edwina, or the members of the Autobiographical Association. Particularly when Sir Quentin and the Autobiographical Association begin to act out some of the events that occur in Warrender Chase. It is also difficult to determine if Fleur has not only written a work of fiction but also created the “real” individuals that populate her memoir. Throughout the story, Fleur tells her friend Dottie that she could have invented Sir Quentin, and even Dottie becomes a character type for Fleur—an English Rose—a character type that appears in her novel. The result is that readers not only question whether or not Fleur, who is writing her memoir, is actually a reliable narrator but also what parts of Fleur’s memoir are fact and which parts are fiction. The answers to these questions are certainly left up to the interpretation of the reader.
Beyond the questions of what is real and what is fantasy, Fleur Talbot is a wonderful example of an emerging modern woman of the 20th century. In fact, Fleur’s refusal to submit to male dominance and traditional expectations for women makes her a refreshing character in terms of how women placed within a mid-20th century setting are typically represented. She is career-oriented, ambitious, and focused upon success and achieving her goals, and though she is not by any stretch “perfect” and some readers will question her morality, she’s appealing as a character, and her characterization is one of the many strengths of the novel.
Another of those strengths is the way Fleur reflects upon her development as a writer. More than once she remarks on how wonderful it was to be a woman and a writer in the middle of the twentieth century. As I was teaching this book last week, I contemplated whether this novel fits into the category of a Kunstlërroman (“novel of the artist”). We don’t see Fleur’s coming of age and development as an artist from childhood, so perhaps in the strictest sense it doesn’t fit this category. And yet, I want to put it in this category. Fleur’s recollections about writing her first novel and how she sees herself as a consummate observer of human experiences and emotions so that she can incorporate those into her fiction offers an interesting look at how Fleur understands the craft of writing (and, I suspect this applies to Spark as well). For someone who writes, it’s an interesting look into how one person (even a fictional person) finds inspiration.
Loitering with Intent is definitely one of my recommended reads. The story is entertaining and neither Fleur nor the novel takes itself too seriously; and yet at the same time the complexity of the interlocking narratives, the ambiguous line between fact and fiction, and the presence of a strong protagonist make it easy for me to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I will say that getting my hands on this book proved a bit of challenge initially, but if you can find a copy, give it a try. I think you’ll be glad you did.