Thursday, April 11, 2013

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

What is truth?  I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their life-stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness.  When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them.  But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Muriel Spark wrote an autobiography in 1992 called Curriculum Vitae.  I haven't read it, but it seems to have been poorly received.  The charge, as I gather from Martin Stannard's biography, is that Spark held her cards too close to her chest; given her prickly reputation and her fetish for authorial control, I believe it.

Loitering with Intent was published eleven years before Curriculum Vitae, but it seems that Spark was already thinking about her own autobiography, and autobiographies in generalTwo of Spark's favorites, those of Cardinal John Henry Newman and Benventuo Cellini, recur throughout Loitering, which is all about the way people write about themselves, and the way that writing, as life, can spin out of control.

Fleur Talbot, trying to support herself while writing a novel, takes a job as a secretary for the Autobiographical Society under the patrician snob Sir Quentin Oliver.  Her task is to edit the memoirs of the Society's members, which are dull, delusional, and poorly written.  Fleur begins to add embellishes to them, turning their lives into fictions.  Spark's accounts of the Society Members are some of her best comic passages:

"Indeed, you have made some very interesting changes.  Indeed, I wondered how you guessed that the butler locked me in the pantry to clean the silver, which he did indeed.  Indeed he did.  But Nanny on the rocking-horse, well, Nanny was a very religious woman.  On my rocking-horse with our butler, indeed, you know.  It isn't the sort of thing Nanny would have done."

"Are you sure?" said Sir Quentin, pointing a coy finger at him.  "How can you be sure if you were locked in the pantry at the time?  In your revised memoir you found out about their prank from a footman.  But if in reality..."

"My rocking-horse was not at all a sizeable one," said Sir Eric Findlay, K.B.E., "and Nanny, though not plump, would hardly fit on with the butler who was, though thin, quite strong."

"If I might voice an opinion," said Mrs. Wilks, "I thought Sir Eric's piece very readable.  It would be a pity to sacrifice the evil nanny and the dastardly butler having their rock on the small horse, and I like particularly the stark realism of the smell of brilliantine on the footman's hair as he bends to tell the small Sir Eric-that-was of his discovery.  It explains so much the Sir-Eric-that-is."

But Sir Quentin has something nefarious up his sleeve, and soon the manuscript of Fleur's novel goes missing, and then the lives of the Autobiographical Society begin mimicking its plot.  Spark keeps the mechanism of these events ambiguous--clearly Sir Quentin is manipulating them to some extent, but even Fleur admits that the members of the Society bear a remarkable likeness to her characters, who were created before she even took the job.  The line between recording a life and creating it through writing is never clear, and Spark seems to be wondering which of the two we are actually doing when we write about ourselves.

It is tempting to read Fleur as the author's stand-in and Loitering as a kind of autobiography.  Stannard points out how many of the details of Fleur's life are adapted from Spark's own.  Fleur's discovery that (spoiler alert) Sir Quentin has been feeding the members hallucinatory Dexedrine mirrors Spark's own issues with the diet pill, which caused her to believe, for a time, that T. S. Eliot was subliminally threatening her through his works.  But such a reading never coheres, and Spark seems to be daring us to fall into this trap.

Yet, Loitering is a fascinating glimpse into Spark's thinking about writing.  I am certain that, on that subject, Fleur and Spark are the same.  "No matter what is described," Fleur tells us, "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 pen and paper or before a typewriter."  That explains so much of the Muriel-that-was.  And: "I've come to learn for myself how little one needs, in the art of writing, to convey the lot, and how a lot of words, on the other hand, can convey so little."  And then there's the last sentence of the passage I opened this review with, which I'm going to repeat, because it's just so, so good:

But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.


Christopher said...

My rankings:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie >
The Mandelbaum Gate >
The Only Problem >
Girls of Slender Means >
Loitering with Intent >
Momento Mori >
Robinson >
Hothouse on the East River >
The Driver's Seat>
Aiding and Abetting >
The Finishing School

Brent Waggoner said...

This sounds good. That passage in the middle is hilarious.

Christopher said...

I had trouble cutting it off. It goes on and on in that vein.