Sunday, February 7, 2016

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

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.

Loitering with Intent is the fictional memoir of Fleur, a young woman in London in 1949 trying to make it as a writer. We follow her through a few pivotal months in her life as she recounts the writing and publishing of her first novel and her time as the secretary for an Autobiographical Association turned cult. The book is at turns lyrical, sarcastic, and brilliant.

I am a total sucker for good opening lines, and Spark had me hook, line, and sinker from the start:

One day in middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me. He was shy and smiling, he might have been coming over the grass to ask me for a game of tennis. He only wanted to know what I was doing but plainly he didn't like to ask. I told him I was writing a poem, and offered him a sandwich which he refused as he had just had his dinner, himself. He stopped to talk awhile, then he said good-bye, the graves must be very old, and that he wished me good luck and that it was nice to speak to somebody.
I love how much we learn in this first paragraph, how much happens. I also love the image of a woman sitting in a graveyard in the middle of London writing a poem and eating a sandwich. I like my first sentences to give me enough of a framework to follow what happens in the coming pages, but leave enough questions open that I want to keep reading; Sparks does exactly this.

Scattered throughout the book are descriptions of Fleur's writing process as she finishes Warrender Chase, the novel within a novel she is wrapping up and pitching to publishers.
My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or, lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better. All day long, when I was busy with the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, I had my unfinished novel personified almost as  secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did. I took no notes, except in my mind
As with the opening paragraph, we have a sentence that by most standards would be too long. It tumbles through clauses and phrases before resolving with "it was like being in love and better." It shouldn't work, but does.  These meditations on writing are some of my favorite parts of the book. The joy and release of writing is captured with such clarity; she makes it sound like breathing, making me both jealous and itching to put pen to paper.

When she isn't capturing the writing process we all wish we had, Spark is busy building fantastic characters. Fleur herself is a little flighty but also a fantastic, observant commentator on the world around her. She introduces us to Sir Quentin, the leader of this literary society who is hilariously pretentious and obsessed with rank and title (and also, it turns out, totally insane). As time goes on, Fleur's suspicions that he is up to no good become more and more founded. At one point, over the course of just a few pages, three different Association/cult members remind Fleur that Sir Quentin "insists on complete frankness." Fleur immediately sees how ridiculous the situation has gotten (Sir Quentin is the least frank character I've seen in a while) and turns the phrase back against Sir Quentin brilliantly soon after. We meet Edwina, Sir Quentin's mother whose "green teeth" and "raised, blood red fingernail accompanied by her shrieking voice" horrify her son and delight Fleur. Dottie, the wife of Fleur's lover, sings Auld Lang Syne outside Fleur's window when she wants to chat, says prayers for Fleur's soul, and simultaneously seems to be Fleur's best friend and nemesis. Even the "evil" characters are so overblown that they're endearing.

I really relished reading this. The novel within a novel trope, which I usually find obnoxious, is pulled off perfectly. Sparks uses Fleur's novel to foreshadow build suspense in her own. The plot is nicely paced, the characters endearingly bizarre, and Fleur serves as the perfect guide to it all. My only complaint was that it was too short!