Loitering with Intent
All the signs of a vintage Muriel Spark novel are here in this sixteenth novel by one of the best and most dependable English writers, but something central is missing; the cheeky style is here, the flamboyantly eccentric British types, the casual hints of dark doings beneath chic surfaces, but finally not much happens, and most of what does happen is reported by the central character in ways which appear calculated to rob the action of its immediacy. The surprising turns fail to surprise, for, likely as not, Spark (or her first-person narrator) has already told the secret.
This is not to say that Loitering with Intent does not entertain, nor that the book lacks insights to some inexplicable ways of the human heart and of literary art. Nevertheless, one has the disquieting sense that the novelist/protagonist Fleur Talbot manipulates characters in her life-story as she does in the several novels she alludes to in the course of telling what happened to her during a portion of a year just before publication of her first novel, Warrender Chase. The metaphysical issues never far from the surface in Spark’s novels sit squarely on the surface in Loitering with Intent, brought in by allusion to the autobiographical art of Benvenuto Cellini and John Henry Cardinal Newman. Aesthetic issues come out into the open, too, for Fleur Talbot’s story is more nearly about her as writer than as woman. When characters, themselves obviously confused if not actually deranged, speculate that Fleur is evil, the reader is likely to make no better defense than to substitute the word obsessed for evil.
The wily Muriel Spark obviously wants her readers to look beyond the surface comparisons of Fleur with the inepts surrounding her and to recognize the partial truth of her friend Dottie’s charge that she is guilty of “wriggling out of real life.” The implication is that to do so—to retain a Jamesian disinterestedness bordering on detachment—is the price the artist pays. Perhaps Spark is wilier yet, and wishes the reader to recognize Fleur’s delusion. The point of view in Loitering with Intent prevents the reader knowing characters other than Fleur except insofar as Fleur types them or relates them to her characters in Warrender Chase. This would not necessarily pose a problem were it not for Fleur’s essentially novelistic perception (and use) of the people she meets.
The structure of Loitering with Intent is self-consciously tidy and novelistic. Sitting “on the stone slab of some Victorian grave” in a Kensington graveyard, Fleur realizes, at mid-year in mid-century, that “this was the last day of a whole chunk, of may life.” Unemployed and almost broke, Fleur is unworried; she is writing a poem and exulting in her escape from the Autobiographical Association, where she “was thought rather mad, if not evil.” She writes, “I will tell you about the Autobiographical Association,” and tell she does for the bulk of her novel. Predictably, after doing so, she returns to the scene in the graveyard and reports her conversation with the policeman who questioned her presence there. She asks him what her crime would be called, if her being in the graveyard were a crime, and, with unexpected lyricism, he replies, “’Well, it could be desecrating and violating,” he said, ’it could be obstructing and hindering without due regard, it could be loitering with intent.’”
The phrase “loitering with intent” crops up elsewhere, as does the word “rejoicing.” Spark ends her book, as she ends chapters, with Fleur’s going on about her business of being a writer rejoicing. These structural devices, like the return to the opening graveyard scene, call attention to themselves, and do not particularly augment the book’s meaning. At the book’s end, Fleur has entered the “fullness” of her years and has followed Warrender Chase with other books, “writing . . . with great care.” She says she always hopes the readers of her novels are of good quality: “I wouldn’t like to think of anyone cheap reading my books.” Fleur and her friend Dottie are both living in Paris, where, one gathers, Dottie continues to be silly and Fleur continues to be purposeful.
Sir Quentin Oliver’s Autobiographical Association, a small group of well-connected people who have lived essentially trivial lives but intend to record them for posterity, should provide Spark’s vital plot line, but the Association remains altogether too murky. Fleur accepts a job working for Sir Quentin, and her duties include correcting and livening up the barely literate memoranda the members put on file with Sir Quentin. Fleur undertakes her task with relish; her “improvements” are all in the interest of fun and liveliness, but, after a time, Sir Quentin begins to add his bits of a more sinister cast. From the beginning, one gets hints that Sir Quentin and his crew of aristocratic...
(The entire section is 2036 words.)