Written in that aloof and witty tradition represented by such Britons as Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Noel Coward, or even Graham Greene in his self-described entertainments, Muriel Spark’s Territorial Rights is a wryly, perceptively funny novel which nevertheless has its sudden darkly suggestive turns. By turns it is a story of pursuit, marital problems, tourist-watching, young love, old love (and an astonishing mixture of the two), and social-political intrigue veiled in recent history, yet involving a bloody murder and a hidden body. Territorial Rights might therefore be labeled a suspense novel, but it is not; it is too cheeky and cheerful for that. Rather, it is a novel about jaded, eccentric people who themselves believe in the possibility of a novel of suspense. Spark’s characters play their quirky roles within a book which is, itself, laughing at them. Reading the novel, one senses Spark’s muted laughter and bemused affection behind one’s own startled and delighted gasps of recognition at the human foibles she so unerringly makes natural and almost cinematically graphic.
Herself a holder of the Order of the British Empire, and perhaps best-known for her earlier successes, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Mandelbaum Gate, Muriel Spark is at her own prime as observer and reporter in this, her fourteenth novel. Territorial Rights represents a sort of fruition, a triumphant coming-together of many of her continuing themes, attitudes, and methods.
Thematically, Spark is interested in the ways the world around her chooses to label people’s behavior as natural or unnatural, acceptable or unacceptable. She reveals the underlying banality of the ostensibly grand, the vulnerability of the seemingly safe, and the unconscious dignity and bravery of the apparently lowly. In other words, her basic theme is people and their various survival techniques. In this novel, Spark has a glorious rogues gallery of characters drawn together unexpectedly by an old, nearly forgotten murder and the resultant various forms of blackmail and subterfuge its discovery entails. Each of these characters, from the highest to the lowest, from the richest to the poorest, has something to hide; yet they are all filled with pride as they scramble to protect themselves from one another while also keeping blindly occupied in order to avoid their own self-knowledge. It is to their dubious credit that each of them is successful in his or her self-delusion. It keeps them from despair, perhaps from suicide.
This theme of the human proclivity for indulging in self-deception is given a further, typically Sparkian twist by the impact of the novel’s title. The characters are all tourists in Venice where each has come for escape from unpleasant reality elsewhere. Inevitably they find that there is no safety from one another, and moreover, no larger, societal safety at all for them in a place where, as outsiders, they have no territorial rights. They are characters whose moral lives have been built upon shifting sand, living temporarily and precariously in a sinking city built upon water. Under these conditions, their efforts to shore up their various prides and deceptions are both touching and hilarious. The central character, Robert Leaver, for example, tries to save his self-esteem by turning on his philandering, pompous father and by blackmailing his own former lover, Mark Curran, a wealthy, effete American; but Robert fools no one but himself....
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