Friday, October 24, 2014

Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

Fleur Talbot is an aspiring novelist, living in post-war London (specifically in 1949-50). She's writing her first novel, Warrender Chase (which she refers to endlessly in the novel), but must find a job to support herself. She finds a job as secretary to Quentin Oliver, who runs the Autobiographical Association. Fleur is assigned the task of typing up the memoirs of the association's members, and she quickly decides the memoirs are too dull and begins to embellish them.

Here is where things get sticky. The memoirs and Warrender Chase begin to resemble each other--but it is unclear which is the source, which the copy, and who is responsible for the "plagiarism," if that is what it is. Certainly, Quentin and the members of the Association (with Quentin's urging) accuse her of libel and plagiarism. Then some of the fictional events Fleur wrote about actually happen, causing even greater confusion (at least for this reader). Fleur becomes convinced that Quentin Oliver is plotting against her, as well as his mother--the (perhaps) demented Edwina--and the eccentric members of the association. Fleur is forced out of her job, loses her publishing contract, and finds that all the copies of her novel have been destroyed or stolen.

The story is narrated by Fleur from a distance of some years; she has become a successful novelist and is reflecting on the months in which she completed her beloved Warrender Chase, so we know the events of 1949-1950 did not deter her. Fleur is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator; I also found her to be an obnoxious one. I enjoyed Fleur's ruminations on writing, although not her obsessive regard for her own work, Warrender Chase (I feel every paragraph of this review should reference the title, since Spark mentioned it so often in the novel). Of the book she says, "All day long when I was busy . . . I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did." That may be quite lovely for a novelist, but it doesn't make the novelist that interesting as a character (at least to me).

Loitering with Intent (what a wonderful title) was short-listed for the Booker and reviewed glowingly; one review I saw even called it "perfect." From another review, I learned that the book is chock full of literary allusions I simply didn't get. I am more aligned with the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor, who called it a novel to "amuse, baffle." I was from time to time amused and quite often baffled. But, I will not, as several reviewers noted they had done, read it over and over--I shudder at the thought.

Favorite passage:
I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work. (maybe not my favorite passage but perhaps indicative of why I found Fleur obnoxious)

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