Friday, February 22, 2019

Review of Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark (1981, Virago Press)

1949, London. Fleur Talbot is an aspiring novelist who lives a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle. Through a contact she secures a job working for the Autobiographical Association, a project of Sir Quentin Oliver. The aim is for members to write a frank account of one’s life to be locked away for seventy years. There are only ten members, but that is more than enough to keep Fleur busy rewriting their notes into more coherent narratives. Sir Quentin wants her to embellish the stories, but she is reluctant to do so, sensing that he is up-to-more than just making the stories more interesting. What is more disconcerting is that the members seem to be acting out passages from Fleur’s novel or passages are appearing in their autobiographies. Just as the novelist takes inspiration from their surrounds, life seems to be imitating art. And there’s a concerted effort to block her book from being published. Fleur is not a wallflower, however, and she is prepared to take the battle to Sir Quentin and his Association, aided by his elderly mother.

Loitering With Intent is told as the reminiscences of a successful novelist, Fleur Talbot, about the time she wrote her first novel at the exact halfway point of the twentieth century. The main focus is on the strange happenings at the Autobiographical Association where Fleur worked as the story was being written, as well as being a treatise on writing, publishing and what makes for a good story that creates a strong metafictional aspect. Fleur is somewhat of a free spirit, sleeping with a married man and befriending the man’s wife, and is well able to look after herself, drawing on the aid of her friends when necessary. She finds herself in a situation where life starts to imitate her novel through the lives of Association’s members and entering a tug-of-war game with Sir Quentin Oliver its leader. The story is packed full of colourful characters and is told with a dry wit. And the tale is interesting enough, though it’s hardly enthralling – while there’s the potential for intrigue, tension and confrontation, Spark keeps it all low-key, civilised and somewhat humdrum. The result is a reflexive and thoughtful farce meets metafiction that for me didn't quite spark into life.

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