"How wonderful to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century" are the words most frequently pulled from Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark, and frequently offered without the irony with which they were originally delivered. The challenge of choosing one identifying quote from this work so replete with insight into both the author and the creative process is nearly an impossible one, but a favorite of mine does say much about the work as a whole - "Fuck the general reader," Solly said, "because in fact the general reader doesn't exist." The task of the author is to break free of the more mundane requests that present from readers and publishers and friends and the like, and to represent their own vision without apology.
Fleur Talbot takes a much-needed job "on the grubby edge of the literary world" as a secretary for the suspect Autobiographical Association in the winter of 1949-50. Sir Quentin leads this group in writing their memoirs but it is immediately apparent that there is something amiss, perhaps a little blackmail by the leader of this nervous and varied group. The re-writes and instructions from Sir Quentin and then the ridiculously hilarious mockery Fleur inserts into the developing stories make for lots of laugh as does Sir Quentin's wily aged mother with her selective riffs of dementia and inconveniently timed decisions to pee on the floor.
All of this is just a means to feed herself while Fleur finishes her first novel, Warrender Chase. The real trouble arises when Sir Quentin steals her manuscript, persuades the publisher to not publish the novel because it is libelous, and then various portions of her novel are played out verbatim in real life by members of the Autobiographical Association. The rest of the novel centers around Fleur's attempts to right the wrong done to her and reclaim her novel, and on a deeper level, to identify herself and commit herself to a life as a writer.
Having been reading the Muriel Spark biography by Martin Stannard in bits since last year, the autobiographical parts of the novel stuck out to me although in an unobtrusive and pleasing manner. Spark actually wrote a draft of a novel called Warrender Chase. Various people from her youthful encounters appear under other names in the novel. And many statements attributed to Fleur read like excerpts from Spark interviews over the years.
"I always desired books; nearly all of my bills were for books. I possessed one very rare book which I traded for part of my bill with another bookshop, for I wasn't a bibliophile of any kind; rare books didn't interest me for their rarity but for their content."
"Yes, Dottie, I love him. I love him off and on, when he doesn't interfere with my poetry and so forth. In fact I've started a novel which requires a lot of poetic concentration, because, you see, I conceive everything poetically. So perhaps it will be more off than on with Leslie."
"Contradictions in human character are one of its most consistent notes and so I felt Maisie had a substantial character. Since the story of my own life is just as much constituted of the secrets of my craft as it is of other events, I might as well remark here that to make a character ring true its needs must be in some way contradictory, somewhere a paradox."
"I knew I wasn't helping the reader to know whose side they were supposed to be on. I simply felt compelled to go on with my story without indicating what the reader should think."
"I wasn't writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder, as indeed they did to myself as I was composing them. I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work. I am sparing no relevant facts."
"All these years since, the critics have been asking whether Warrender was in love with his nephew. How do I know? Warrender Chase never existed, he is only some hundreds of words, some punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, marks on the page."
"Those people and their Sir Quentin were sheets of paper on which I could write short stories, poems, anything I cared."
And I could go on. But it is not necessary. Inside of this engaging and wickedly funny novel, we find Spark's own story written with the buffer of years between her own experience and Fleur's. Where art is established as the redeeming value of a life, a choice has been made in this regard, and the end product is worth the sacrifice of conventional comforts. But the unsettling part is not that choice itself but the feeling that Spark has re-written her own pain in order to put a shine on her own legacy. Fair enough. She owns both sets of material in question. But there is always something a little sad to me behind her sharp intelligence, her simple, well-phrased bluntness. As if her directness is not intended as bare-faced honesty but an attempt to disarm to discourage a deeper look behind her constructions. On to more Spark. Have become addicted to her work.