‘Loitering With Intent’ by Muriel Spark

From the New York Times in 1981:

”Words should convey ideas of truth and wonder,” says Fleur (whom we can be forgiven for thinking is Miss Spark’s alter ego); ”I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work.” Folly and weakness, guilt and sin, sadism and treachery, should be treated ”with a light and heartless hand. It seems to me a sort of hypocrisy for a writer to pretend to be undergoing tragic experiences when obviously one is sitting in relative comfort with a pen and paper.”

”Loitering with Intent” is Fleur’s memoir, written in the fullness of her days, ”of that small part of my life and all that happened in the middle of the twentieth century, those months of 1949-50.” Like her beloved Benvenuto Cellini, ”comically contradictory in his actions… boastful … about his work,” Fleur, drinking in bizarre events and terrible people, committing all to memory, ”by the grace of God, goes on her way rejoicing.”

When the novel opens, Fleur has no apparent reason for rejoicing: She has no job and no prospects and little money. She rents a dreary bed-sitting room from a swinish landlord and has appropriated unto herself a handsome, self-centered lover, Leslie, who is married to her friend Dottie – ”a Catholic, greatly addicted to the cult of the Virgin Mary about whose favors she fooled herself quite a bit, constantly betraying her quite good mind by simpering about Our Lady.” Fleur too is a Catholic, ”but not that sort at all. … If it was true, as Dottie always said, that I was taking terrible risks with my immortal soul, I would have been incapable of caution on those grounds. I had an art to practice and a life to live, and faith abounding … I’ve never held it right to create more difficulties in matters of religion than already exist.”

Dottie constantly confronts Fleur with the irregularity of their situation – ”tiresome of her. … I love (Leslie) 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, … So perhaps it will be more off than on with Leslie.”

What gives Fleur reason to rejoice is the working of her own imagination, her natural inclination to ”conceive everything poetically,” her ”need to know the utmost,” and her juicy conviction that she is an artist: ”When people say that nothing happens in their lives, I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.”

While Fleur’s first novel is ”in larva,” she fortuitously gets a job as secretary to the Autobiographical Association, the cranky members of which meet under the roof and the supervision of Baronet Sir Quentin Oliver to compose their memoirs. The immense snobbery of Sir Quentin delights Fleur, who is ”always on the listen-in” for a turn of phrase that she can pick out of the wreckage of the moment. She is also aware of something sinister in Sir Quentin’s character, aware of the possibilities for blackmail inherent in an association of memoirists: Sir Quentin has in his keeping 10 unfinished autobiographical manuscripts, which he proposes to hold for 70 years, ”until all the living people mentioned therein shall be living no longer.”

Fleur suspects that Sir Quentin is up to no good. His motley crew alternates more and more between depression and hysteria. But the strangeness of the situation holds Fleur to it. What novelist could bear to leave the scene of a crime? As Fleur herself says, ”I have never known an artist who at some time in his life has not come into conflict with pure evil. … No artist has lived who has not experienced and then recognized something at first too incredibly evil to seem real, then so undoubtedly real as to be undoubtedly true.”

Although Fleur would not dream of reproducing people and situations photographically and literally, she is a ”magnet” for experiences she needs: ”Extraordinary how … characters and situations, images and phrases that I absolutely need for (my novel) appeared as if from nowhere into my range of perception.” This mysterious process, which Fleur calls ”artistic apprehension,” keeps her chugging along at the Autobiographical Association.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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