Spontaneous Reads: Loitering with Intent

One of the benefits of working at a university is that you not only have access to the library, you also get to keep books out for a whole lot longer than you do from the public library. So perched on one of my bookshelves at home, I have a rather large stack of books that caught my eye at one time or another when browsing through the stacks at Bobst, which I am slowly but surely making my way through. Loitering with Intent is just such a title, and my second Muriel Spark novel this year.

There’s a great write-up of the novel at The Complete Review here. Benjamin Anastas also wrote a really nice piece for Bookforum about it in 2002, which doubles as a truly comprehensive take-down of Ian McEwan’s Antonement. His piece is called “Rejoice, Stupid: The Novels of Muriel Spark,” which I’ll quote briefly:

“Woe to the writer with only hundreds of words at his disposal to describe the wonders, the wit, the seriousness of purpose applied with feather-light touch to be savored in Spark’s finest work

Duly noted. My own, less comprehensive review is below.

***

Loitering with Intent is a delightful, effervescent sort of story, but hard to put your finger on. For one thing, (and here I’m generalizing on the basis of just two of her books) Spark is at once an extremely exacting author–with sharp observations about characters and situations and a really well-defined sense of narrative and prose rhythms–while also seeming to be a rather carefree one. She reuses phrases that catch her fancy to excess (the “English Rose” designation gets really tired out in Loitering) and seems to have no interest in maintaining narrative suspense, but rather drops in summary paragraphs mid-way through the book which reveal how everything is going to turn out in the end. (I actually rather like the latter quality, being a big skip-to-the-end-so-I-can-see-if-I-guessed-right sort of reader, myself, but it’s unusual for an author, to be sure.)

Loitering also flirts a little bit with po-mo narrative tropes without ever really following through on them (which I also appreciate). Fleur, the struggling but lighthearted author-heroine of the story, finds that after taking a job as a secretary of a private Autobiographical Association, the people she meets and the events of her life begin more and more to resemble things that she’s written in her novel. For much of the book, she maintains that any similarity between her life and her art is coincidental, until finally demurring,

“…even if I had invented the characters after, not before, I had gone to work at Sir Quentin’s–even if I had been moved to portray those poor people in fictional form, they would not have been recognizable, even to themselves…Such as I am, I’m an artist, not a reporter.”

Nevertheless, this overlap complicates things: Fleur’s book is stolen by her employer who begins quoting lines to her that her characters have said. He steals passages and writes them into the memoirs of his association members, as well as using her as a character in the invented sordid affairs that he includes in these “biographies” as well. In a late scene, Fleur’s employer tricks her in the same way that a character in her novel is tricked, and although she has an inkling of the connection, she doesn’t believe it: “It seemed quite unlikely that my own novel could be entering into my life to such an extent.”

Overall, however, what’s actually unusual about Loitering with Intent is how much fun it is. A lot happens–a lot of dramatic, heavy sorts of events and twists which in the hands of another author could have taken on an entirely different tone. Try out this summary: In the wake of World War II, a young, single, impoverished female author writes a promising novel, only to have it stolen by her devious employer who tries to use its very words and plot against her and ruin her chances at success.

It sounds grim, right? But it’s not. Spark makes this story an adventure, and even tells the reader intermittently that the bad guy is going to get what he deserves, that the heroine will triumph, and that above all, there will be joy. “What a wonderful thing it was to be a woman and an artist in the twentieth century,” Fleur notes several times, even in the midst of all her troubles. It’s all just so exciting to her: “I do dearly love a turn of events.”

But if there’s any one quote that will really give you the take-away of this book, it’s Fleur’s own catchphrase: “I go on my way rejoicing.” And so might we all.

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