Her writing is unlike anything I’ve seen. I hope that says more about her writing than about my reading. Her style is confident, surprising, witty, and her characters amazingly alive. I can’t say they are “real” because not many real people around me are as fun to be around, but they are bursting with energy, witty remarks, curious idiosyncrasies, and snapshots of their life that might not present them in their best light – and all the better for it.
How did I discover her? This might sound like a silly question, because someone like Muriel Spark should not have to be discovered; everyone should have heard about her.
As much as I praised my country recently for translating Erlend Loe, now I should reprimand them for not translating anything by this wonderful Scottish lady. So, how did I discover her? Who recommended her?
In the past few months, I’ve fallen into a trend of having the books I’m reading recommend other books. So, for instance, in my friend’s Debbie Urbanski’s review of Margaret Atwood’s essays “Writing with intent” I learned about these interesting essays; from Mrs. Atwood’s essays I learned about Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Teheran,” and in Azar Nafisi’s book I read for the first time a sentence written by Muriel Spark. That sentence is: “How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century.” This must be the most quoted sentence from her book. No wonder I immediately decided to dig out this “Loitering with Intent” and read it. It’s no 20th century, but it sure feels good to be an artist and a woman. 🙂
A unique female voice: Fleur that’s nothing like a flower
The main character in this book is Fleur, a twenty-something aspiring writer who says of herself that she is quite the opposite of her name, or, of an innocent flower. Quite like “those melancholy Joys, those timid Victors, the inglorious Glorias and materialistic Angelas,” Fleur is simply not a tender little girl. And she really is far from it. What’s fun about Fleur is that she is smart, determined, driven and full of some youthful energy. I can’t decide what I like more about her: her amazing enthusiasm and love of life, or her ability to say anything she feels like to anyone and not let them mess with her. She’s simply lovely, regardless of what some reviewers online say about her: that she’s evil, egotistical, etc.
You might be curious about what’s actually happening in the novel… It’s sort of a crime story, without much crime in the typical sense. Fleur gets a job at an Autobiographical Association run by a wealthy nobleman Sir Quentin. He gathered several people “of status” and convinced them they could write amazing works of memoir, with a little help from him and his secretary Fleur, whose job is to make their dull, incoherent sentences into a readable substance. At first Fleur has fun with her work and invents funny scenes in the lives of these poor memoir enthusiasts, but as time passes and she spends more time with the group, she realizes something is very wrong. She doesn’t know what exactly, but she suspects that the culprit of the yet unknown crime is the manipulative Sir Quentin.
At the same time, Fleur has her own private life filled with interesting events. One is her novel that she began writing much before she met her employer and his memoir writers. The novel is called Warrander Chase and, as we delve deeper into the book, both Fleur and we realize that Warrander Chase is frighteningly similar to real life. Warrander is no wonder Sir Quentin, and other characters from Warrander Chase also have their “pair” in Fleur’s real life.
Another interesting “hobby” Fleur keeps up for a while is having an affair with a man married to one of her closest friends, Dotty. Dotty is naive, impulsive, a moralizer and a hypocrite. She’s also a loyal friend, says Fleur, but I’m not convinced as a reader. She’s just someone Fleur can spend time with, not bothering too much about Dotty’s feelings.
Perhaps Fleur is egotistical, thinking only about her novels, but her humanity is more than present in various situations; though she does “steal” her friend’s husband without a hint of remorse, she also thinks about Dotty’s safety when her friend joins the AA and Fleur feels like she might be in danger.
Writing about writing
The pace of the novel is fast and plot quickly thickens; very soon we learn that Sir Quentin’s autobiographers are at the mercy of his dominant, sadistic persona who gets the kicks out of playing their god. We don’t learn exactly how he does this and what sort of things they are expected to do; we only get a glimpse of it when we discover that he convinced the whole group to take some pills for losing weight. Also, he instilled a mantra in them that they keep repeating: Sir Quentin says they need to be perfectly honest.
Towards the end it gets a little blurry what’s reality and what’s only in Fleur’s mind, but in the meantime much happens: Warrander Chase gets stolen, one autobiographer gets killed in the same way Fleur’s character dies in her novel, Dotty turns out not to be such a great friend, and another novel starts writing itself through Fleur, even more brilliant than the previous Warrander Chase (as will each consequent book be for Fleur; every book that is getting written will have the primacy over the finished one that already lost its charm).
What I really like about “Loitering with Intent” is that it is kind of meta; the pages are full of Fleur’s thoughts on writing and on being a writer. She says: “People often ask me where I get ideas for my novels; I can only say that my life is like that, it turns into some other experience of fiction, recognizable only to myself.” And that is so much like my own writing. Everything I experience can end up on page, a little twisted or completely different, and no one can recognize my experience, but I know it’s what it is.
Humor, the best there is
I also love her humor. There’s an amazing character in this book called Edwina; she is a very old and supposedly senile woman, Sir Quentin’s mom (but wishing she wasn’t; she’s not too proud of how he turned out). Everyone in Sir Quentin’s group think she’s crazy old witch, but Fleur loves her sincerity, her sharpness of wit, and a lovely, natural friendship grows between the two. One day Edwina and Fleur take a walk with Fleur’s friend Solly, a journalist. Fleur complains to Solly how a general reader might not understand her brilliant novel, and here’s the dialogue through Muriel Spark’s fingers:
“Fuck the general reader”, Solly said, “because in fact the general reader doesn’t exist.”
“That’s what I say,” Edwina yelled. “Just fuck the general reader. No such person.”
I thought this bit was hilarious. An old, elegant, noble lady starts shrieking “fuck the general reader”, and especially the phrasing “no such person” brought on the giggles. I also like her unexpected descriptions, such as this one:
“I was so glad of my strong hips and sound cage of ribs to save me from flying apart, so explosive were my thoughts.”
Muriel Spark, to me, was a revelation; a voice that deserves to be read over and over again, a voice to listen to. She doesn’t waste words on unnecessary descriptions and explanations, she is “to the point” lady who delivers words in an inventive, smart, humorous way.
With feelings of perhaps rambling and not having said much of what needs to be said about the novel (but alas, such is the blog), I dash out to read another Muriel Spark novel I just bought: “The girls of slender means”. I found this one in translation; not in Serbian, but in Croatian. They definitely were a greater publishing force than us.
So, as Fleur would say: “… I go on my way rejoicing.”