About a year ago I began writing a piece of fiction that had at its heart another piece of fiction, and I remember asking via social media for other examples of books within books. By coincidence or serendipity I've since read two novels that are quite close in intent to my own aims, last year's First Novel by Nicholas Royle and now, Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark's Booker shortlisted novel from 1981.
I read (and saw) "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", Muriel Spark's most famous book, a long time ago, and have been meaning to get around to another of her many novels since - especially since I would see her name increasingly mentioned as being something of a British avant gardist, something that the wry, comic style of Brodie didn't really indicate. Like Burgess with "A Clockwork Orange" or Golding with "Lord of the Flies" the one book has towered over the others in the public imagination. Popular as she undoubtedly was, its rare for me to come across her novels in the second hand shops - unlike, say, Iris Murdoch, a novelist with who shares an appreciation of ideas and philosophy if not necessarily a similarity of tone.
"Loitering with Intent" begins with a young woman - Fleur - sat in a park, contemplating the last period of her life, a period that has just come to an end. This foreshadowing is a tease in some ways, allowing her to introduce us to the idea of the Autobiographical Association, a strange "memoirists" club which she had been secretary to over the last couple of years. Invited to the position by a friend of hers - who subsequently plays little part in the narrative - she immediately becomes immersed in the life and household of the founder of the club, Sir Quentin Oliver, and his odd household, finding an ally in his 90-year old mother. So far, so straightforward. A classic British tableau of eccentrics out of any stock Miss Marple production then appear; but here the "mystery" isn't a murder mystery - at least not directly - but an altogether more literary puzzle. For Fleur is also writing a novel - has already written much of this novel - and it seems that bit by bit the characters of the Autobiographical Association come to take on the life of the characters she has written.
Set in a very specific time and place - London's boheme fringes around the end of rationing at the fag end of the 1940s, the novel is a literary satire that questions the idea of where ideas actually come from. Is Fleur really telling the truth here? The pages of her novel "Warrender Chase" are mangled with her own life - deliciously at times, yet at the same time we're in a strange hinterland in time when a young female novelist can bounce between lovers without too much care in the world, can hobnob with the remnants of a dying aristocracy, whilst at the same time hang out with impoverished poets. At one point, she steps into a pub in literary London and the real life poets, Dylan Thomas and Roy Campbell are said to be drinking there. Given that one of the themes of this novel is the idea of the "roman a clef" then is it really a surprise that it teases that it might be one itself?
Spark - writing in 1980 - has revisited a millieu that reflects her own beginnings and yet its all done with a customary humour, but with an undertow of serious purpose asking about the very role of autobiography. Those in the Autobiographical Association have been cajoled to write their candid memoirs as they are "important people" to be found in Who's Who, and their books will remain hidden for 70 years - until everyone in them is dead - allowing them to be entirely candid. Yet when Fleur starts typing them up she can't help also jazzing them up a bit, partly with scenes from her own book, but also to keep her interested. When one or other member complains that it didn't happen like that, the other members counter by saying how the made up version feels more true.
Fleur has been having an affair with the slightly invisible Leslie, whose wife Dotty becomes both her friend and nemesis as a result. Dotty doesn't mind sharing Leslie with his new mistress, but when he leaves them both for a young male poet, she finds it harder to take. A Roman Catholic, there's a slight satire on that faith's prescriptions on truth and confessional. Yet its all handed lightly, as a cast of less than developed characters from the literary millieu spin around the ever self-justifying Fleur. In a complex subplot (or is it the main plot?) her own novel gets caught up in the intrigues of the association and first gets accepted for publication, then rejected, then stolen, then is to be published to great acclaim. The censorious Britain of the late 1940s comes through clearly here.Yet in many ways its written like a forties or fifties novel, an odd explicit "fuck" apart. Though the setting feels very real - Fleur's cramped flat, drab places to eat - we never actually get a sense - three decades on - of what it was really like to be young in that time of what David Kynaston called "Austerity Britain," so rarified is Fleur's world. Even her casual affairs are only mentioned matter-of-factly.
In many ways this comic tale sits happily in a long history of British class satire - the Wodehouses, the Waughs - and yes, that slightly déclassé world of Agatha Christie, where every street corner you are not far from a baroness down on her luck or a defrocked priest, or a retired civil servant. Its strange to find this persistence in a novel written at the turn of the eighties. In his introduction to this edition, Mark Lawson puts it in line with other metafictional works of the time such as Martin Amis's "Money" or David Lodge's "How far can we go?" I remember reading the Lodge at University on a course looking at "contemporary British fiction" and it felt dated then (the Amis had only just come out so was clearly too new for our vulnerable minds!) with its harking back to bygone era and its slightly obtuse philosophical thoughts on Catholicism in the modern world. The Spark novel is a period piece in a different way I think, in that it plays up the satire - with the benefit of hindsight - of being a young female writer in a calcified turn of the half century London. Like Lodge (and Murdoch) she has slightly more than satire in mind, and the book constantly references too different autobiographies, Cardinal Newman's and Benvenuto Cellini's. Who, she is asking, should write their own life story? The great writer? Or the great man? In the mist of memory of interpretation truth gets turned into whatever reads best - i.e. fiction can sometimes be the greater truth.
At heart the novel is a satire on literary London, and what would have seemed highly recognisable in terms of its archetypes in 1980, now feels a little creaky, but not that unreal. Our current world sometimes seems to have lost any sense of a bohemian fringe where aristocrats can rub shoulders with show girls. Fleur is a suitably strong willed heroine - writing from the perspective of being (like Spark) a successful novelist. I'm reminded that Spark was once editor of Poetry Review and without knowing much of her autobiography, its clearly a novel that looks back on her own experiences - and also echoes her debut novel "The Comforters", where a character becomes aware that they are a character in a novel.
Having picked this up as part of a set of five Muriel Spark's I'm looking forward to reading more of her wry, intelligent satire, short and pithy as this one was.
In keeping with the era in which it is set, 'Loitering With Intent' also includes a brief tribute to Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell as Leopold, Cynthia, and Claude Somerville, owners of The Triad Press, the publishers who eventually accept Fleur's prescient first fictional work.
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