Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent occupies the considerable space between a forgotten literary gem and a full-on classic: while not universally revered like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the Booker-shortlisted 1981 novel has, over the decades, attracted a devoted cult. Those who love the book identify powerfully with it — and they evangelize, with reissues and anniversaries providing excuses for a new round of praise every few years. Having revisited Loitering in 2007, a year after Spark’s death, Jenny Turner at the Guardian wrote, “For me, it’s one of those novels I’ve loved seemingly for ever, which made me nervous about chancing it again — what if it was less than I remembered? What if, this time, it let me down? But it wasn’t and it didn’t.” Last year, when Emily Books made it available as an e-book, Minna Proctor recalled falling for Loitering at 29, roughly the same age Spark’s protagonist (a fictionalized version of the author herself) would have been. Upon its initial publication, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison gushed in the New York Times, “I read this book in a delirium of delight.”
Now that New Directions has reprinted Loitering (along with a trove of other Muriel Spark novels and nonfiction works), I am here — at 29 years old, even — to add one more rave to the archive. It is, indeed, both a delightful book and one that induces its own brand of delirium, especially in the kind of readers who will find the most to love about it: young, female writers. Short enough to lose yourself in without losing more than a few hours, it’s a comic bildungsroman about a budding novelist lightly disguised as the mystery of Sir Quentin Oliver and his Autobiographical Association — a group of aristocratic eccentrics he’s manipulating, to unclear ends.
Loitering is framed as the famous, aging, exceedingly Muriel Spark-esque novelist Fleur Talbot’s memoir, recounting the strange events that surrounded the birth of her first novel three decades earlier. Spark executes this matryoshka doll of conceits — a novel that’s a fictional memoir about a woman writing a novel while working as a typist for an autobiography-writing group — with lightness and ease, and it allows her to insert such remarkable, multilayered in-jokes on fiction vs. truth as this one, which opens Chapter Three:
While I recount what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel the author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.
These levels upon levels of meaning are plenty of fun for anyone who’s given much thought to the problems of writing autobiographical fiction or nonfiction, but even they aren’t the greatest source of pleasure in Loitering With Intent. That’s Fleur herself, a candid, clever, self-assured character so comfortable with her own place in life that she’s given to musings like, “How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century” and “As I ran out to the taxi, I thought again how nervy I was becoming.”
Fleur has dear friends, and takes a particular shine to Sir Quentin’s incontinent yet lucid elderly mother, Lady Edwina. She has lovers, but she’s not nearly as attached to them as she is to her novel, which she habitually calls “my Warrender Chase” and eventually takes extreme measures to recover. And she makes the kind of observations about art-making and, a bit coyly, gender that wouldn’t be out of place 30 years later, in a Sheila Heti novel. Here’s one exhilarating moment:
Vulgarity, I explained, I could take from Solly Mendelsohn or, if he had been alive to-day, the sixteenth-century Benvenuto Cellini, because these were big sane men, but I wasn’t going to let that Creeping Jesus of a defroqué get thrills out of insulting my ear.
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 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.
As the ground starts to shift under Fleur, and it becomes unclear where Warrender Chase ends and her life with Sir Quentin and his Autobiographical Association begins, Spark provides the occasional clue that our narrator’s perceptions may be just a bit off. But rather than making her deluded or insane — leave that to many, many of the book’s other characters — Spark seems to be dramatizing the blurring of boundaries between real and not-real that comes with throwing oneself wholeheartedly into writing fiction. Through all her arrogance and narcissism, Fleur remains lovable, at least to a certain kind of reader. That the character, and thus the novel, basically amounts to a love letter from Muriel Spark to her younger self just adds another layer of delicious audacity.