Category Archives: Spark, Muriel

Loitering With Intent: Muriel Spark

“Truth is stranger than fiction.”

In Muriel Spark’s lively, witty novel Loitering with Intent Fleur Talbot is writing her first novel, Warrender Chase. It’s 1949, and Fleur, living in a London bed-sit, is in need of employment when a friend points her to a job as a secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, the founder of the Autobiographical Association. The Association is composed of ten members, or VIPs, supposedly all Sir Quentin’s friends. The object of the association is for its members to write their biographies, but due to libel laws, the biographies are, according to Sir Quentin, “top secret,” with the plan that publication will take place at least 70 years in the future. Right away, Fleur feels a “vague uneasiness,” and suspecting that the whole scheme is a “racket,” wonders if Sir Quentin is a blackmailer, a “psychological Jack the Ripper.” Fleur is not to be a mere editor. Sir Quentin tells her that “you should easily be able to rectify any lack or lapse in form, syntax, style, characterization, invention, local colour, description, dialogue, construction and other trivialities.” Trivialities indeed. …

The plot has two trajectories: Fleur’s short lived employment with Sir Quentin and Fleur’s private life. Fleur has been conducting a somewhat lackluster affair with Leslie, but her attraction to him is rapidly waning. Leslie’s desperate wife, Dottie, is aware of the affair and yet has a somewhat tangled relationship with Fleur. Are they friends? Rivals? When Leslie moves on to yet another lover, Dottie intrudes into Fleur’s life and becomes a nuisance as if the two of them now belong to some sort of ‘abandoned woman club.’ Fleur suggests that Dottie join the Autobiographical Association as a diversion. While this is presented as a helpful suggestion with the caveat that Dottie should “not on any account [to] give herself away,” Fleur’s motives, since she already suspects Sir Quentin of some sort of shenanigans, are open to interpretation.

Over time Fleur continues her novel but right after it’s accepted for publication the fictional world of Warrender Chase collides horribly with the machinations of Sir Quentin and the Autobiographical Association. Fleur admits that the creation of her characters is “instinctive,” and “the sum of my whole experience.” And that sometimes she seems to meet her “characters” long after she’s written and published. How much are characters based on “types” or pulled from personal experiences? As Fleur becomes more embroiled with the Autobiographical Association, fact and fiction blend and blur. Where does fiction end and truth begin? Even Fleur seems confused and acknowledges that Sir Quentin “was conforming more and more to the character of [my] Warrender Chase.” Why do the characters in Warrender Chase seem an awful lot like the members of the Autobiographical Association? This lively novel is packed with eccentric characters, Mrs Beryl Tims, Sir Oliver’s intimidating housekeeper, Sir Oliver’s completely perennially overdressed “aged mummy,” the boring yet devious Dottie, and various peculiar VIPs from the Autobiographical Association.

You have to keep on your toes when reading this tale of literary skullduggery. Loitering with Intent is bitingly funny but under the surface lurk serious questions regarding artistic inspiration, plagiarism, the all-consuming, intense creation of a novel which can be compared “like being in love,” and, drawing in Cellini and Cardinal Newman, the nature and vagaries of autobiography. Fleur’s tart, confident and unapologetic voice is a delight.

Now the story of Warrender Chase was in reality already formed and by no means influenced by the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, but the interesting thing was it seemed rather the reverse to me at the time. At the time, but thinking it over now, how could that have been? And yet it was so. In my febrile state of creativity I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character.

Here’s Jacqui’s review.

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The Girls of Slender Means: Muriel Spark (1963)

The meaning of the title of this, a short novel from Muriel Spark, becomes clear by the time the book concludes. The Girls of Slender Means is set in an-all female residence, The May of Teck Club. It’s London 1963 in this frame story, and The May of Teck Club has been in existence for decades. Originally, it was intended “for the pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means” below the age of thirty. The 30-year rule has long been ignored and many of the female residents have lived at The May of Teck Club for decades. The novel is jump-started by the news of the death (murder) in Haiti of Nicholas Farringdon, a Jesuit at the time of his death.

The novel goes back and forth from the present (1963) to 1945 and opens in London with a vivid depiction of bombed-out buildings.

The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or no repair at all, bombsites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out leaving the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art form, leading up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye.

So in 1963, when “woman columnist,” Jane Wright hears of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, she contacts acquaintances she knew back in 1945, people who also have slivers of memories of the dead Jesuit. Those who remember him, recall that Nicholas was the lover of Selina, a resident of The May of Teck Club. That’s his claim to fame as far as the residents, or former residents of The May of Teck Club are concerned. Then the story peels back the decades to the story of what happened during that brief period of 1945. Although The May of Teck Club is the home of dozens of young women, we are only concerned with the fate of a handful: including the beautiful, capricious, and fickle Selina, saintly rector’s daughter Joanna Childe, and Jane Wright. The residence houses just women, but some of the female residents pass through a narrow slit window which grants access to the flat roof of the club. It’s here that lovers meet.

This is a peculiar book replete with Muriel Spark’s dark (I’m going to say it: ‘twisted.’) wit. While the plot is far removed from The Driver’s Seat, nonetheless, the connection is the bizarre undercurrent worming its way under what appears to be a fairly non-exciting plot. On one level there’s a shocking incident that occurs in 1945 and that is linked, somehow, to the death of Nicholas Farringdon. It’s not a direct thread–Muriel Spark is too subtle for that. Instead it’s a question of how did Nicholas Farringdon, anarchist/poet, end up as a martyred Jesuit in Haiti? There’s no definite answer to that, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots.

Here’s Lisa’s review

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Robinson: Muriel Spark

“My  moods are not stable at the best of times.”

In Muriel Spark’s Robinson, Catholic convert January Marlow, following a plane crash, wakes up with a concussion and a dislocated shoulder to find herself one of three survivors. The plane, “bound for the Azores,” crash-landed on Robinson’s island–middle-aged Robinson, who grows pomegranates, lives on this island with only a boy, Miguel, for company. Well there’s a cat, Bluebell,  too.

The three survivors are January, Jimmy Waterford and Tom Wells. Strangely, relationships between these three were formed before the flight. January, partly to avoid Tom Wells, struck up a conversation with Jimmy. She immediately disliked the brash Mr Wells, a man who believes in the supernatural and produces an occult magazine called Your Future.

I find that, when travelling abroad alone, it is wise and actually discreet to take up with one well-chosen man on the journey. Otherwise, one is likely to be approached by numerous chance pesterers all along the line. One must, of course, discriminate, but it is a thing one learns by experience, how to know the sort of man who is not likely to press for further commitments

Coincidentally, Jimmy Waterford, who speaks in a sort of stilted patois, was traveling to see Robinson. Jimmy tells January “Robinson is not a man for the ladies. I know Robinson from the past.” January, for her part, senses in Robinson, “something more than indifference: a kind of armed neutrality.” She thinks “he could be positively hostile to the idea of women in general.” Perhaps this explains why she sets out to annoy Robinson as much as possible.

Robinson

These three survivors must wait for the arrival of the next pomegranate boat in 3 months time. All of them have various injuries, but they all have various agendas which clash with Robinson’s way of running his island. Food is short and Tom Wells tries to grope January. Strong-willed and opinionated, January butts heads with Robinson–even employing the cat to irk Robinson. This is, after all, Robinson’s island, and January, Jimmy and Wells, are mere guests. They are welcome to Robinson’s library and food, and yet his rules are broken, buttons are pushed. Tensions run high, boredom sets in; like rats in a too-small cage, aggression emerges and then Robinson disappears. …

I liked parts of this book: the glimpses of January’s sharp side for example–the way she tells herself that if she steals Robinson’s rationed cigarettes, she won’t bear grudges. Then there are elusive glimpses of her prickly relationships with her two, very different, sisters. Julie married a bookie while Agnes married a doctor. While on the island, January wonders who will take care of her son, Brian, and (rather interestingly) hopes that it’s the bookie, Curly “the kindest” of all her relatives.

Of course, we can’t escape the image of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but here Spark gives us a sharper, darker view of what life would be like if people were plane-wrecked on an island. I liked Robinson but didn’t love it. I had the feeling that Spark wasn’t quite ready to unleash the darkness we see in The Driver’s Seat.

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A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

It had been some time since I picked up a novel by Muriel Spark, so when Caroline mentioned Muriel Spark Week, I decided to join in. For her quirky world view and dark sense of humour, this author is a great favourite of mine, and so I returned to A Far Cry From Kensington–a marvellous novel set in 1950s London.

While the story is set in the 1950s, the events that take place are recalled decades later by a woman who now lives in Italy–“a far cry from Kensington.”  During her long nights of insomnia, the woman, once known as Mrs Hawkins reminisces about her post WWII life as a vastly overweight “comfortable in her fatness,” 28-year-old war widow. Mrs Hawkins recalls how she lived in a Kensington boarding house with an assortment of fellow lodgers and worked in a small publishing house, Ullswater Press.

Mrs Hawkins (or Nancy as we eventually discover) has the ability to reassure people. Perhaps this is due to her matronly figure, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that she listens and freely dispenses advice (to become thin “you eat and drink the same as always, only half,” and to improve concentration, you need to adopt a cat). She has a responsible position at work, appears to be much older than she actually is, and at the boarding house, she’s perceived as reliable.

However all that may be, in the year 1954 I was comfortable in my fatness, known as a ‘wonderful woman’ although I had never done anything wonderful at all. I was admired for my largeness and that all-motherly look. A young woman who I imagine was older than myself once got up in a bus to offer me a seat. I declined. She insisted. I realized she thought I was pregnant and accepted graciously. I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

Mrs Hawkins may be a source of comfort to those around her, but she’s also a woman of firm principles, and those principles are tested, mainly through her professional life. There’s something fishy afoot at Ullswater Press, and it’s here that Mrs Hawkins first falls foul of the very shady character, Hector Bartlett. They become enemies, and this is a relationship that plagues Mrs Hawkins for some time and follows her on to future employment.

A Far Cry from Kensington is full of Muriel Spark’s dark, off-kilter humour, and her novels have the tendency to skewer hypocrisy while exploring beneath the surface of everyday, seemingly respectable life. Here’s Mrs Hawkins and her landlady, Milly, at night, standing on the landing watching the “Cypriot husband and his English wife” next door fighting.

Suddenly they appeared on the stairs, the second half of their staircase, before our eyes, as on a stage. Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates. we sat side by side, eating chocolates, and watching the show. so far, no blows, no fisticuffs; but much waving of arms and menacing. Then the husband seized his wife by the hair and dragged her up a few stairs, she meanwhile beating his body and caterwauling.

 

Eventually I phoned the police, for the fight was becoming more serious. A policeman arrived at our door within ten minutes. He seemed to take a less urgent view of the din going on in the next-door house and was reluctant to interfere. He joined us on the staircase from where we could now only see the couple’s feet as they wrestled. The policeman crowded beside us, for there was no convenient place for him to sit. My hips took up all the spare space. but finally our neighbours descended their staircase so that we could see them in full.

 

“Can’t you stop them?” said Milly, passing the chocolates.

The policeman accepted a chocolate. “Mustn’t come between husband and wife,” he said. “Inadvisable. You get no thanks, and they both turn on you.”

The British publishing industry which may first appear to be a bastion of respectability in the novel, becomes the target of Sparks’s merciless humour. Mrs Hawkins works for the small, ever-shrinking publisher, Ullswater Press, a publisher of “serious books.” One of the partners is largely absent, and that leaves the younger partner, Martin York in charge with various creative financing plans to revitalize the business which include his knowledge about how to “throw off” the Income Tax inspectors. Mrs Hawkins moves on to the publishers Mackintosh and Tooley, and while this firm appears to be eminently more respectable than Ullswater Press, again there are darker forces lurking beneath the surface. With one of the office mottos, “the best author is a dead author,” the culture at Mackintosh and Tooley appears to be pro-reader and pro-employee, but as always Muriel Spark shows us that appearances can be deceiving.

As fate would have it, all of the strands of Mrs Hawkins’s life connect with a “glint of a thin trail, like something a snail leaves in its slow path,”  and eventually, she finds herself mixed up in blackmail, anonymous letters and suicide as she determinedly confronts evil for the first time in her life. Ever stalwart, Mrs Hawkins sticks to her principles simply because she can do no less:

I can’t help it. Sometimes the words just come out and I can’t stop them. It feels like preaching the gospel.

A Far Cry From Kensington is one of my favourite Spark novels–a must-read for fans, and a great place to start if you’ve never read this brilliantly entertaining and vastly amusing author.

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