“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.