I would write about them one day. In fact, under one form or another, whether I have liked it or not, I have written about them ever since, the straws from which I have made my bricks.
Dame Muriel Spark, born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918, was a poet, critic, and award-winning novelist. Her conversion to Roman Catholicism allowed her to find a subject position she could comfortably write from while maintaining a taste for satire, for questioning norms and authorities, and a certain sense of perpetual exile. Her first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957. At the time of her death in 2006 she had published twenty-two novels – including her most famous, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) –, an autobiography, and many essays.
Fleur Talbot, a successful writer, recalls the turning point of her professional life; the months when she finished her first novel and struggled to have it published while working as editor for the evil Sir Quentin Oliver and his Autobiographical Association. In this role she faces the impossibility of writing biographies that are frank, understandable, and interesting at the same time. While she grows as a professional, she realises that her employer is manipulating his followers into acting out the plot of her novel to its deathly end. With the help of well-chosen allies, however, she corners him and achieves success in the editorial world.
Throughout a novel in which the characters’ dependence on authorial intentions is distinctly marked and the plot is constantly undermined by prolepsis and analepsis that reveal major events, it becomes clear that the focus of the story – its source and its object – is its narrator, Fleur Talbot. Critics have pointed out the autobiographical elements in her characterisation, such as her Catholic faith, her vocation as a writer – a profession for which she often offers insight –, and the historical setting of the novel (London, 1950). It could be said, then, that Loitering with Intent is a self-conscious narrative, a meditation on the craft and responsibilities of authorship, its main concern being the potential of the act of writing to share, manipulate or violate a person’s intimacy. Many of Spark’s novels discuss the ethical implications of narrative itself, especially focusing on betrayed secrets and blackmailing.
Fleur is on the edge of becoming a published author, stepping out into public recognition. As she lives in a room that is not her own – her rent hangs by a thread – she works as an editor of autobiographies, which she alters for the sake of entertainment and readability. She joyfully breaks the pact of honesty implied by the genre, while her employer trespasses the privacy of the authors’ confessions using their secrets for his own gain. The division of public and private spheres is revealed as purely ideological, since the authors’ privacy is obliterated by the act of (re)writing and sharing. This is further complicated when her boss, the villain, steals Fleur’s novel – her private study is literally broken into – and deliberately acts out its plot. The possibility of real communication is questioned: understanding other people’s minds seems impossible, and attempting it results in a false feeling of shared intimacy which is shown as a means of manipulation. The autobiographers have no agency and no possibilities of reaching posterity; they are objects, not subjects. Their characterisation seems irrelevant beyond class commentary – they are all from the higher, educated classes, while clever Fleur lives in a relatively bohemian precariousness; it’s all about her “own potential self” (13).
The narrator inhabits the threshold of different groups. She’s not fully a part of the Autobiographical Association, since she’s only a soon-expelled employee; she’s not settled in the literary circle, as she’s not published yet; she seems detached from both men and women, to the point of being called unnatural. Her liminal situation, however, is what allows her to observe and develop her craft, and she repeatedly expresses her wonder at being “a woman and an artist in the twentieth century” (120). She reminisces from the future, in which she is a well-known writer, aware of her public image, and she expresses pride, vitality, and confidence. We are left with a tightly bound subject, unable to communicate except through the act of narration, but autonomous, dynamic, and able to inhabit all spheres of society – which seep seamlessly into one another – if only it is self-aware enough.
But the power and influence of the creative arts is not to be belittled. I only say that the art and literature of sentiment and emotion, however beautiful in itself, however stirring in its depiction of actuality, has to go. It cheats us into a sense of involvement with life and society, but in reality it is a segregated activity. In its place I advocate the arts of satire and ridicule. And I see no other living art for the future. Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left. (“The Desegregation of Art” in Penelope Jardine (ed.), The Informed Air. Essays by Muriel Spark, New York, New Directions, 2014: 80).
Gardiner, Michael and Willy Maley (eds.), The Edinburgh Companion to Muriel Spark, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
Hosmer, Robert Ellis Jr, “Muriel Spark”, in Gerard Carruthers and Liam McIlvanney (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013: 203-216.
Kawamoto, Reiko, “Crime and Creativity: The Anti-Imagination Novels of Muriel Spark”, Hitotsubashi Journal of Arts and Sciences, 2008, 49 (1): 25-35.
Little, Judy, Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark, and Feminism, Lincoln, Nebraska University Press, 1983.
Baró González, Jana (2016), "Muriel Spark. Loitering with Intent", Lletra de Dona in Centre Dona i Literatura, Barcelona, Centre Dona i Literatura / Universitat de Barcelona, fecha de consulta.