Muriel Spark's 'Loitering With Intent' (1981) is a remarkable autobiographical novel based on the author's experiences on the intellectual and literary fringes of post-World War II London; the book may be Spark's greatest achievement following 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' (1961).
Wise, poised, hilariously funny, and almost seamlessly written, the book is also wonderfully instructive: Spark was fairly impoverished in 1949, and 'Loitering With Intent' reveals not only how an individual can successfully combat the banal "evil of the everyday," but perfectly illustrates Camille Paglia's maxim that "poverty is no excuse for groveling."
In fact, the voice of narrator Fleur Talbot is not unlike the voice of Paglia at her determined, sharp-tongued, pretension-piercing best. Fleur, like Paglia, calls it as she sees it, and isn't afraid to acknowledge that some people are irredeemably and aggressively awful. But Fleur doesn't avoid such people as a matter of principal: she accepts them as inevitable and lives a life of creative "infiltration": "I was aware that I had a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more." Fleur reveals other unusual skills as the story develops: like many artists, she is a bit of a mystic, a bit of a shaman.
Also like much of Paglia's work, 'Loitering With Intent' is something of a blistering attack on high WASP hypocritical good manners and social decorum.
While Fleur clearly believes in human decency, fair play, and politeness, she also believes in determined counterattack when duly provoked ("I was not any sort of a victim; I was simply not constituted for the role"), and her responses can be volcanic ("I was glad of my strong hips and sound cage of ribs to save me from flying apart, so explosive were my thoughts").
Fleur uninhibitably recognizes her eventual adversaries as "swine," "stupid," "awful," "hysterical," "insolent," and "self-indulgent fools." The Baronne Clotilde du Loiret is "so stunned by privilege that she didn't know how to discern and reject a maniac," homosexual poet Gray Mauser is "small, slight, and wispy, about twenty, with arms and legs not quite uncoordinated enough to qualify him for any sort of medical treatment, and yet definitely he was not put together right," and a friend has "the ugliest grandchild I have ever seen but she loves it."
'Loitering With Intent' is partially a transposition of Spark's experience of the Poetry Society in the late Forties, when she held the position of General Secretary. In her autobiography, 'Curriculum Vitae' (1993), Spark stated that she was "employed, or embroiled, in that then riotous establishment." In the present novel, Fleur becomes workaday secretary to the Autobiographical Association, a "crank" operation run by social snob and blackmailer Quentin Oliver, who also suffers from a messianic complex of vast proportions. Ever perceptive, Fleur is confident that what she is witnessing around her is pure collective madness.
In Spark's first novel, 'The Comforters' (1957), protagonist Caroline Rose slowly awakens to the fact that she, everyone she knows, and indeed her entire perceived universe are actually only the fictional creations of an unknowable author composing Caroline's history on some unrealizable, presumably higher plane.
In 'Loitering With Intent,' almost the opposite is true: as Fleur nears the end of completing her first novel, she becomes aware that the members of the Autobiographical Association are genuine human doppelgangers of the characters she has created, enacting an identical drama to the one she has constructed purely from her imagination. Thus, Fleur has foreseen the future unaware, and hazily anticipates the unavoidable disasters to come to those who are manipulative, vain, arrogant, and power-crzed.
One of the book's most fascinating elements is the chronically antagonistic relationship between Fleur and the aptly named Dottie, the maudlin wife of Fleur's bisexual lover, Leslie.
Dottie is 49% friend and 51% enemy, and thus their oddly symbiotic relationship is of a kind most readers will recognize as having experienced at some point in their own lives. "I don't know why I thought of Dottie as my friend but I did. I believe she thought the same way about me although she didn't really like me. In those days, among the people I mixed with, one had friends almost by predestination. There they were, like your winter coat and your meager luggage. You didn't think of discarding them just because you didn't altogether like them."
'Loitering With Intent' is also one of the most acute examinations of the artistic temperament ever committed to paper. "When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to the artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost, and wonders never cease." And: "I have never known an artist who at some in his life has not come into conflict with pure evil, realized as it may have been under the form of disease, injustice, fear, oppression or any other ill element that can afflict living creatures. The reverse doesn't hold true: that is to say, it isn't only the artist who suffers, or who perceives evil. But I think it is true that no artist has ever lived who has not experienced and then recognized something at first too incredibly evil to be real, then so undoubtedly real as to be undoubtedly true."
The novel is also a celebration of applied self-knowledge and the self-confidence that evolves from it: Fleur repeatedly realizes "what a wonderful thing it was to be a woman and an artist in the twentieth century," and, regardless of the formidable enemies positioned against her, continually "goes on her way rejoicing."
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.