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Reading Muriel Spark

Do you have favorite lines from the books you read?  I may have discovered a new one to add to my collection.  It is from "Loitering with Intent" by Muriel Spark:

"And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing."

It is always exciting to discover an author to add to our list of favorites.  Muriel Spark is now on that list for me.  I had read "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" many years ago and loved it.  But since then, Muriel Spark has not been part of my reading life.  A recent blog post from Simon Thomas at "Stuck in a Book" announced that he was hosting a MURIEL SPARK READING WEEK.  I decided to take the challenge and read "Loitering with Intent."  What a good decision that was. As I read the last page of this funny and brilliant book, I smiled.  The smile came from the satisfaction of reading a really good book.

The novel is written in the first person, in the guise of a memoir.  The main character Fleur Talbot is a famous writer in the middle of a successful writing career, looking back and remembering her early days as a young woman living in London.  She remembers a specific day, sometime around 1949, when she was quite young and trying to finish her first novel, "Warrender Chase." She is sitting in a Kensington graveyard eating a sandwich and writing a poem.  As she lingers there, trying to avoid her landlord, she thinks "This was the last day of a whole chunk of my life but I didn't know it at the time."

Although she is alone and penniless, searching for a job to support herself while she tries to get her book published, she is far from unhappy.  She recognizes "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." She is filled with joy about the creative experience of being a writer.   She thinks "How wonderful to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century."  She is "loitering" around London with the intention of gathering material for her writing.  She has just quit a terrible job, and is wondering what comes next:

"At that time I had a good number of marvelous friends, full of good and evil.  I was close on penniless but my spirits were all the more high because I had recently escaped from the Autobiographical Association (non-profit making) where I was thought rather mad, if not evil.  I will tell you about the Autobiographical Association." 

And so we learn what has been going on in the last ten months preceding that day in the Kensington graveyard.  She has taken a position as secretary to the very strange Autobiographical Association, a group of slightly mad eccentrics who have been collected by Sir Quentin Oliver and convinced to write their memoirs.  These egomaniacs are interested in gaining fame while Sir Quentin is interested in controlling them with blackmail (which Fleur later discovers).  As secretary Fleur records the members' very dull stories, but cannot resist rewriting them to add greater interest and narrative structure.   The veracity of memoirs and how what is written is often shaped by the author for entertainment value is an ongoing theme in the book.  

The members of the Autobiographical Association begin to play a role in Fleur's life and as she gets to know them she cannot help looking at their behavior and personalities as material for future novels.   But when the manuscript of her novel is stolen, she suspects one of them.  And in a very strange turn of events, the group's memoirs begin to sound like Fleur's novel and the members begin to act out scenes from Fleur's book.  Is art imitating life or life imitating art? As the plot thickens, the action of the novel includes villains, theft, blackmail, drugs, and adultery.  Spark gives us much to think about regarding truth and memoirs, and fiction and reality.

And, in fact, the issue of memoirs seems to be very much on the narrator's mind as she frequently quotes from her favorite books, the autobiographies of Benvenuto Cellini and Cardinal Newman.
"All men, whatever be their condition, who have done anything of merit...should write the tale of their life with their own hand." -- Celiini.
"I must, I said, show what I am, that ...the phantom may be extinguished which gibbers instead of me." -- Newman

The book is clever, mischievous and funny.  The humor is sly and we laugh as we watch the characters get tripped up by their own foibles.  The narrator is the smartest character in the book and we are enlightened by her wisdom as she observes and evaluates all the other characters and their behavior.  And the characters are wonderful creations.  They include the sinister Sir Quentin, his ancient and grotesque mother Edwina, the bitter and interfering Berly Tims (Sir Quentn's housekeeper), the vengeful Dottie (wife of Fleur's ex-lover )who pretends to be Fleur's friend, and the wonderful Solly, a hard-working journalist who was injured in the war.  He believes in Fleur and is her only real friend.   Rounding out the cast of characters are the members of the Autobiographical Association.

But more than anything else, this book is about Fleur's growing passion for the life of the writer.  It is a portrait of the artist as a young woman.   She is in love with the imaginative process and her feeling of exhilaration about her sense of creative power dominates this book.   Interwoven throughout the twists and turns of the plot is an overwhelming sense of joyousness about being a writer:

"My 'Warrender Chase,' shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of  my imagination; it was like being in love and better.  All day long, when I was busy with the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did.  I took no notes, except in my mind."

As readers we can laugh at the sly comedy of this book and also marvel at the deeper meaning beneath the plot and the comedy, the joy of being an artist.  We watch as Fleur continues to follow the passion of her life, on her way, "rejoicing."  And for those of us who are just discovering the pleasures of reading Muriel Spark, there is the knowledge that there are many more books by Spark to be read.

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