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Muriel Spark: Loitering with Intent

Another deliciously funny novel from Dame Muriel that reminds me of Memento Mori, written twenty-two years before. The group of old people, who are not all old, belong, this time, to the Autobiographical Association, an association dedicated to helping mildly famous people write their autobiographies. Our heroine is Fleur Talbot, a novelist-to-be (she becomes a famous novelist after the action of this novel, as she tells us more than once). She joins the Autobiographical Association as the secretary, working for Sir Quentin Oliver, founder and head of the Association. There are about ten autobiographers, who meet regularly to discuss each other’s work. Part of Fleur’s work is to help them write (and, of course, embellish) their autobiographies.

While the shenanigans surrounding the Association are certainly fun (Oliver is feeding all the autobiographers Dexedrine), where Spark exceeds herself is with the additional characters. Oliver’s mother, Edwina, is a wonderfully, eccentric old lady who plays at being slightly wacko and incontinent (she is able to control both when she so pleases). She and Fleur take to each other and are co-conspirators, often against Sir Quentin. Fleur is writing a novel – Warrender Chase – of which we get tantalising glimpses and which uses not only the characters and events from the Association but also manages to predict certain events. The whole writing of Warrender Chase, Fleur’s attempts to get it published and Sir Quentin’s attempts to get it suppressed comprises a whole hilarious sequence in itself. The whole business is complicated by Fleur’s love life. She is having an affair with the law clerk, critic and would-be novelist, Leslie. Leslie’s wife, Dottie, is well aware of the affair and even tolerates it, to the extent that she seems to spend more time with Fleur than Leslie does. She, too, gets embroiled in the Quentin Oliver/Warrender Chase plot which, of course, ends up with Fleur the victor, her enemies vanquished and the Association finished.

Spark seems to love the antics of the elderly, the not-quite famous and those on the margins of the literary world – would-be writers, critics, second-rate publishers – and she has nothing but fun in spearing them, mocking them and, ultimately, reveling in their destruction. The unfrocked Father Delaney (for religious and not for moral reasons, as he is quick to point out), the stern housekeeper, Beryl Tims (the spitting image of Mrs. Pettigrew from Memento Mori), the Baronne Clothilde du Poiret, Fleur’s would-be publisher, Revisson Doe – Spark creates a host of unforgettable characters that keep us laughing throughout the book.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Bodley Head