The messy business of fiction-versus-truth occupies the narrator of Loitering with Intent, Spark's 16th novel, originally published in 1981 and reissued this summer as a New Directions Classic. Fleur Talbot is a writer in 1949 London, collecting material for her first novel. She takes a job "on the grubby edge of the literary world," as secretary to the Autobiographical Association, an odd little cult whose members--fallen aristocrats, a defrocked priest, a paralyzed debutante--have begun writing their memoirs under the tutelage of Sir Quentin Oliver. Sir Quentin, pompous and imperious, demands that they reveal themselves with "complete frankness." Fleur's job is to type up their accounts (so far, no one has gotten past Chapter One) and "rectify any lack or lapse in form, syntax, style, characterization, invention, local colour, description, dialogue, construction and other trivialities."
The memoirs are "agony" to Fleur, dreary and factual. Fleur spices them up with her own bits of "invented patchwork," but Sir Quentin objects. "It's a moral question," he says, at which Fleur fumes: "I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their life-stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness. When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease."
Truly, nothing is lost on Fleur. Frustrated with her job, she nevertheless delights in the characters at the Association, who provide rich material for her novel. She's always on the "listen-in" for interesting turns of phrase; as she leaves her initial interview with Sir Quentin, she reflects that his prim speech and mannerisms have "already become part of my memoirs."
Her memoirs--which comprise Loitering with Intent--concern the writing of her first novel. Fleur's record of her artistic process is, at its essence, a love story. "My Warrender Chase," she tells us (almost invariably using the lover's possessive when she refers to the book), "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."
No doubt Fleur speaks for the author (Muriel Spark published her first novel in 1957, when she was nearly 40) when she recalls how, in the beginning, she wrote without any hope of ever getting her book published, "but with only the excited compulsion to write it." Her voice is heady and exuberant and unapologetic. "I see no reason," she says, "to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work."
On its surface, Loitering is a celebration of the creative process. "How wonderful," Fleur muses, "to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century." But there are darker matters afoot. As Fleur says of her Warrender Chase, this is a "spirited" book with a "sinister" theme: "I treated the story with a light and heartless hand, as is my way when I have to give a perfectly serious account of things."
The sinister theme is hinted at from the beginning: Fleur is immediately suspicious of Sir Quentin's power over the members of the Association, who, because of a common "weakness of character," are easily manipulated. As work on her novel progresses, she observes Sir Quentin taking on more and more of the attributes of her fictional character, "revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase"--who, we learn, was a cultist who goaded and terrorized his followers. When she completes her novel, Sir Quentin steals the manuscript and accuses her of libeling the Association. ("Even if I had been moved to portray those poor people in fictional form," she assures us, "they would not have been recognizable, even to themselves. Such as I am, I'm an artist, not a reporter.") Portions of her text begin to appear in the Association's memoirs, as if the events of her novel had actually happened to them. Stranger still, Sir Quentin and the Association begin to put Warrender Chase into practice, acting out the story almost verbatim.
Which raises the question: Are Sir Quentin and his followers Fleur's inventions? Are they her "novel personified"? Fleur would have us believe that Loitering is a true account, her defense against accusations of libel. "Now that I come to write biographically," she says, "I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up." But her notion of truth is considerably more layered and complex than can be gotten at by facts: "The process by which I created my characters was instinctive, the sum of my whole experience of others and of my own potential self; and so it always has been. Sometimes I don't actually meet a character I have created in a novel until some time after the novel has been written and published."
As for the character Warrender Chase, Fleur insists that she already had him "outlined and fixed" long before she met Sir Quentin. Of Sir Quentin himself, she says, "I almost feel I invented him." Early on, when she is asked to elaborate on her suspicions about him, she says she can't explain until she has written a few more chapters of her novel. "It's the only way I can come to a conclusion about what's going."
If this is allegory, if Sir Quentin and the Association are the products of Fleur's "febrile creativity," why do they turn on her? Has Fleur invited calamity by writing about it? ("I have never known an artist," she says, "who at some time has not come into conflict with pure evil.")
Or are these characters simply behaving like jilted lovers? It is "precisely" a week after Fleur finishes with her novel that she first notices "the deterioration" in the members of the Autobiographical Association. The theft of her manuscript occurs just when she is beginning work on a second book, which she describes in achingly familiar language: "My All Souls' Day occupied my best brains now, my sweetest hopes. ... I didn't know then, as I know now, that it's always the book I am working on that takes precedence in my esteem." Oh, wanton love.
Many writers have taken on the paradox of truth in fiction. Muriel Spark did it earlier, in The Comforters, and Iris Murdoch did it brilliantly in The Black Prince. Where Murdoch's approach was psychological, Spark, like her character Fleur, doesn't "go in for motives." The plot of Loitering with Intent is artificial, the characters eccentric, even cartoonish. But Spark's prose is electric, her humor shrewd and irreverent, and her story cunning, elusive, and edgy as a thriller. She has said (grinning into her hand, one suspects) that her single aim with this novel was "to give pleasure." Anyone who enjoys a sly, well-crafted conundrum is apt to find pleasure here.