It’s Muriel Spark Reading Week, and blog-land is on fire with reviews and commentary! Simon kicked things off, as did his co-host, Harriet. I’m looking forward to their posts throughout the week, and to catching up with what other bloggers have to say about Muriel Spark and her books. I, for one, have used this event as an opportunity to discover an author I know very little about. I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and enjoyed the movie in my teens, and was completely unaware of Dame Maggie Smith’s amazing talents until much later. And that was it for Ms. Spark and me … until this week.
I chose to commemorate this week by reading Loitering with Intent, which was published in 1981 (20 years after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). It’s also one of Simon’s favorites, and I took that as a good sign. When I brought my copy home, I looked inside and found 217 pages in a large-ish typeface. I pegged it as a quick, fun read. It was definitely quick — I read it in 2 days — but it didn’t quite hit a bullseye on “fun”. I’d say it was quirky though. Oh yes, definitely quirky. Thank goodness for Thomas at My Porch, whose “Quirktensity Index of the Works of Muriel Spark” popped up in my Google Reader Sunday morning. I had just reached the book’s halfway point and was trying to decide whether I was enjoying it or not. He classified Loitering with Intent very quirky, but below average in intensity. AHA, I said to myself. It’s a quirky book! Somehow that made all the difference to my reading experience, and I was able to sit back and appreciate the rest of the book.
So now, without further ado, I’ll attempt to capture some reflections in a review … I hope you enjoy Muriel Spark Reading Week!
Fleur Talbot is a “modern” young woman, living and working in London in the middle of the twentieth century. An aspiring novelist, she lands a secretarial position with the “Autobiographical Society,” an organization that helps clients write their biographies as life unfolds. The society promises to store these works for seventy years, publishing only after everyone in the book has died.
If that sounds a bit strange, hang on, because the story gets more bizarre with every page. The society’s clients are a band of misfits and unknowns, and it’s hard to imagine anyone would be interested in their life stories. But Sir Quentin Oliver, head of the society, coddles them and coaches them through each chapter, focusing on their childhood, their early romantic and sexual experiences, and so forth. As secretary, Fleur has access to their manuscripts and uses her creative talents to spice things up a bit. In the office, which is actually Sir Quentin’s flat, she engages in a power struggle with Quentin’s housekeeper Mrs Beryl Tims, and befriends his elderly and incontinent mother, Edwina.
But all of this is secondary to Fleur; her life is focused on finishing her novel and getting it published. She’s also distracted by an affair that’s gone sour, and an unlikely friendship with the man’s wife, Dottie. For some reason she convinces Dottie to join the Autobiographical Society and write her memoirs, and gradually discovers Dottie may not be the friend she thought (really? I could have told her that). She also begins to see another side of Sir Quentin that is obvious to the reader, but would stun the society members who idolize him. When Fleur’s manuscript goes missing, and scenes from her novel are played out in real life, the story gets very strange indeed.
Spark’s characters are very funny. Edwina pees on the floor nearly every time she stands up; Beryl Tims is very proper and judgmental. There’s an unfrocked priest with a story that’s far less controversial than he thinks, a disabled mystic, and many more. The madcap storyline moves along at a brisk pace. This is a light read, darkly funny, and while I enjoyed it on one level, it was also all a bit over the top. I found it a nice diversion from some of the heavier stuff I’m reading. For my tastes, Spark is best taken in small doses like this one.