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Review: Loitering With Intent, by Muriel Spark


Pages: 224
Original date of publication: 1981
My copy: 2001 (New Directions)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Joseph Fox bookstore, Philadelphia, January 2012

The novel opens on a summer day in 1949, when Fleur Talbot, an aspiring writer at work on a novel called Warrender Chase, get a job as typist for an “Autobiographical Association” that promises to save the memoirs of its illustrious members for a period of 70 years. As she gains material for her novel (and subsequent novels), Fleur begins to suspect that Sir Quentin, its head, is blackmailing its members. What ensues is a bizarre, funny take on the idea that “truth is stranger than fiction.” The phrase “to loiter with intent” is used in a humorous sense to describe anyone who is waiting around for an unspecified purpose. The whole tone of the novel is like this, in some ways; you get the sense that our narrator and the other characters are hanging around, waiting for something to happen.

Muriel Spark’s novels won’t appeal to everyone. She was famously detached from (and sometimes brutal to) other people in her personal life, and she has the same attitude towards the characters in her novels, even this one, where the book is written in the first person. But I think she also has to be—Spark’s focus is on human existence and interaction as a whole, so she doesn’t get too deeply invested in her characters. As a result, there are some really great quotes in the book, such as “Contradictions in human character are one of its most consistent notes.” It’s that detachment from her characters that allows Spark to paint a full picture of them. Spark’s novels are characterized by observations of deceit and the use and abuse of power. As with novels like Aiding and Abetting, Spark proves that these kinds of things sometimes happen in some of the most bizarre circumstances.

Loitering With Intent is somewhat autobiographical; set around the time that Spark began to write, it captures very well a first-time author’s attempts to get published—a secondary theme to the novel in how it explores the edge of London literary life in the late 1940s/early1950s.

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