Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark – and a challenge completed

Virago Modern Classic #537

“When I recall what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel an author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.”

So says Fleur Talbot, intrepid heroine and narrator of Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent.

She’s a captivating heroine – clever, witty, vivacious and perceptive.  You’d love to have her as a friend.

And she’s a book-lover and an aspiring writer.

“I always desired books; nearly all of my bills were for books. I possessed one very rare book which I traded for part of my bill with another bookshop, for I wasn’t a bibliophile of any kind; rare books didn’t interest me for their rarity but their content. I borrowed frequently from the public library, but often I would go into a bookshop and in my longing to possess, let us say, the Collected Poems of Arthur Clough  and a new Collected Chaucer, I would get into conversation with the bookseller and run up another bill.”

(It wasn’t this Fleur’s name that inspired mine, but after reading that paragraph I wished that it was!)

The story begins with Fleur living in a bedsit in south-west London and working on her first novel, Warrender Chase. She need a job to get by, and a friend points her in the direction of a job that sounds perfect for her: secretary to the Autobiographical Association.

The Autobiographical Association? It’s the brainchild  on the supremely pompous Sir Quentin Oliver; a society that will support and assist people in  writing their biographies and preserving them until all of those mentioned are dead so that they can be safely  published. Because, of course, they will be of interest to the historians of the future!

It’s a wonderful concept, and it gives Muriel Spark a free rein to create a wonderful gallery of characters. She uses it quite brilliantly!

Fleur gets the job, and so she finds herself writing memoirs – which may be more fiction than fact – by day, and working on her novel. And gradually the boundaries get blurred. Are Fleur’s characters growing to resemble her authors. Or are her authors turning into characters? Just where is the line between fiction and fact?

The story is intricate, clever, and not one that I can easily sum up. Fleur carries you along with her, and it is a wonderful journey.

Loitering With Intent is the kind of book that the more you think the more you realise is there. And it may just be my favourite Muriel Spark – praise indeed!

*****

And the completed challenge?

 decades09boldsmallThe Decades Challenge – 9 books from consecutive decades in 2009.

Here’s the list:

I’m not going to pick out one favourite – I loved every one!

Thank you Michelle for hosting!

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

It’s a couple of years now since I read my first couple of novels by Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost and then The Village. Two very different books and I loved them both.

Yet I hesitated to read The Victorian Chaise-Longue. Could it possibly live up to such high expectations? Wouldn’t it be awful to not have something new by Marghanita Laski still to read?

The second problem was solved this autumn when Persephone kindly published To Bed with Grand Music. And then the November Novella Challenge inspired me to finally open the pages of The Victorian Chaise-Longue.

Could it live up to my expectations?

“Will you give me your word of honour,” said Melanie, “that I am not going to die?”

It is the middle of the twentieth century. Early in Melanie’s pregnancy her doctor found a patch on her lung – an early sign of tuberculosis. She now has a son, but she hasn’t been allowed to leave her bedroom or be in close contact with her child since the birth.

But now Melanie’s health is improving, and the doctor accedes to her wish to go downstairs and lie upon the Victorian-Chaise Longue.

It’s a strange piece of furniture. Old, worn and out of keeping with the rest of the house, and yet Melanie was drawn to it. She had to have it.

Melanie is spoiled, but she has charm and I couldn’t help sympathising with her situation. And wondering to what degree her upbringing, her family and society had taught her to behave as she did.

She falls asleep on her chaise-longue. And she wakes up on it. But she wakes up a hundred years earlier, in Victorian England. Where is she? Why is she being called Milly?

Melanie thinks she is in a nightmare. She tries to wake up, but she can’t. This is real. She is trapped and helpless.

Marghanita Laski conveys her feelings quite perfectly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and deeply unsettling. And the more you think the more unsettling it becomes.

Melanie gradually finds out more about Milly’s life. The similarities in their lives and their circumstances are extraordinary, but the consequences in their different times are starkly different.

“We seem to be together now, she explained, you and I, both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin.”

It would be unfair to say too much more, but the situation and Melanie’s emotions intensify as the story build to a conclusion.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue works on more than one level. It is a fine piece of storytelling and it is also a striking analysis of the changing position of women in society.

And while many authors would make a lengthy novel out of this material, Marghanita Laski distils it perfectly into just 99 pages.

The writing and the characterisation is as wonderful as my previous experiences with her writing had led me to expect.

And, once again, Marghanita Laski has come up with a stunning final sentence. How does she do that?!

The Victorian Chaise-Longue definitely lived up to my high expectations.

Persephone Books edition endpapers