A FASCINATION WITH POWER--often human and individual, sometimes supernatural, never quite definable--has traditionally emerged from the glowing reaches of Muriel Spark's imagination. Her novels and short stories feature closely-knit enclaves of manipulators and their victims. In The Bachelors, five or six nearly middle-aged men and women linked by their fascination with the supernatural, and hounded by clinging mothers and impossible romances, formed friendships that became occultist liaisons--which led to trials for forgery, coercion, and suggestions of murder.
Strange forces and magnetic personalities often lead to mysterious deaths in Spark's worlds. She does not, however, create repetitively leaden conflicts between the bold and the puny. Power is ephemeral--it is never the sole right of an individual. "It is all demonology and to do with creatures of air." Ronald, sometime occult victor and sometimes victim in The Bachelors, observes, as the wheels of power spin dizzily about his head, whirring and clicking, bobbing back and forth with no point but endless effect.
In Loitering With Intent, Spark's birstling dailogue bounces back and forth, carrying with it the seeds of power. As attention shifts, characters shuffle, hesitate and lose their authority. Fleur Talbot, the narrator of the story, is a novelist, recounting the events and characters that populate her life and her first novel as they unroll side by side in post-war London. Her voice is self-assured, speaking to us from a secure vantage point, anchored thirty years later by reputation and maturity. Fleur is single, 25 years old and extremely, efficiently ambitious. She's secretary to Sir Quentin, founder and sole manipulator behind the Autobiographical Association, who has convinced ten of his very boring but deeply blue-blooded friends that they must record the stories of their lives for posterity, and most of all, for money and glory.
Fleur watches with thorough enjoyment as this parade of increasingly, eccentrically dull characters attempt to write their memoirs: Miss Young, 30 years old, attractive, with a club leg, whose document is an "unintelligible treatise on the Cosmos and How Being is Becoming": Mrs. Wilks, brought up in the court of Russia's Czar, should have crafted riveting memoirs "but instead she wrote only "a very dull account about... discomforts of the royal palace, where (she) had to share a bedroom": and eight other misfits. In the beginning, the only one of the group reluctant to contribute to the autobiographical project is a Father Egbert, whose attempt at an autobiography had begun. "It is with some trepidation that I take up my pen."
NEITHER FLEUR NOR AUTHOR SPARK has any timidity about recounting their stories--We don't know if the novel has any resemblance to Spark's own life. Fleur gives us precious little personal background. Fleur lives alone in a one-room apartment. She spends every free minute working on her first novel, Warrender Chase, named after its hero. Warrender, strangely enough, bears an uncaany resemblance--in all aspects--to Sir Quentin.
Fleur the writer relishes her exposure to unending inspiration for her novel so much that she exclaims, often, "How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century." Life becomes complicated and less than wonderful when Fleur finally notices the similarities between her novel and her own, real world. By that time no one can tell whether her novel is predicting life or life predicts the outcome of her own work.
Meanwhile, the members of the association exchange doubts and suspicions. They show signs of addiction to amphetamines Quentin gives them as part of mystical rites that have become central to the Autobiographical Association. Their struggles for sanity and survival as they succumb to Quentin's mysterious manipulations--part of an elaborate con-game--become farcical and charming. Spark's talent for dialogue and vacuous wit blooms, fertilized by the increasingly hilarious improbable set of characters and situations:
"Father Egbert Delaney believes that Satan is a woman. He told me as much and I think be ought to be made to resign. It's an insult to women," Miss Young says.
"It does seem so," I said, "Why don't to tell him?"
"I think you, as secretary, Fleur, should take it up with him and report the matter to Sir Quentin."
"But if I tell him Satan is a man he'll think it an insult to men."
"Personally, I don't believe in Satan."
"Well, that's all right then," I said.
"What's all right then?"
"If Satan doesn't exist, why bother if it's a man or woman we're talking about?"
Fleur flourishes, finishes her novel, and retrieves it after Sir Quentin steals it because he believes it libelous and very un-funny. She humors Father Egbert. Satan and the rest, continuing to exalt, "How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century."
When one of Sir Quentin's autobiographers commits suicide--as one of her own fictional characters did, Fleur worries about the resemblance to her novel but remains unmoved. And when the other autobiographers may be in danger, she blithely says. "Presumably they all have friends. I suppose they have friends and relations who will notice if they fall ill... They are not infants. I was thinking of my novel...I had no publisher."
As 1949 ends, the autobiographers fade back towards anonymous sanity, Sir Quentin dies, and Fleur's novel attracts enormous acclain. Fleur admits that she lingered to watch the characters wind down, to invite their antagonism, and to risk further danger of libeling them all. "They were morally outside myself, they were objectified. I would write about them one day. In fact, under one form or another, whether I have liked it or not, I have written about them ever since."
FROM THE BOOK JACKET, Spark gazes over her eyeglasses and down her unassuming nose at us. Her keen glance dissects us. She has exposed the emotionally detached Fleur to us. Whether the very talented Fleur Talbot is meant to be the autobiographical persons of the very talented Muriel Spark or not doesn't matter. Strength and weakness, mystery an I magic--these enliven this and all Spark's work and they create a world that cuts itself loose from reality.