The Author of Her Destiny
How Muriel Spark revised her own history in Loitering With Intent, and why
There was a certain period in my life during which the only thing I could write about was my divorce. Unfortunately, it coincided with a fruitful period in my book-reviewing career. After a decade of begging, I’d finally hit a sweet spot and editors were coming to me, instead of vice versa, to write about books. But because of my seething muted trauma, I essentially bombed every opportunity that came my way. I could easily become obsessive about whatever minute detail in the book seemed to relate to divorce, regret, pain and/or loss. And if I couldn’t find something that related with even the slenderest tangential connection to divorce, I was lost for words. Dana Spiotta’s National Book Award nominated 2006 novel Eat the Document was “awesome.” That was the substance of the five-word review I delivered. The editor wrote back begging for “details.” I drew a blank and the piece was killed.
There were several similar disasters before at last an astute editor said to me—after I’d turned in a 3500 word essay on emotional realism and divorce in the recent work of Hanif Kureshi—“Minna, you’ve obviously got something that you need to get out and write about that’s interfering with everything else. Come back when you’ve worked it out.”
I alternated between divorce and writer’s block for almost two years, at which point the boredom was suffocating. And so I bribed my way into an assignment to interview Gary Shteyngart, which (like most interviews with Gary Shteyngart) took place in a downtown Irish bar over sliders and tangy boutique beer, and I completely forgot and didn’t record or write down most of what was said (except for his recommendation to read War and Peace but to skip the Peace). Something about the warm beer and having to retrieve and invent the interview the next day, catapulted me back into form. I wrote about Sontag soon after and Gerard Manley Hopkins and somewhere in there, I started to feel a little bit more like me again.
Then I recklessly volunteered to deliver a talk on my “favorite, formative” book, Loitering With Intent. At six hours before the talk was scheduled to begin, I was staring down an empty page and reckoning. Muriel Spark. Muriel Spark seduced me with sherry-laced tea and stinky cheese and walked me to the precipice and then hurled me back down into the divorce sinkhole.
I’d read Muriel Spark for the first time during a glittering golden period in my career and my marriage. She was an author my now ex-husband and I had discovered together. With the clock ticking down to the moment I was due to deliver myself before a crowd of sleepy MFA students—most of whom would have with mediocre cunning only gotten through the first forty pages of the book—I realized that I couldn’t write about my own personal experience of Muriel Spark books without delving into those excruciating memories.
We were living then in a rank hovel in the romantic hills of Tuscany, not far from where Muriel Spark (and her companion/secretary Penelope Jardine) lived out the last decades of her life. We suffered the bone cold, impossibly moldy wet, housing stock of that extraordinary landscape thick with ancient trees and glistening green with morning and afternoon dew. It made Dame Muriel’s back ache. It made everything I owned, clothing, books, shampoo, smell permanently of must.
My husband and I were both working on books. Mine was a colossal exploration of the idea and history of religious calling combined with a family memoir. I had no idea what I was doing, but it involved reading Thomas Merton and Norman Mailer, and complaining about my mother, and someone was paying me for it. I was also working on a translation for New Directions, which was a childhood dream realized. I’d set my sights on New Directions long before I moved to New York. (In fact, I confused New Directions with New York. I thought New York City was a cigarette smoke laced office on 14th Street and 8th Avenue where Tennessee Williams drolly worked reception, Lawrence Ferlinghetti served coffee and sang Fado, and Ezra Pound was kept locked in the supply closet.)
Due to my unreconstructed love for New Directions, my husband and I had developed a friendship with an editor there, Barbara Epler, a disheveled waspy beauty with a riding-school ponytail and wanton lipstick. Barbara had started at New Directions the summer she graduated from Harvard and has never worked anywhere else. Today she is the Editor in Chief. She was charming and intellectual and drank bourbon straight up. I told her she was pretty the first time I met her, while I was interviewing her for a magazine article. Something about her seemed to demand blunt awkward candor. Her German companion, Claudia, made me think of peaches and fishnet stockings. She was like a lovely unmarred refuge from a Nathaniel West novel. She flirted as she breathed—only a good respectable cat seemed to be able to make her stop purring.
For months before the two of them came to visit us in our rustic hovel, she’d been plying us by mail with Muriel Spark novels, which New Directions had begun to reissue—Momento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Loitering with Intent... We were instant acolytes and since Claudia and Barbara were in point of fact en route to Dame Muriel’s house, they tried to help my husband set up an interview with Muriel Spark for The Paris Review Writers at Work series. After many frustrated attempts at diplomacy and wheedling the interview never came to pass because in the end she didn’t trust The Paris Review. An interview had once been attempted; it was a disaster with lots of impolitic missteps and she refused to risk a repeat situation.
We found other uses for Muriel Spark. My husband wrote about Loitering With Intent as an antidote to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which he’d already reviewed negatively but hated so dearly that he needed to revile it a second time. I mostly used her to rest my eyes from the dense religious matter I was reading during the day—Kierkegaard and John Henry Newman, the author of Fleur Talbot’s totemic handbook in Loitering With Intent (unreadable). I also scoured her “memoir” Curriculum Vitae for her conversion story (I was collecting them for my book and hers to Catholicism, with some obscure self-loathing Judaism that alienated her from her own son, seemed juicy) but I came up empty. Muriel Spark’s memoir is in fact one of the least intimate memoirs ever. In college I typed the professional memoir of the Jamaican Ambassador to Kenya during the 1950s, filled with rocky landscapes, sepia childhood reminiscences, political screeds, and sentences that go something like this Born in Panama and raised to manhood in Jamaica… —it was ten times self revealing as Curriculum Vitae.
If Muriel Spark was a coy memoirist, according to her de-authorized biographer Martin Stannard, she was an even more difficult person. He quotes New Yorker editor Ved Mehta as having said that she “went through people like pieces of Kleenex.” She was also, writes Stannard, “hypersensitive to insult.” It is said that she broke entirely with one of her editors, Peter Mayer, when he allowed a paperback edition of her book The Comforters to be issued with jacket copy that read: “a witty and mysterious prank.”
Spark wasn’t a prankster, she was a wit. And she wasn’t a memoirist, she was a novelist. Sometimes she was an autobiographical novelist. What a wonderful charm, I think now, to be able to weave stories over an unforgiving life.
The Tuscan idyll was almost twelve years ago. Our now almost six-year-old son doesn’t even know we were married once upon a time. “Have you ever met my grandpa?” he asks quite reasonably. “Of course,” I say—without actually explaining that his grandfather had been my father in law and used to read every review I wrote and immediately email me long thoughtful comments.
The other day, as we were studying a weather channel video stream of lightning flashes as seen from outer space, I said without thinking, “Your father used to be obsessed with tracking tropical storms on the internet too!” He looked at me blankly. “It’s genetic,” I tried to explain. “And box scores.” His father and I living together, being a couple, was a total abstraction to him. He was wondering why something he did made me think of his father.
Last summer, I randomly started telling him a funny story about how angry his father got at me for hiccupping too loudly one parched afternoon at the ruins of Villa Jovis on the Island of Capri. The two of us were alone amongst the ancient rocks, having set out for a mad dog high noon hike, like the American tourists we were. We were heading up a sandy path to the highest point of Tiberius’s former palace, the cliff where it is said by some he debauched women and then threw them off the cliff. My hiccups were echoing and, it seemed, loud enough to rouse the ghosts. “No, mommy,” my son corrected me. “You accidentally said you were with daddy.”
Of course, we’ll have to fill our son in now, any day, because my ex-husband has written a tell-all memoir about the bunch of us. In the early part of my ex-husband’s memoir, he reveals that he used a quote from Loitering With Intent as a pick-up line (“We went on our way rejoicing”), a tipsy entreaty into the night—with another woman. Reading the first draft of his memoir made me wish he was still a novelist, made me wish that I weren’t somehow terribly complicit in robbing him of the ability or the will to weave.
He and I broke up when I was pregnant with our son. I was the screw up. I was Tiberius. I threw the bodies off the cliffs and then there I was, looking down at a great tidal absence. “The wound that never heals” is how my daughter’s father now refers to these events. Because of course the sea is, at least emotionally, eternally gaping.
Loitering with Intent, a explicitly “autobiographical novel”, is more or less set in 1947-49. During that time, Muriel took on the editorship at The Poetry Review, a fusty publication lorded over by reactionary metronome poets. Muriel vowed to rejuvenate it but instead got embroiled in a nasty political battle with the board and a number of elderly men who wanted to have an affair with her but not be edited by her. Several other married or elderly men who she seriously became involved with eventually complicated her station at the review beyond repair.
Muriel was 29 in 1948, just around the age of the novel’s protagonist, Fleur Talbot. She was writing constantly, at last an official member of the literary community, completely consumed with her craft, seduced by the literary celebrity around her—and alternately disappointed by it. She was living fully as an artist.
I was 29 that year in Italy, and working fully as a writer, using everyone I came across and everyone I read, just as Fleur Talbot does. The period that Spark is writing about in Loitering With Intent is the one I was living when I first read the book.
A student asked me the other day whether Loitering counted as meta-fiction. And I think in the strictest sense of the word, sure, it is a story about a story within a story and there’s a lord god king writer manipulating it all and/or being manipulated. Nevertheless it seems wrong to identify Loitering as metafiction, since the book seems so removed in terms of spirit and subject, context, and voice from the world of metafiction that was popular exactly during the period that Spark wrote this book. It’s also too funny to be postmodern. Somehow it seems more correct to say, as Spark said to her biographer, it’s a “fictional autobiography that treats other autobiographies.”
Spark was in her sixties when she wrote Loitering With Intent, which I think explains some of Fleur Talbot’s supreme, almost cranky confidence. She certainly has a security with her creative process that I don’t think many young writers have. But there are moments in the book where Fleur has the entitlement and urgency of an older woman:
All these years since, the critics have been asking whether Warrender was in love with his nephew. How do I know? Warrender Chase never existed, he is only some hundreds of words, some punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, marks on the page. If I had conceived Warrender Chase’s motives as a psychological study I would have said so. But I didn’t go in for motives, I never have.
Her de-authorized biographer makes the excellent observation that Spark’s self-portrait excises all the anxiety and unhappiness of the real period in Muriel’s life and that her autobiographical vision exists in the privileged dimension of a purely creative life: as Fleur says, “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.” Loitering wrote Stannford, “transforms the narrative of her own tortured life during these years into one celebrating triumph over adversity, self-belief justified.”
“…in Loitering for the first time she was using herself directly, as a subject.
In order to do this, Muriel expunged any hint of suffering or complaint. It was important that Fleur should appear as no sort of victim. Reviewing ‘a long life of change and inflistration,” Fleur adopts a tone of blithe fortitude rendering all her assailants absurd and transitory. They are pantaloons, these crooked publishers, English roses, pisseurs de copie, a mere blip in the graph of the heroine’s inevitable rise and rise. Fleur writes poems, as Muriel had, in graveyards, and her autobiography is a graveyard of illusion. The reality of course, had been otherwise. Muriel had suffered. She had been deserted by Sergeant and Stanford (who appear compounded in Leslie), wounded by her treatment at the Poetry Society (metamorphosed into the Autobiographical Association); she had taken Dexedrine and endured terrifying hallucinations. In the novel, the drug is administered by the slimy Sir Quentin Oliver, and Fleur never cries, as Muriel did, or wishes, as Muriel had, to marry. Fleur emerges, as Muriel wished to, not only unscathed but ‘scatheless,” having refashioned herself as the author of her destiny through her destiny as author.”
Loitering is about Fleur becoming a writer. The self-assured, intelligent and snarky young writer can’t but be for me a hero—it’s aspirational past tense. It’s total control; a way of redrawing the past where regret is rewritten as conviction. In the world of the book, a young woman is still becoming—rather than being what she’s become. Difficult, disappointing people are preposterous and hilarious, reduced merely to some “hundreds of words.” “I have a strong sense that fiction is lies,” Spark once said. But she could lie more truthfully in her autobiographical novel than she could in her memoir, which was full of lies of omission (and not much else.)
There is in fact some too-dreary quality to autobiography, a slavish obligation to control the slippery world of memories. In his memoir, Night of the Gun, which is all about hunting down the truth of the past, David Carr writes “People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.” He also writes, “I am not an enthusiastic or adept liar.”
What I admire so deeply about Dame Muriel is that she embraces the lies and then, deploying her punctuation and sentences and paragraphs, extricates herself. Muriel Spark’s fiction is full of these true lies, perhaps, exactly because it’s much nicer to laugh about what’s lost than it is to cry.
Minna Proctor is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, The Priesthood, and My Father and edits The Literary Review.