Saturday, May 24, 2008

Muriel Spark Sparks

I've been re-reading Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent and discovering (after an interval of perhaps 20 years), that it's not at all the sweet confection I remember it. Or rather, it is full of all those sharp edges Spark is known for, odd word choices and original (or just plain odd) ideas.

First, an example of odd word choice. The narrator, speaking about her name, "Fleur," says:

"Not that I looked bad, it was only that Fleur wasn't the right name, and yet it was mine as are the names of those melancholy Joys, those timid Victors, the inglorious Glorias and materialistic Angelas one is bound to meet in the course of a long life of change and infiltration; and once I met a Lancelot who, I assure you, had nothing to do with chivalry."
Um, a long life of ... infiltration? This reveals, I believe, the narrator's view of herself with regard to others. Like Spark, she is a writer, and seems to view others solely as exhibits, opportunities to plunder for her art. Still, it's a bizarre word to see in this context, and it takes a while for it to make any sense.

And here's an example of an idea I found striking:
... [W]hat I found common to the members of Sir Quentin's remianing group was their weakness of character. To my mind this is no more to be despised than is physical weakness. We are not all born heroes and athletes.
I've never decided on an attitude about people's flaws, whereas Fleur appears to have considered the question and come to a point of view. True to life or not, I find it fascinating whenever I encounter a character or author who seems to have consciously arrived at an opinion about something which I've left unexamined. (Since I leave a lot unexamined, this isn't difficult.)

UPDATE: Here's a couple more instances where Spark inserts material into her story that, well, stands out:
He gave me what he said was the usual form of contract, on a printed sheet, and it wasn't such a bad contract nor was it a good one. Only, I found later by personal espionage that his firm ... had a private printing press on which they produced "the usual form of contract" to suit whatever they could get away with for each individual author.
"Personal espionage" is an odd phrase to begin with (one must take a moment to decide that "espionage" alone wouldn't have done, because it would have connoted a shadowy network of hirelings, but it's a pause a reader shouldn't need to make use of), but what's odder about the phrase is what it says about the narrator. In the course of the story, it becomes clear (or seems to) that the narrator's publisher and several other people are conspiring to suppress her first novel. In these circumstances, one can imagine why she might be driven to "espionage," though it's never made clear when she might have done this, or why she bothered. One is left with the suspicion that our narrator is paranoid and sneaky, and Spark intended this. What she seems to have had in mind was a roman à clef in which she modeled the ruthlessness that had been necessary to her own development as a writer.

Here's a short passage that hints at this:
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.
At a minimum, it seems to reveal her narrator's self-centeredness; it's a tempting leap to assume the same was true of Spark herself.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Shirley Hazzard On Being Caught In Flagrante Delicto

Here's the set-up: one afternoon in the 1950s, Paul Ivory, who is engaged to marry Tertia Drage, has just bedded Caroline Bell (and she him) on a lazy afternoon when they think no one will be about. Their idyll is disturbed, however, when Tertia drives up to the house and calls out for him. To forestall her from entering the house, Paul leaps to the window and speaks to her, pretending he is alone.

Paul was at the window now. He was leaning out, laconic. "Good God." He was smiling and leaning and making room for his casual elbows. 'Anything up?' There was the hard intimacy of tone, the naturalness with which he did not use her name. If he had even added so much as "Tertia."

Tertia Drage came right below the window: a pink dress, an upraised face. Perhaps she had not expected Paul to appear at once, but showed no surprise and, despite the standing down there, no sense of disadvantage. Any more than Paul did -- standing easy in, merely, the shirt and tie; and, as far as Tertia was concerned, fully dressed ...
Tertia says it's a beautiful afternoon, they should do something, Paul asks what they should do.
She raised a derisory hand. "You know the possibilities as well as I."

...Out of sight below the window Paul Ivory's bare feet had crossed themselves, negligent as his folded arms. Small fair hairs curled on his naked thighs. "Nothing too arduous," he said, or was saying, when from the fixing of Tertia's limbs he knew that Caro stood beside him.

He knew that Caro had come up behind him and was by his side at the window. Her bare shoulder, perfectly aloof, touched his own. He did not turn, but, as if he himself were Tertia Drage, saw Caro standing naked beside him at that high window and looking down; looking down on the two of them. It was he and Tertia, and Caroline Bell looking down on them. Caro's hand rested on the sill. She was wearing nothing but a small round watch.

Moments passed, or did not pass. Tertia stood impassive. Only that arm stayed raised, her gloved fist clenched and extended like a falconer's. She was looking straight up at Paul; not staring but looking hard and fast at him only. She said, "It's up to you."

"I"ll come down."

For perhaps the first time they met each other's eyes.

At the window Caro did not move. Paul withdrew and took up the rest of his clothes. His departure exposed completely the upper part of her body. Flesh-coloured light was striking her shoulder and making reddish streaks in heavy hair that fell over the collar-bone. Below, Tertia was walking round the car and opening the door. She got in, leaving the driver's seat free. In the room above, the bed creaked as Paul pulled on his canvas shoes. With no more than normal haste he took his own watch from the top of the bureau, glancing at it as he strapped it on. He might have been late for an appointment.
Yeow! I love the charged atmosphere of this confrontation, the heart-stopping moment when Caro appears at the window, and the utterly casual way in which Tertia and Paul indirectly seal their cynical union, and Caro's claim on Paul is obliterated.

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