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loitering with intent

For those joining in with #ReadingMuriel2018 September and October is phase 5 – that is the novels of the 1980s and 90s.

Published at a time when Muriel Spark’s writing career was already well established, Loitering with Intent is a novel about writing. It is a wonderful novel, reminding me somehow of Momento Mori maybe as it’s packed with eccentric characters.

Fleur Talbot is our narrator, looking back on her early days as a writer from some later period. She returns us to September 1949, a gloomy time of continued rationing. Fleur is living in a London bedsit, it boasts a gas ring operated by putting pennies and shillings in the slot. Her landlord is trying to find ways of getting more money out of her, and she needs a job. She has a feckless boyfriend called Leslie – and Leslie has a wife Dottie – and Dottie is a sort of friend of Fleur’s, no one seems to find this strange.

“I don’t know why I thought of Dottie as my friend but I did. I believe she thought the same way about me although she really didn’t like me. In those days, among the people I mixed with, one had friends almost by predestination. There they were, like your winter coat and your meagre luggage. You didn’t think of discarding them just because you didn’t altogether like them.”

Fleur is also writing her first novel, called Warrender Chase which appears to be oddly foreshadowing events in the real world.

Fleur gets a job at the Autobiographical Association; founded by Sir Quentin Oliver. A group of eccentric individuals meet to write their autobiographies, and thereafter to bury them for seventy years – until such time that anyone named in them is dead. Fleur appointed to a secretarial position is employed to type these memoirs and look after the stationary cupboard. Sir Quentin’s clients she is told form a very special circle and her work is to be top secret. The place is Sir Quentin’s flat in Hallam Street, presided over by housekeeper Beryl Tims, and where Sir Quentin’s elderly mother Lady Edwina also resides, a woman given to sudden incontinence and strong opinions. The rest of the association is made up of a small group of peculiar aristocrats and an unfrocked priest. Fleur can’t help but introduce a little bit of fiction into the dull first chapter of Sir Eric Findlay’s autobiography – no one it seems has in fact written very much. One of the novel’s themes is the difference between fact and fiction – and how a writer writes them.

“While I recount 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 the 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.”

Life and work at Hallam Street are rather outside of the ordinary. It isn’t long before Fleur starts to suspect that there is something a little shady about Sir Quentin. He is obviously wealthy – whereas the other members of his group are much more impoverished. Fleur thinks that perhaps Sir Oliver is blackmailing his clients, he has hinted after all that their memoirs contain all kinds of revelations. Despite Beryl’s insistence that Edwina is senile and past it – Fleur recognises that she is anything but, her mind razor sharp, Edwina and Fleur become unlikely friends.

It is Fleur’s own novel that fills her head – and after working all day at Sir Quentin’s flat she returns home to her bedsit to work on her novel Warrender Chase.

“My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better. All day long when I was busy with the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did. I took no notes except in my mind.”

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We come to learn something of this novel – with its characters of Charlotte and Prudence who bare a passing resemblance to Mrs Tims and Lady Edwina. Fleur’s struggle to finish her novel and get it published is the story at the heart of this novel, one that includes the disappearance and reappearance of the manuscript. Fleur is surprised by how events in the real world keep showing up in her work. She is sure that this isn’t deliberate on her part – words and phrases from her book show up from time to time in her life.

Fleur is a fabulous narrator, engaging and funny – all of life’s absurdities seem to gather around her. She is perhaps one of my favourite Spark characters to date, and I wondered how much of Muriel Spark herself is in this portrait of a young writer and secretary.

It is the ending of this novel that I particularly love – without giving too much away – there is something completely joyful about it – and in that final line I felt it was Muriel speaking to us of her own life too.

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(Posting this a day or two early as I had to make way for my Elizabeth von Arnim day post tomorrow.)

Phase 4 of #readingMuriel2018 is drawing to a close, and this phase has been about the short stories, poetry and essays of Muriel Spark. Not surprisingly, I think there has been a little bit of a dropping off now we have reached this point of the year. I know not everyone likes poetry, short stories and essays, and have concentrated on reading some more of the novels from previous phases of #Reading Muriel2018. So, I don’t have any other blogs to link to, because I think all the readers who have joined in this time have been non-bloggers from Facebook/Twitter/Librarything – and I do have some of their thoughts to share with you. Though if I have missed your review/blog post – please let me know.

I had originally planned to read just a few of Spark’s short stories and a few essays. However, that big book of complete stories was just so readable that I really couldn’t help but keep reading it – and over the course of the two months read the whole thing. With everything else I have had to read over the summer, I haven’t managed to get around to any essays or poetry.

The stories were great however, as with any large collection there were some I liked better than others, a few are pretty bizarre – many are just wonderful. My favourites were The Go Away Bird, Snobs, The Girl I left Behind Me and Come Along Marjorie. I ended up writing two reviews for this collection.

IMG_20180722_170142Mary also read The Complete Stories, tweeting that they were “original, crackling sharp wit. Preferred the older stories. Some-very odd.” Jennifer had the Complete stories to keep her company too. Sian read The Go Away Bird and other stories – a lovely old orange penguin edition. For Sian, The Go Away Bird was the stand out story too, calling it beautiful and shocking. I know Chrys is planning to start the stories soon, she has a lot to look forward to I think.

Chrys did read the collected poems, and I was looking forward to her thoughts on them as I have never read any of Spark’s poetry. Chrys decided she liked the older poetry best. These were two of her favourite lines.

“The cat subsiding down a basement
Leaves a catlessness behind it.”
(from Elementary 1951)

Michael from the Virago group – who is reading all of Muriel Sparks books this year – read The Golden Fleece essays – which is the book I have. He gave them 3.5 stars saying some pieces are outstanding while others are humdrum. He also advised that it would probably be best to not read them before having read Muriel Spark’s autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Useful to know, I have Curriculum Vitae lined up for phase 6 (Nov/Dec).

So, Phase 5 starts any day now – and I have a mighty three Spark novels lined up. This time we are back to novels – the novels of the 1980s and 90s.

Loitering with Intent (1981) – shortlisted for Booker Prize
The Only Problem (l984)
Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
Symposium (1990)
Reality and dreams (1996)

If you’re looking for a recommendation – I read A Far Cry from Kensington last year – and it will almost certainly remain one of my favourite Spark novels.

I have got Loitering with Intent, The only Problem and Symposium in the lovely Polygon editions. Somehow, without planning it all these three all fit into unticked off years in my centenary of books. For those following my ACOB progress I am acutely aware that I have used quite a number of Spark novels in my ACOB – but it was inevitable in a year when I am reading a lot by Muriel Spark.

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So, then – are you planning in reading along with me? If so what will you be reading?

cofA shout out to Chrys – who has been reading along with us all year – who today sent me a lovely little volume, The Muriel Spark society lecture by Ali Smith in a sweet little volume. I intend to read it on the bus on the way to the theatre tonight, thank you Chrys very much.

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The complete stories murel spark

When I am not reading books for #WITmonth or Virago books for All Virago All August I have carried on reading short stories from The Complete Short stories – and though I am still not finished I hope to be by the end of the month. It is difficult to review a six-hundred-page collection in one, it only ever possible to highlight a few pieces that stand out.

Last month I reviewed the first five stories in the collection – linked as they were with an African setting – they seemed to stand apart. Having read more of Spark’s stories now, those stories still do stand apart. I am still thoroughly enjoying Spark’s shorter fiction though some of the stories fade quite quickly from my mind afterwards.

In these stories we have Spark’s familiar wit, and with her wonderful eye for the absurd, she lifts the veil on the seemingly respectable, exposing what lies beneath.

The Snobs is a story set in Dijon where an ordinary English couple have unexpectedly inherited a château. When former bus driver’s wife Anne meets the Ringer-Smiths outside a gift shop, they are looking lost, struggling with their map – and she invites them to the château for tea. In the Ringer-Smiths, Anne soon detects that dreaded species, the château grabber.

“I could see, already in Anne’s mind, the thought: “I have to get rid of these people or they’ll stay for dinner and then all night. They are château-grabbers.” Anne had often lamented to me about the château-grabbers of her later life. People who didn’t want to know her when she was obscure and a bus driver’s wife now wanted to know her intimately.
(The Snobs)

In her depiction of the dreadful Ringer-Smiths and the poor harried inhabitants of the château trying to get rid of them, Spark is at her humorous best.

In The Dragon – we find ourselves in Italy. A seamstress is hosting a little party – and she is very much afraid The Dragon may spoil it.

“We were in a shady part of the garden. It was six o’clock on a hot evening in the north of Italy. It was my garden, my party. The Dragon came oozing through the foliage. She was holding her drink, a Pimm’s No. 1, and was followed by a tall, strikingly handsome truck-driver whom she had brought along to the party on the spur of the moment. To her dismay, discernible only to myself, he was a genial, easy-mannered young man, rather amused to be taking half-an-hour off the job with his truck parked outside the gate. I knew very well that when she had picked him up at the bar across the street she had hoped he would be an embarrassment, a nuisance.”
(The Dragon)

The Dragon – we discover is an employee – who has not quite turned out to be the paragon of trouble saving efficiency she was employed to be. Here we meet one of those terrible, managing people who take over – making the lives around them quite unendurable.

Themes we see in several of Spark’s novels are present in these stories too. Death, and things unexplained rear their head in stories like the marvellously chilling The Girl I Left Behind Me – which I can’t say too much about – but it has a splendidly Sparkian ending. In Harper and Wilton, two characters from an unfinished story written by the narrator – appear – they are Edwardian suffragettes – they demand that the writer give them substance – or else they will haunt her. Writers appear several times in these stories, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Comforters. In The Pearly Shadow – a doctor is consulted by a shadowy character, who has been tormenting another of the doctor’s patients, it is, quite frankly, bizarre.

Many of Spark’s story openings are great – I glance at the first page, having been about to put the book down, and think oh no I’ll just read this one too. In Daisy Overend – Spark combines this ability to grab her readers instantly -with her ability to portray a character in quite a unique way.

“It is hardly ever that I think of her, but sometimes, if I happen to pass Clarges Street or Albemarle Street on a sunny afternoon, she comes to mind. Or if, in a little crowd waiting to cross the road, I hear behind me two women meet, and the one exclaim: “Darling!” (or “Bobbie!” or “Goo!”) and the other answer: “Goo!” (or “Billie!” or “Bobbie!” or “Darling!”) – if I hear these words, spoken in a certain trill which betokens the period 1920–29, I know that I have by chance entered the world of Daisy Overend, Bruton Street, WI.”
(Daisy Overend)

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Another of my favourite stories; Come Along, Marjorie – introduces us to another memorable character; the silent, Marjorie Pettigrew. –Along with the narrator she is one of the ‘pilgrims’ at a Catholic retreat, where most of the inhabitants were ‘nervous cases’. The narrator is the wonderfully cynical Gloria. Blending Spark’s ever-present wit and eye for the peculiar, with those serious themes she seems always to return to – religion and mental health, she explores how people react to those they deem odd or different.

“‘Neurotics never go mad,’ my friends had always told me. Now I realized the distinction between neurosis and madness, and in my agitation I half-envied the woman beyond my bedroom wall, the sheer cool sanity of her behaviour within the limits of her impracticable mania. Only the very mad, I thought, can come out with the information ‘The Lord is Risen’, in the same factual way as one might say, ‘You are wanted on the telephone,’ regardless of the time and place.”
(Come Along, Marjorie)

So, I hope I have managed to give a little flavour of this collection – which I still have to finish! If you have yet to read Muriel Spark’s stories, then I heartily recommend them. Please forgive the number of quotes, I could have easily included far more than I have.

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In one way, I probably made a mistake with my purchase for phase 4 of #ReadingMuriel2018, I bought the entire Collected Stories. It runs to almost 600 pages, and with the amount I have scheduled to read during August I doubt I will get the whole volume read. I do really wish I had the time, because judging from the first few stories that I have read, Muriel Spark was a wonderful short story writer. What I should have gone in search of, was an old copy of The Go-Away Bird and other stories (1958) sadly, no longer in print in a separate volume. Never mind, I am overjoyed to discover Muriel Spark was such a good short story writer, if the rest of this large volume continues in the same vein as the first few, I might go as far as to say I prefer her short fiction to her novels.

It is unclear how (if at all) this volume is organised – nothing in the contents suggests the stories are arranged chronologically or thematically. However, the first five stories in the collection – and the ones I’m writing about here, all have an African setting, and were (an internet search revealed) written in the 1950s or 60s. The sixth story in the collection, was clearly set (and so I assume written) in the 1990s.

These first five stories – three of which are from The Go Away Bird and other stories – reflect the years Muriel Spark spent living with her husband and young son in what was then called Southern Rhodesia. These five stories take place in a region, generally referred to as the Colony. A place where Afrikaans is spoken alongside English, a racially divided society, where men out-number women and where violence is common.

The Go-Away Bird – a story a little over 60 pages long (I do like a long short story) – is a splendid opening to this collection.

“All over the Colony it was possible to hear the subtle voice of the grey-crested lourie, commonly known as the go-away bird by its call, ‘go’way, go’way’. It was possible to hear the bird, but very few did for it was part of the background to everything, a choir of birds and beasts, the crackle of vegetation in the great prevalent sunlight, and the soft rhythmic pad of natives, as they went barefoot and in single-file, from kraal to kraal.”
(The Go-Away Bird)

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Daphne du Toit grows up on her uncle’s farm – she goes away to school, but the holidays are spent socialising with the neighbours from farms many miles away. Her uncle is called Chakata by the natives he loves, it is a name that has stuck, and he hasn’t been called James for decades. As a child Daphne doesn’t have many play mates but she loves to listen out for the go-away bird – and as she grows up she befriends the often-drunk Donald Cloete. It is Donald who gives Daphne the first clue as to the mystery surrounding Old Tuys, who has worked for Chakata for years, but the relationship between the two is boarding on murderous and Chakata asks Daphne to begin taking a gun out with her once she has reached a certain age. So why, Daphne wonders, does her uncle keep Old Tuys around?

Daphne has intended going to England, and though the war in Europe interrupts her plans she finally does in 1946, staying with her mother’s family, and launching herself on society. But the echo of the go-away bird remains – and she meets a young man who himself will be going out to the Colony soon. In time Daphne returns with stories of London bomb damage, to find her uncle laid up with rheumatism, Old Tuys having completely lost his faculties.

The shock ending of this story is typically Sparkian – and dark though it is – I loved it.

In The Curtain Blown by the Breeze we meet Mrs Van der Merwea, one of the poor whites, who occupies a remote territory. Her husband is in prison, and while he is away Mrs Van der Merwe begins to slowly change her character. The change is facilitated by a group of English nurses, looking to be entertained. Naturally, they get more than they bargained for, though at least life is no longer predictable.

“At that time many of the men looked like Rupert Brooke, whose portrait still hung in everyone’s imagination. It was that clear-cut ‘typically English’ face which is seldom seen on the actual soil of England but proliferates in the African Colonies.”
(Bang-Bang You’re Dead)

The narrator of Bang-Bang You’re Dead is Sybil, a writer, who shows film reels of her life in Africa to acquaintances in Britain. Sybil watches the film nonchalantly, explaining idly how she never kept in touch with the other people in the films. She answers their questions unemotionally, recalling privately the time when the films were taken. Gradually, Spark reveals the truth behind Sybil’s film reels in true Sparkian tradition. It is a brilliant story, subtle and clever, revealing so much of an ex-pat community in less than forty pages.

The Seraph and the Zambesiis the oddest of these five stories. The narrator finds themselves obliged to stay with poet and journalist Samuel Cramer, as there’s no room at the hotel, being just before Christmas. Cramer owned a petrol pump and garage, four miles south of the Zambesi river. He is planning a Nativity Masque at his garage. On Christmas Eve, during the performance, the Seraph appears.

“This was a living body. The most noticeable thing was its constancy; it seemed not to conform to the law of perspective, but remained the same size when I approached as when I withdrew. And altogether unlike other forms of life, it had a completed look.”
(The Seraph and the Zambesi)

The Pawnbroker’s Wife takes place in a very odd little boarding house on the coast of the Cape of Good Hope above a Pawnbroker’s shop. The eponymous wife – is a teller of tall tales, and her boarders are invited from time to time to sit with her and her three daughters and hear her tales. She won’t allow any contradiction.

the-complete-short-stories-paperback-cover-9781786890016These stories were a real joy, in some respects they feel different to Spark’s novels, and yet they nevertheless contain Spark’s tell-tale wit, superb story-telling and wonderful twists. I shall continue to dip in and out of this collection, and hopefully will drop in at least one more review – time etc permitting. With such a large collection, there is bound to be some variance in quality – but what I have read so far gives me very high hopes for the rest.

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not to disturb

On the very last day of Phase three of #ReadingMuriel2018 I decided to read Not to Disturb on my kindle – I hadn’t realised just how short it is. However, I was too tired to read it all that night, so saved some for the next morning. I’m planning to read a few short stories at the very least for phase four although it won’t be till later this month I don’t think.

“To put it squarely, as I say in my memoir, the eternal triangle has come full circle.”

 

Muriel Spark is well known for weaving bizarre situations through her fiction, odd characters nursing dark thoughts, overly concerned with death and religion. Not to Disturb has all that, in spades. A novella sized 96 pages, Not to Disturb is dreamlike and illusory, like those passageways one blunders through in dreams, where everything is so familiar yet doesn’t make complete sense. It is compelling though, peopled with some extraordinary characters including a sinister butler and a ‘lunatic’ in the attic.

“At that moment a long wail comes from the top of the house, winding its way down the well of the stairs, followed then by another, winding through all the banisters and seeping into the servants’ hall.”

In a large house near Geneva, Baron and Baroness Klopstock have locked themselves into their library with their young secretary Victor Passerat. An argument ensues between the couple and their handsome young secretary. Their instructions are that they are not to be disturbed. Downstairs, the servants – wait for what they see as the inevitable demise of those three in the library. The servants are directed by Lister, the butler. In the lodge, the porter tells his nervous wife that nothing will happen at all.

“ ‘…You all get your own supper tonight.’
‘What about them?’
‘They won’t be needing supper.’
Lister stands in the doorway, now, watching his young aunt routing among the vegetables for a few carrots which she presses between her fingers disapprovingly.
‘Supper, never again,’ says Lister. ‘For them, supper no more.’”

In the servants’ hall, all is tightly controlled calm, as the staff prepare for a lucrative payoff following the tragedy, by selling their story to the highest bidder. They are, unsurprisingly an odd group; Eleanor is Lister’s aunt, despite being younger than him, Pablo is the handyman, Heloise, is the youngest maid, pregnant, though she doesn’t know who the father is. Monsieur Clovis; the chef, has an assistant called Handrian, but they all take their lead from Lister.

Upstairs, the baron’s brother – and heir – howls with rage, throwing plates at the woman employed to care for him. Outside the house, a car is parked with two people sat inside, they are waiting for their friend, the baron’s secretary. From time to time they come to the door asking for him, but always receive the same reply, that the baron and his secretary are not to be disturbed.

“‘How like,’ says Lister, ‘the death wish is to the life-urge! How urgently does an overwhelming obsession with life lead to suicide! Really, it’s best to be half-awake and half-aware. That is the happiest stage.’”

The servants endure a long night, as a storm starts to rage above their heads. It is a night of a series of extraordinary and rather bizarre events. A visit from both a prince and a Reverend on a motorbike. A wedding is conducted; Heloise is married to the ‘lunatic’ in the attic in a scene that is quite disturbing, and perhaps could only have been written by Spark.

The morning brings exactly what the household staff had expected, and finally it is time for them to step out into the light.

Muriel Spark’s 1971 novel is clearly a satire on other kinds of novels, the Golden Age mystery particularly and those novels of the past which concerned themselves with the servant problem. This is a clever, and darkly humorous novella, shot through with Muriel Spark’s unique creativity.

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The end of June had rather crept up on me, and I will have two round-up posts back to back again – which might be a bit dull – for some – apologies. Today is my #ReadingMuriel2018 phase 3 round up in which I try to capture a flavour of the what’s gone on over the last two months. Tomorrow or Monday will be my round up of June reading. Then back to reviews.

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I try not to miss anyone, but not everyone uses the hashtag quite as liberally as I do, so some things do slip past me.

Phase 3 has been all about the 1970s novels of Muriel Spark, there were six novels to choose from. The Driver’s Seat I read last year, and from the five that were left I chose The Hothouse by the East River and The Takeover. I enjoyed both for different reasons, in both novels Spark shows her versatility, bringing her unique storytelling up to date (for the 70s) writing about death, religion, corruption and money.

Of The Driver’s Seat (1970) Mary said “odd, fun, wonderful language. Love her occasional unusual ordering of adjectives.” It certainly struck a powerful note with me when I read it last year, it has an unforgettable quality. Michael from Librarything – who is reading all the novels of Muriel Spark this year I believe gave The Driver’s Seat 5 stars, saying its absurdism reminded him of Shirley Jackson.

Jennifer read Not To Disturb (1971) calling it “a glorious fever dream of a novel which I suspect like ‘The Driver’s Seat’ will only get better on rereading.” This is certainly one I really want to read, and I may sneak it in to this weekend, I have it on my kindle but have run out of time this phase. Monica from Monica’s Bookish Thoughts reviewed this slight novel saying it packed a mighty punch. Michael also enjoyed this “spoofing of servants, the upper classes and mystery novels” giving it a very good 4-star rating. Edited to add: Isabel also read Not to Disturb calling it quite odd, and with six hours of phase 3 left I have just begun reading it myself.

I haven’t seen many people reading The Hothouse by the East River (1973) Like me, Michael from LT thought this a weird novel – I must say I did really like it and it has stayed with me, although I don’t know if I am any clearer on Spark’s intentions in writing it. Edited to add, Grier read and enjoyed this one too.

Annabel from Annabookbel; read and reviewed The Abbess of Crewe (1974) calling it possibly the most fascinating Spark novel that she has read. Caroline from Book Word also reviewed this novel, saying that “Watergate was not so colourful. But Muriel Spark brings out the farcical, as well as the shocking corruption that comes with reckless pursuit of power.” Another reader, Christine gave The Abbess of Crewe 5 stars on Good reads. Blogger The Dowager Bride has also been reading The Abbess of Crewe – which does seem to have been a popular choice as my bookcrossing friend Sam also chose to read it calling the novel a pithy read packed with political intrigue.

So far mine is the only review of The Takeover (1976) that I have seen – if anyone else has read it let me know. I know LT Michael has read it previously.

Again, I haven’t spotted anyone reading Territorial Rights (1979), so if anyone can give me any thoughts on that late 70s novel I would be grateful.

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So on to Phase 4 – which is simply any of the poetry, short stories and essays written by Muriel Spark. I already know I won’t read as much for this phase I am afraid. My summer reading is likely to be a mix of ACOB #WITmonth and All Virago All August – juggling, juggling! I do have the collected short stories which look marvellous, I am a big fan of short stories, but I shall probably only read and write about some. I also have The Golden Fleece book of essays, bought on ebay, when it arrived I was slightly dismayed by the small print – I know I won’t get all these read either. The book is divided up into sections; art and literature, religion, philosophy, autobiography and travel etc some of these appeal to me rather less than others. I certainly hope to read a few essays from the autobiographical section.

Thank you as always to those who have joined in and shared their thoughts with me – a year long reading challenge is gruelling! Let me know if I have missed you – keeping track gets harder I find.

I hope some of you join me for Phase 4 – please let me know what you’ll be reading – I certainly don’t expect anyone to get through entire collections unless of course you want to – as they are all quite large. Happy reading.

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sdr

Like The Hothouse on the East River – the last Muriel Spark novel I read – in The Takeover we find ourselves far from our more familiar London setting of many earlier Spark novels. The Driver’s Seat, another 1970s Spark novel that I read last year – was also set abroad, I wonder if this was a deliberate departure for Muriel Spark at this time, perhaps she had tired a little of writing about London and wanted to do something different. Wherever she was writing about, her sense of place is so good – her ability to create an atmosphere no doubt due to her knowledge of the places she was writing about, and she knew Italy well having lived in Rome and Tuscany. For in The Takeover we are in Italy, the shores of Lake Nemi, the resting place of the spirit of the Goddess Diana.As you can see above, I was a long way from Italy while I was reading The Takeover, but I was able to spend a bit of time in the sun.

The Takeover is a novel of some subtlety, and one that is hard to pin down – what exactly was Spark saying with this novel? It is a novel about money – among other things – it is rich in absurdity and cynicism, and the characters are all pretty horrible – and yet it is still an enjoyable read.

“How do you know when you’re in love?’ she said.
‘The traffic improves and the cost of living seems to be very low.”

Overlooking Lake Nemi, are three villas, owned by wealthy American Maggie Radcliffe, who has recently married for a third time. One Villa is occupied by Maggie’s son Michael and his young wife Mary. The second villa is rented by a rich Italian, Bernardini, his girlfriend Nancy Cowan, his son’s tutor. His son Pietro, his daughter Letizia, also live here, and the family have spent a lot of their own money on improvements to the villa. The third villa, the one with the best view, is inhabited by Englishman Hubert Mallindaine, and his secretary Pauline Thin. Maggie has loaned Hubert the Villa, he hasn’t paid a penny to her in rent – and is now refusing to leave. It is Hubert and this third villa that is the centre of all the trouble. Hubert is a sneaky, crook, self-serving and completely without conscience.

“Hubert had been uneasy about his position, really, for many years more than he now admitted when he thought or spoke of Maggie. ‘Like any other spoilt moneybags she used me when she needed me and then suddenly told me to go, to clear out of her house and her life. All my projects were based on her promises. We had an understanding…’ So he dramatised it in a nutshell, first to himself, then later, to Pauline Thin.”

However, it seems that Maggie is surrounded by people who want to swindle her or steal from her.

Maggie and her husband – leave Nemi, travelling to various glamorous sounding locations – Maggie leaves Hubert in no doubt though that she expects him to leave her property – even giving him a date by which she expects him to vacate. Hubert has other ideas.

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Having grown up with some rather odd ideas from a couple of aunts, Hubert seems to be perfectly convinced that he is directly descended from the Goddess Diana. I got the feeling that this belief – like so much about Hubert is entirely bogus – and merely serves to get him what he wants. He establishes a religious cult, surrounding himself with people looking for free love. Hubert claims he has a divine right to the house because of its location. As well as Pauline, Hubert is visited by several gay, former secretaries – and two Jesuit priests who seems always to go everywhere as a pair.

We see Maggie, living in various other locations, with her husband who appears to be a fairly weak character, he tells Maggie to get rid of Hubert but does nothing himself to help her achieve this. Hubert is quite clearly hanging on in there, the absurdly complicated Italian property laws seems to be on his side. Unknown to Maggie, Hubert is busy having her Louis XVI chairs and Gaugin painting copied – pocketing the money he makes from the sales. Meanwhile Lauro, is a servant of Maggie’s – he previously worked for Hubert – but he too is after what he can get. Both Maggie and her daughter-in-law Mary are drawn into sexual intrigue with Lauro – and everything begins to get very complicated. Maggie suffers the loss of her jewels, and in time the battle to get her villa back begins to cost her a huge amount of money. Money, she must find a way of getting back. All this is set to a back drop of the changing economic climate of the 1970s, – the action taking place between 1973 and 1975.

This is a strange, sophisticated novel with a very 70s feel to it. There are so many layers to it, with themes of fakery, wealth, religion and corruption. It is as ever very readable.

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