Wandering into a local charity shop the other day, I couldn't help but notice a first edition of Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent, in its original, rather loud dust-wrapper. It was keenly priced (£4.99) and I hadn't read it - though I'd read and enjoyed (and even reviewed, for the late lamented Listener) its literary near relation from the Eighties, A Far Cry from Kensington. So I bought Loitering with Intent, and I've read it, and I enjoyed every moment - indeed, this might even be my favourite Muriel Spark.
Like A Far Cry from Kensington, it's a return visit to Spark's life as a struggling young would-be poet and novelist in Kensington - then a less than respectable part of London - 'in the middle of the twentieth century,' as she puts it. The story is briskly told, with never a wasted word - or emotion; the narrator has all the cool, sharp-witted detachment we expect of a Spark heroine. What unfolds is an intriguing, beautifully engineered tale, in which the narrator, Fleur Talbot, takes a job with one Sir Quentin Oliver, an almighty snob who is also, Fleur gradually realises, probably mad and almost certainly bad. He runs an outfit called the Autobiographical Association, whose members - a bunch of dim and variously needy minor eminences - he encourages to write their memoirs with 'absolute frankness'. Fleur's job, such as it is, is to knock these pathetic writings into some kind of shape.
Fleur has been writing her first novel, Warrender Chase, and she is increasingly disturbed to find that events from her novel are playing themselves out in the eccentric world of the Autobiographical Association. And Warrender Chase is not the only book feeding into the action of Loitering with Intent: Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Cellini's Autobiography are permanent presences, and also in the picture are Fleur's new novel, All Souls' Day, and the one she plans to follow it with, The English Rose (a key phrase in Loitering with Intent). But this is most definitely not a dreary exercise in meta-fiction - in fact it's a notably jolly piece of work, with elements of farce and a whiff of Ealing comedy about it (quite fitting for the period). There's a sinister edge to it (as in many Ealing comedies), but it's most definitely a comedy, and a notably inventive, ingenious and entertaining one that kept me eagerly turning the pages - and there are only 220 of them (those were the days!). Better shaped and more ambitious than A Far Cry from Kensington, it's classic Spark. If you have a taste for her (and I know many don't) and haven't read this one - do seek it out.