It was a review by Hayley, on Desperate Reader, that made me want to read this book. I can't tell you how pleased I am that I did. My experience of reading of late has been a little dry, for some reason -- not that the books were bad in themselves, but somehow nothing seemed to set me alight. This book, though, was an absolute joy from start to finish. Managing effortlessly to combine being witty and serious, entertaining and thought-provoking, extremely readable and highly intelligent, it was certainly one of the best novels I have read for a long time.
Set in the middle of 1950, this is the story of Fleur Taylor, a young woman writer. Rather broke and living in a bed-sit, Fleur is in the middle of writing her first novel, Warrender Chase, when she is offered a job working for the snobbish, high-handed Sir Quentin Oliver. She is required to help him with the paperwork for an elite club he runs called the Autobiographical Association, whose bizarre and eccentric members are all at work on their own memoirs, though no-one has gone beyond the first chapter. Handed these and asked to tidy them up, Fleur can't resist rewriting them to make them more interesting and exciting. But soon the plot thickens, as Sir Quentin manages to steal the manuscript of Warrender Chase and incorporates passages from it into the autobiographies. And if that was not enough, people start to behave in ways that exactly mirror the behaviour of Fleur's characters without any prior of knowledge of her writing -- life imitating art without realising it is doing so. Will Fleur get the novel back? Will it get published?
At less than 200 pages this is a novel simply packed with good things. It's full of fascinating comments on the process of writing and what it's like to be a writer -- so much so that it's tempting to see it as partly autobiographical. It touches on Catholicism, on art, on memoir-writing, on homosexuality. The characters are wonderful -- Sir Quentin's ancient, incontinent but highly observant mother, who befriends Fleur when most of the world seems to be against her -- Dottie, her so-called friend and the wife of her ex-lover Leslie (who has left them both and gone off with a young male poet named Gray Mauser) -- Mrs Tims, Sir Quentin's housekeeper and would-be mistress -- not to mention the extraordinary members of the Autobiographical Association. And the Virago edition has a very interesting introduction by Mark Lawson (he of Front Row, for you BBC Radio 4 listeners).
I can't recommend this highly enough, and I will be going out in search of more Muriel Spark at the first opportunity.