Better late than never - here's my contribution to Muriel Spark reading week. It still surprises me to find how much she wrote; at least 22 novels (looking at Simon's list there are still a few I hadn't heard of before) and then there are all the short stories and not so short stories. 'Territorial Rights' was a second hand find - I don't think it's destined to be a reprint any time soon, it isn't really Spark at her very best despite anything the cover blurb says to the contrary, and this is the first thing that interests me about it.
As someone who reads a lot of 'Classics' previously neglected or otherwise I'm always curious about the process that goes into rescuing a book from obscurity, I've loved all the Spark titles that Virago have reissued, and was of course bowled over by 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' (inevitably the first Spark I read) and so would be inclined to automatically buy anything I saw with her name on it because until now I've been inclined to think she couldn't put a foot wrong. In the general way of things we only get access to the best of an older authors work which in turn serves to bolster there reputation. In Sparks case the reputation is deserved, 'Territorial Rights' isn't by any means a bad book it's just not as good as some of the others.
Everything is a bit of a mystery - Robert has arrived in Venice ostensibly as a student and most likely in pursuit of a somewhat older Bulgarian defector Lena, she's in Venice to find her father's grave. Hot on his heels follows Curran an American millionaire art collector with whom Robert has been living with for the past two years. As chance would have it Robert's father (Arnold) and mistress check into the same hotel he's staying in, a situation Robert finds intolerable seemingly because he just doesn't like his father very much. Meanwhile back in Birmingham Robert's mother, Anthea, has had enough and has called in the private detectives. Their woman on the ground in Venice is Violet, an old friend of Curran's, the detectives make their money through blackmail. Add to this mix Grace (a friend of Anthea's and ex lover of Arnold's) and Leo (a vaguely Jewish young man) who follow Arnold to Venice on Anthea's behalf, and then there are Katerina and Eufemia the two sisters running the hotel.
Lena's search for her fathers grave is the catalyst that reveals the links between these people but Lena herself is not a sympathetic character. This is the second thing that hooked me into the book - Spark takes the characters I felt I should have empathised with and makes them appalling, instead she gifts her should be villains with the sympathetic traits. The anti -Semitic Lena who throws herself into a filthy canal to cleanse herself after sleeping with Leo is the prime example of this. She's made ridiculous, often cruelly so, but one cannot help but feel she deserves her punishments (mostly) and I'm curious about what Spark meant us to make of her and why specifically she makes her anti - semitic, it's such a loaded and specific way of making someone dislikeable.
Beyond that it was a quick and generally enjoyable read, a book I'm pleased to have finished, but probably one that's going to make it's way back to a charity shop. It lacks something that the other Spark's I've read have most definitely had; I'm almost certain it's a specific narrative voice - all the Spark's I've loved have been told from the point of view, and in the voice of, individuals. The characters in question might be morally ambiguous but they've generally been excellent company, I missed that insight here.