...what tune the enchantress plays'. This is my ninth Muriel Spark novel since I opened the score 50 years ago with The Ballad of Peckham Rye. She was an enchantress then, and she is an enchantress still. Territorial Rights is one of her best. It is set in Venice, something that just on its own will get many a reader on the author's side right away, particularly a reader who knows Venice at first hand. You will probably expect to find quite a variety of actors in a plot set there, but I defy any reader not to be dazzled by Muriel Spark's harlequinade of semi-puppets, not really oddballs for the most part, just taken from a wide selection of different backgrounds. Probably most of us do not encounter, say, gangsters or anti-Semitic Eastern European refugees (the book's date is 1979) in our everyday lives, but we know perfectly well that we are probably not far from them wherever we live.
And of course this is not documentary but fiction - fiction by the great Muriel Spark. One very amusing feature of this story is the way Spark lets us know that she knows how good she is. One of the characters is reading a novel, of a kind she often reads, and several quotations are provided from it. I don't know whether it is a real book or an invention of Muriel Spark's, but these snippets have the idiom off to a t, one way or the other. It's the sort of stuff that has put me off novels all my life - the totally uninteresting relationships of people I don't want to know about. I even feared in the early stages of Territorial Rights that Mrs Spark might be going down that gloomy path herself. I should have known better, and the plot gets more interesting chapter after chapter.
The style is beautiful, as always. It's light and graceful, avoiding the curse of the otiose adjectives that sink so many novels. Nothing in this book is exactly fey or irrational, like Georgina Hogg in The Comforters, who has no private life and disappears when she closes her room door behind her; or like the shadow falling in the wrong direction in The Hothouse by the East River. That would have been over the top in this context. So would death in Venice have been. Life in Venice can be fantastic enough.