Muriel Spark: Territorial Rights (1979)

I have been looking forward to Muriel Spark Week hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book  and Harriet from Harriet Devine’s Blog. I liked both of the Muriel Spark novels I’ve read so far,  The Girls of Slender Means and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It was about time to read another one. Territorial Rights had been on my piles for a while and that’s why I decided to read it.

Sadly this book did not work for me and if it hadn’t been for Muriel Spark Week  – and if I was not a notorious book-finisher – this would have been a DNF for me. But first things first.

Territorial Right is set in Venice and as a Venice novel it is remarkably well done. I was there, I saw the streets, the canals, the piazzas, the palazzi, the churches, the street cafés and the back gardens. I enjoyed the descriptions a lot.

Now take this setting and throw in a motley crew of people, all magically coming to Venice at the same time. They know each other either from Paris, England or Bulgaria. They do not only know each other but they are all connected and even fleeing from each other only to bump into each other in Venice. Hmmmm. Add a dark secret that is hidden by two elderly women owning one of the local pensions, murmur of political machinations, drug dealers, an unfaithful husband, an elderly  woman wo likes young men, a Bulgarian artist in exile who jumps in the canal because she finds out she has been in bed with a Jew, a rich art dealer who is in love with a young man who disappears while his father abandons his lover for his sons ex-lover…

All is resolved in the end. Nothing was as it seemd at first. We find out what was hidden in the garden and get to know the past and the future of each character. Does it sound quirky? It sure was.

I think there is a lot going on in this novel that mirrors unresolved conflicts in Spark’s life and I’m sure from what little I have read after finishing the book that it would be interesting to analyze it in the light of this. Little incidents like the girl jumping into the canal to clean herself after having had sex with a Jew are meaningful when you know Muriel Spark had a falling out with her son because he was an Orthodox Jew and she a devout Catholic (as read on Wikipedia).

Since this is a very well written book, I can see how it could appeal to someone else. It’s a must for those who love novels set in Venice.

I hope others have been more successful in their book choices. Despite not having liked this, I will certainly read another of her novels soon.

Has anyone read Territorial Rights? Did you like it?

46 thoughts on “Muriel Spark: Territorial Rights (1979)

  1. This is one I haven’t read (but will) so I can’t add much to this I’m afraid. I read Spark’s memoir and she didn’t say a great deal about her son (who was more or less raised by the grandparents in Scotland when she went to London). The split with her son is messy, but he seems to be very gracious about it. There’s also some controversy about her will as all of her considerable money was left to a female companion. According to Italian law (where Spark lived when she died), you cannot completely cut off your children from the will and her son had every legal right to fight the will and regain some of the estate. He chose not to the last I’d heard.

    I am currently rereading A Far Cry from Kensington. One of my-all time favourite Spark novels.

    • The little incident in the book is like a snarky comment. She clearly ddin’t like her sons choice – but as mentioned – my source was wikipedia – hardly very exhaustive.
      I felt that to fully appreciate this novel I would have needed to know more about her. We (the book and I) didn’t bond naturally, withouth background information that is.
      I would be interested to know what you think of this. It’s clearly not the writer but the book as the others I have read were so good. I still want to read more.
      I’ll wait for your review of A Far Cry From Kensignton.

      • The incident you mentioned is an odd one but probably harks back to her religious preferences. The memoir was an interesting read–highly filtered of course.

        She had an early disasterous marriage and then returned to Scotland with her son. He stayed there while she went to London, and the nomal bonding seemed absent in the memoir–although of course that may be just the retrospective view.

        • There seems to have been a Jewish great-grandmother and he followed in her footsteps or something. WE won’t really now what it was all about, maybe a lot to provoke his mother too or vice versa. Memoirs are not always reliable.

  2. Sorry this one didn’t work for you (although I couldn’t quite tell why – was it because there was too much going on, and too many coincidences?) I can’t say I’m drawn to this one either, right now – or at least there are a lot of Sparks I’d rather read – but I’m really grateful to you for reading one of her more obscure novels this week. I’m still hoping we’ll cover all 22 between us!

    • Yes, the coincidences didn’t work for me, they kept on adding up and the end felt very wrong. I had a feeling she didn’t really know where she wanted to go with this book and if it is – as you say rather one of her obscure novels – then there may be a reason for that.

  3. I was contemplating reading this one–but now I’m glad that I chose The Girls of Slender Means (which I am posting on later today). I think I would like to read it at some point, though–maybe when I’ve read more of her better known works. I’ve decided that quirky is indeed a good descriptor for Muriel Spark–her stories are always a little unusual–but that’s sort of why I think I like them so much. Too bad this wasn’t quite as good for you as the others you’ve read, but she wrote so much I’m such you’ll find one that will click better next time.

    • I usually love quirky but something just put me off in this one. Too many coincidences, it was a bit absurd. I think A Far Cry From Kensington and Loitering With Intent will be the next I will try.
      The setting was great, I liked reading those parts but I had a problem with the characters. They weren’t unlikable but silly.

  4. I should probably give Muriel Spark another try, having read her at a young age (most likely too young) and liked – but not loved – what I read. The Venice setting I almost invariably find appealing, so…

    • I was hoping that the right reader might find his/her way to this despite my reservations. I’m glad to see I may have succeeded if it does make you want to pick it up any way.
      I thought it was important to underline the strengths and the setting is great. Maybe now that you know about the coincidences you wouldn’t even mind so much.
      I agree, I don’t think she isan author for very young readers. I wasn’t aware before this event how much she has written. There are a lot of novels to choose from.

  5. It will be interesting to see if anyone else reviews it especially if they liked it better than you did. What a shame — but I hope you’ll read more soon, and your choices of A Far Cry… and Loitering with Intent are exactly what I’d recommend. In fact I think Loitering with Intent is my favourite so far.

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Harriet. I would love to read another review of this one. Maybe it’s one of her rare books that nobod really likes although I have a feeling the right reader would enjoy it.

  6. I read this and mean to review it tomorrow. It wasn’t Spark at her best but it still had some good moments. I think Lena’s anti Semitism is mentioned a few times in the book, but not, I think, with any sort of sympathy – hmmm, will have to think about this before my write up!

    • I’m looking forward to your review. I did like a few bits as well but overall it was just not for me.
      I didn’t really try to interpret this anti-Semitic scene and hardly know enough. She doesn’t have to be ant-Semitic to have a problem with her son being orthodox. The way she describes Leo – who is Jewish – is important too. And he isn’t described in a very appealing way.

      • I’ve written about this now, I think Leo is described more sympathetically than Lena who religious prejudices aside is a fairly loathsome character. Her anti – Semitism makes her even more ridiculous. I don’t know how to go about decoding what she did with that situation but it feels like it’s loaded with significance.

        An odd book, I mostly enjoyed it but didn’t fall in love with it, despite that I think it’ll probably stick in my mind for a long time.

        • I’m looking forward to your review. “Loaded with significance” is what I felt as well about this situation. It made me uneasy, not because I thought she was anti-semitic or so but because I felt like bumping into something and couldn’t tell what it was. Lena is awful but Leo isn’t exactly a very positive charcater either but then nobody is.
          To be honest, the scene with Lena jumping into the canal made me laugh. It’s fairly absurd. Double standards. After all she is cheating on her lover and should be more concerned about that than the religion of her new lover.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you liked the review. Messy is a good way of putting it. Like you I’d like to read more of her and from what other say I’m sure I’ll find many more I will like a lot.

  7. I’m sorry this book was rather disappointing for you. I am impressed that you finished it. In some ways, hopefully, this makes the novels of Spark’s that you like even better. I hope if and when you read another book by her, you enjoy it. The storyline of this book interests me. I wish I’d knon about this book in February for the Venice in February reading challenge….next year!
    I enjoyed your wonderful & honest review, thank youi!

    • Thanks Amy. I’m glad you might still think about picking it up. I was thinking of the Venice in February event as well. I didn’t manage to join but when I started this book I thought the setting is so well done it would have been the perfect choice. Maybe those two of her novels that I have read so far were much more conventional than this one. I have a hard time accepting coincidences in novel and there were so many in this one. On the other hand, it had its funny moments.

  8. I read this one years and years ago, and enjoyed it very much at the time. That being said, the two novels I’ve read for Muriel Spark week, The Finishing School and The Only Problem have not fired me up with enthusiasm the way I’d hoped they would. She is a very quirky writer, so maybe she has to coincide with one’s mood in a very particular way? But if asked, I’d still say I love her writing!

  9. I haven’t read any Spark yet, but I am really curious about this one. First, I love books that transport me to an actual place. It is the travel bug in me. Second, the plot sounds interesting. However, you didn’t really like it. That makes me wonder if I would like it or not. Reading is such a personal thing…books work for some and not for others. I can’t wait to hear what you think about her other works.

    • She is a special writer and quite unique however I would say this isn’t the book to start with. Obviously everyone has another favourite novel by her, after all she has written 22 novels but I couldn’t tell you which one is a great starting point. Knowing you and your interests I’d say The Girls of Slender Means would be great. Not for the travel bug in you as it is set in London but for the history bug. 🙂

  10. Sorry to hear you didn’t like it.
    Venice is beautiful, I would love to see it for real one day…right after Japan and London 😉

    The book has some issue that I usually don’t enjoy, unfaithful relationship. I don’t know why, i never could enjoy such book.

  11. Sorry you didn’t like it. I see your Spark’s choice wasn’t better than mine.

    I read Aiding and Abetting, I haven’t written the review yet, I guess I’ll be a little late for the Muriel Spark week.

    • I haven’t seen anyone reviewing that. Most other reviews I read were very enthusiastic. But Litlove seesm to not have liked hers so much. I wonder whether she will review them.
      No it did really not work this one.

    • This seems not her best, I’ve read another review and it wasn’t too enthusiastic either. Yes, there are many more, I’m sure I’ll find another good one.

  12. Nice review, Caroline! Sorry to know that you didn’t like the book as much as you had hoped to. The book’s descriptions of Venice seem to be quite interesting and beautiful. It is interesting that Muriel Spark is Catholic while her son is Jewish. Is that possible? Because I thought that one can only be born Jewish and it is not possible to convert and become Jewish. Or is that possible?

    • Thanks, Vishy. It wasn’t an easy review. The writing is good, the decription is beautiful but I did so not get along with the.
      You are absolutely right. I didn’t even pay attention to that fact, but it is possible in this case, because she converted to Catholicism. They were Jewish, although half Jewish.

  13. What I love about Spark are the glittering surfaces she creates with her words — she does not try to create deep psychological portraits. She shows people inventing and re-inventing themselves, freed from the constraints of their “psychology.” She writes in a style that goes against the dominant novelistic tradition of psychologically nuanced characters with whom the reader can identify. In Spark, I find myself identifying with how characters act rather than who they are. Spark is a horizontal writer rather than a vertical one.

    • That’s a very interesting comment. I will keep it in mind the next time I read her. Starting a book with wrong assumptions makes it hard to fully appreciate it. I must admit I always assume that when a writer is highly praised he/she must be creating charcaters with a psychlogical depth and that the book is not so much about the acting. Part of what makes her funny, is the way how the charcaters think about themselves and how that then clashes with their behaviour…

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