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territorial rights

8 april 2022

Muriel Spark's Territorial Rights (1979) is an archly funny contraption that pretty much falls apart in the late going. But for Spark completists it is acceptable fare.

A cast of eccentrics, mostly English, converge on Venice and on one another. Robert Leaver should be the protagonist of the novel; he is the first character we meet, a young art-history student in search of himself. But Robert is nasty and mercurial, and absconds for much of the novel's length. His mentor/lover, the older art collector Curran, insinuates himself into the business of the Leaver family: Robert's philandering father Arnold, who has shown up with his current mistress Mary (former cooking instructor at the public school where Arnold was headmaster). On Arnold's heels come his former mistress Grace and her current young protegé Leo, who has a spirited affair with Robert's first girlfriend Lina, who has defected from Bulgaria in search of her poisoned father's grave …

Well, you see how this is going, or rather you don't; the only thing you know for sure in such a novel is that the next chapter will bring some offbeat new character into the mix and upset the balance still further. Territorial Rights is a farce, with elements of spy novel, crime novel, private-eye novel, and novel of the closet thrown in. And as with many such novels, it is more fun watching Spark pile up the house of cards than to watch it all come crashing down in the last few chapters.

It is a very late novel of the closet, one where the closet door is left carelessly ajar and nobody is very scandalized by the situation. Nobody in the novel likes Robert much, but Robert is simply unlikable, not appalling because he's gay. Curran, by contrast, is a very affable, sympathetic character despite his murderous past and apparent lack of boundaries. AIDS was about to tragically tear the closet door off its hinges, but in 1979 one could see a more placid alternative future where sexuality simply grew less and less fraught, and Territorial Rights is an odd sideshadowing of such a possibility.

Spark, Muriel. Territorial Rights. 1979. London: Virago [Hachette], 2014.