Chapter One of Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Kapka Kassabova

Muriel Spark poses in 2002 PIC: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Muriel Spark poses in 2002 PIC: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
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Venice was very much his territory; it changed less than other places with the passing of time,’ we are told early on by a brisk narrator. This one-sentence masterclass in narrative brevity introduces us to one of the themes and two of the characters in this deliciously black burlesque, as delicious as delusion – the Sparkian tragic flaw of choice – and as black as the miasma of the ‘gutter-canals’ at low tide.

Curran, whose territory Venice is, or so he thinks, is a cultivated, idly rich American-in-Paris with a past. His way of sending someone packing: ‘Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.’ But Curran is limited by his rational reductiveness, and this is Venice off-season. With its gliding gondolas and mists, Venice is unmistakably a theatre of the subconscious mind, a half-submerged labyrinth of unfathomable intrigue. In the Anglo-American literary canon, foreigners who arrive in Venice looking for something, usually Byronic excess, tend to come to sticky ends in back alleys. Out of all of Spark’s novels, Territorial Rights most resonates with the Henry Jamesian paradigm of innocents abroad – except that in Spark, there are no innocents. No matter how young – I’m thinking of the girls in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie whose flash-forwarded lives nibble at their innocence in the present – the protagonists arrive on the page already tainted. The tracing of the original crime – sin, intended or committed, past or future, is one of the psychological thrills of her work. Territorial Rights is no exception.

Incidentally, flashes of Don’t Look Now are inevitable. Daphne du Maurier’s story, and the film based on it, appeared several years before Territorial Rights. Here too we have two dear old sisters who aren’t what they seem, a funereal gondola cortège, an obsession with a church, and revenants of a guilty past glimpsed in the shadows.

By the time two more characters arrive at their lodgings, a relationship triangle is in place, mirrored neatly by a physical triangle that represents the various masks of Venice. Curran is lodged at the expensive, tasteless Lord Byron Hotel. Robert Leaver, a young English opportunist and vague student of art history, checks in at the cheaper Pensione Sofia. The pensione was formerly Villa Sofia, property of a ‘Bulgarian count’ until the end of the war. The war creeps in early on: Curran knows Venice from the war; the sister proprietesses of the pensione, Katerina and the delightfully named Eufemia, were in their prime during the war, and so on. “And so on,” Curran says tartly to Robert, for these two have an unhappy history. The third point of the triangle – one of several relational geometrical figures in the novel – is Robert’s new interest, Bulgarian artist Lina Pancev. A girl of slender means, she lodges in a half-rotten building by the canal and wears Parisian-bohemian clothes of dubious cleanliness. Alarm bells are meant to ring whenever we meet a sartorial disaster in a Spark novel: clothes mattered to her.

Despite defecting from her home-country on a student exchange trip to Paris, Lina remains indoctrinated by her Communist upbringing, and her candid rigidity and ruthless resourcefulness provide much verbal comedy – “While I’m here, I ought to snoop.” Lina is searching for the grave of her father, Victor Pancev, mysteriously murdered in Venice at the end of the war for his part in a presumed plot to poison the Bulgarian tsar Boris. When Curran, who is suspiciously well informed, tells this to his old-time Venetian friend-socialite Countess de Winter (a fake countess), they have a good laugh. As a fellow felon, de Winter is one of few people in Curran’s life to have “the power to infuriate him”. This is how “usefulness” is measured in Territorial Rights, and usefulness is the only measure of relationship. Spark’s Venice off-season is cold and “Byzantine” in Curran’s words, just like her characters’ hearts. These vile bodies fall in and out of alliances, and their ruses trip them up. Without delay, more coincidences pile on, the plot thickens, the past is churned like the unmarked grave of Victor Pancev, and Curran and de Winter aren’t laughing any more. Who will have the last laugh? - Kapka Kassabova

Territorial Rights - Chapter One

The bureau clerk was telephoning to the Pensione Sofia while Robert Leaver watched the water-traffic at the ferry and the off-season visitors arriving in Venice. It was a sunny day in October. The clerk, having spoken to the Sofia, told him there was a room vacant there. Robert nodded. ‘On vacation?’ said the bureau man. ‘Research. Art History,’ said Robert, lifting his briefcase and his suitcase.

He was taken to the Pensione Sofia through the sunny waters of palaces, domes and ferries. It was his first visit to Venice and he was young; but he had only half a mind to feel enchanted, the other half being still occupied with a personal anxiety in Paris from where he had just come. So that, while he was subject to the imperative claims of Venice the beautiful on first sight, he heard still in his ears the impatient voice of the older man: Goodbye, goodbye, good- bye, goodbye. Robert had been floundering about his own goodbyes, had made them apologetically, had said too many goodbyes. His suitcase in his hand, Robert had turned on the doorstep. ‘I’ll get in touch . . . goodbye again . . . good- bye for now . . . well, good –’

‘Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.’

It was as if the older man had said, ‘You bore me. You can’t even leave in good style. You haven’t any slightest savvy about partings. You’ve always bored me. Goodbye very much. Goodbye.’

With this angry memory not far behind, Robert let himself take in Venice, noting everything he passed on the way to the Pensione with a merely photographic attention.

The bright-eyed, plump young porter was waiting for him at the gate ready to take his bags. Robert let go of his suitcase but clung nervously to his briefcase. The porter showed no involvement one way or the other, but proceeded up the short flagged path of the street-entrance to its high glass doorway. The outside walls of the Pensione were flaky but obviously it had been a handsome villa. He followed the porter into a long reception hall. The villa had been converted into a little private hotel. A few people were sitting about, ready to go out, waiting for their friends to come down. There was a large dark television set at the far end of the room with a group of chairs round it emptily waiting for the evening to fall. Behind the television was a wide french window, its curtains open; beyond that a long garden receding from the back of the house.

Two middle-aged women simultaneously detached them- selves from the armchairs. One had been knitting, the other reading a magazine. They might have been guests, but they approached the reception desk together, smiling, obliging, and in charge. Their heads, as they bent over the big book to check his room, were alike, yellow-grey, neatly and newly done by the hairdresser. The forefinger of one of the women moved down the page to find his place, the forefinger of the other found it.

One of the good ladies behind the desk was asking, in adequate hotel English, how long he wanted to stay.

He opened his mouth and paused before replying in a French-inclined Italian, ‘Two or three weeks. Maybe a month’; and he seemed to have made this decision on the spot; almost, he could have said ‘Two or three days. Maybe a week.’

Her fingers moved around in the big book. ‘There’s a large room with two windows and separate shower, or another room, smaller with full bath.’

‘Two windows?’ the young man said. ‘The room with the bath, has it two windows?’

‘No, only one,’ Eufemia said. ‘I’ll show you both rooms.’ She reached for the keys.

He followed, inordinately fussed about the choice between the two assets. A room with two windows, and only with shower. A room with one window but a full bath. Goodbye, goodbye. He took the large room with two windows and shower.

‘Thank you, signora,’ he said, whereupon she invited him to call her Eufemia, adding that her sister was Katerina. And even this made Robert anxious, lest he should have got himself into an over-intimate guest-house, which might threaten his privacy.

‘You’re lucky to find this room,’ Eufemia said as she checked the soap and the towels, and opened the cupboards and drawers to see that all was well for the new visitor. The room was large and randomly furnished with slightly shaky, though shiny, furniture. He noticed a telephone by the bed, and a desk, which for some reason reassured him about his personal independence in the place. ‘Even out of season,’ Eufemia was saying, ‘you’d be surprised how many tourists arrive every day in Venice. Are you on holiday?’

‘Research,’ he said. ‘Art History.’

One of the windows looked out on a garden with the canal beyond, the other had a view of a large square with a bulbous church at the end of it.

‘Art history? Good, good!’ said Eufemia, as if unique wonders would never cease. ‘Well, sir, can I have your passport for the register?’

Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark, Polygon, 224pp, £9.99