Muriel Spark Reading Week: The Driver’s Seat

Simon of Stuck in a Book finds himself the originator of Muriel Spark Reading Week. Who knows, perhaps it will become an annual occurrence. I love Dame Muriel. In fact, I find I have read nine of her books, including all but one of her pre-1970 novels (The Comforters, Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Bachelors, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie many times, The Girls of Slender Means, The Mandelbaum Gate, The Public Image and The Abbess of Crewe). That tally shall rise this week.

I hadn’t intended to blog about my Sparkian endeavours, but what’s the point in having a blog if you don’t use it? So here we are. And an exciting start to the week with The Driver’s Seat (1970).

This is a book which culminates in a murder, but it is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit (a term used towards the end of the book). In some respects it reminded me of one of my favourite short novels, Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), which is a dispassionate (though not passionless) dissection of the events leading up to a crime. Reading that book for the first time, funnily enough, made me think of Muriel Spark. They both delight in the teaser, the little snippet of future information dropped in here or there, which is also much in evidence in The Driver’s Seat:

Lise’s eyes are widely spaced, blue-grey and dull. Her lips are a straight line. She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking. Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.

And later:

So she lays the trail, presently to be followed by Interpol and elaborated upon with due art by the journalists of Europe for the few days it takes for her identity to be established.

Lise is the book’s protagonist, and also the victim of the murder. It’s all right for me to write that down here, just as it’s all right for me to tell you that Mary Macgregor of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie dies in a hotel fire at 23, because these are items Spark presents to the reader before the fact. We are not to treat the book’s plot as the be-all and end-all. Spark is an adept plotter, and on dissection her books exhibit a meticulous care of construction, but to focus on the plot is often to miss the point. The things that happen around the things that happen may be of greater importance.

Lise is 34 years old and works in an office. She has never had a holiday. On the verge of some form of neurotic crisis, she cedes to the pressings of her colleagues and jets off to Italy. We are not told precisely where Lise comes from or where she goes, but the inference to be drawn is that she is from the North, probably Denmark. A woman from Johannesburg accosts her at the airport:

‘Excuse me?’ says Lise politely, in a foreignly accented English, ‘what is that you’re looking for?’

‘Oh,’ the woman says, ‘I thought you were American.’

‘No, but I can speak four languages enough to make myself understood.’

It turns out that Lise is telling the truth here, but generally speaking it is hard to tell at any one time whether she is or not. It’s a neat twist on the convention of the unreliable narrative: the narrative itself is unimpeachable in its truthfulness, but the protagonist is not. The story is told in the third person, and while Lise’s actions are related with exactitude, her thoughts are rarely touched on. Like the García Márquez, or Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974), another close relation of this book, The Driver’s Seat is effectively a piece of reportage, and Spark frequently draws attention to the fact that although Lise’s actions are clear, her motivations are not.

She looks at herself in the glass, touches her hair, then locks her suitcase. She finds the car-keys that she had failed to leave behind this morning and attaches them once more to her key-ring. She puts the bunch of keys in her hand-bag, picks up her paperback book and goes out, locking the door behind her. Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?

Lise is flighty and unpredictable. Perhaps her sudden emancipation from work has affected her mind. In the opening scene she shouts down a sales assistant with entirely disproportionate violence for having the audacity to suggest that she buy a stain-resistant dress for her holiday. (‘As if I would want a dress that doesn’t show the stains!’ she later scoffs. The full import of this comment becomes clear later on.) On the afternoon of her arrival, she enters the ladies’ cloakroom in a department store with her new companion, the elderly widow Mrs Fiedke. Mrs Fiedke does not come out of her cubicle, and Lise fears she may have collapsed. Lise leaves, ostensibly to find help, but instead goes shopping. Mrs Fiedke rejoins her presently, and apologises for having fallen asleep.

Later, she admits:

‘I’m a widow … and an intellectual. I come from a family of intellectuals. My late husband was an intellectual. We had no children. He was killed in a motor accident. He was a bad driver, anyway. He was a hypochondriac, which means that he imagined that he had every illness under the sun.’

This might give a clue to the origin of Lise’s eccentricities if it were absolutely credible, but she shows such a fantastical streak elsewhere in the book that the waters are muddy. Is it ever possible to be certain that anything about her is what it seems? From the start, Lise appears to have some special purpose in mind for her holiday – sex, perhaps? Her cavalier attitude towards her passport and keys once she has arrived suggest that she does not intend to return. Is she running away from something? As the ending comes in sight, the reader’s perspectives shift, the focus changes. Spark is a master at this. John Lanchester, in the introduction to the current Penguin edition:

Her stories always pose a set of questions. In the course of the novel most of them are resolved … But once we have the answer, the larger sense of mystery and strangeness in the book always remains, and we are left with a lingering sense that the question we’ve had answered somehow misses a larger point.

The title of the novel is very acute. I think we are meant to leave the book asking ourselves, who is in the driver’s seat? Lise? One of the men she encounters? Or perhaps some higher power… It’s a question I will ponder for some time.

I can’t leave the book without reference to the brilliant and frequent passages of dialogue at cross-purposes that pepper Spark’s writing. This is one of her darker novels, but it’s full of humour.

As they drift with the outgoing shoppers into the sunny street, Mrs Fiedke says, ‘I hope he’s on that plane. There was some talk that he would go to Barcelona first to meet his mother, then on here to meet up with me. But I wouldn’t play. I just said No! No flying from Barcelona, I said. I’m a strict believer, in fact, a Witness, but I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife. You are safer when they don’t. I’ve been told the Scandinavian airlines are fairly reliable in that respect.’

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4 Responses to “Muriel Spark Reading Week: The Driver’s Seat”

  1. Simon T Says:

    What a brilliant review!
    I especially like your point about the protagonist being unreliable, and the narrative reliable – a really clever spin on the norm (and a clever spot by you!)
    This was my third Spark novel, and that one which made me love her, so I have a soft spot for it.

  2. Gareth Says:

    Thank you for your kind words. Very much looking forward to your posts this week. I’ve just started Curriculum Vitae today – my first non-fiction by Spark. It’s quite as sparkly (no pun intended) as the novels.

  3. David H Says:

    As Simon said, a great review. Your comment about reliability has helped me pinpoint one of the sources of tension in the book for me – the narrator knows the future, but not the protagonist’s mind.

  4. Gareth Says:

    Thank you!

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