Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?

The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark

It’s a long time since I’ve been as ambivalent about a novel as I am about this one. On the one hand it’s exceptionally technically accomplished. On the other, I didn’t actually like it. Of course, quality and what we like don’t always overlap.

The Driver’s Seat is weaponised narrative honed to achieve disturbing effect. It’s unforgettable, for better or worse, and far better read without spoilers. In many ways the less you know about this book the more powerful it will be. For that reason I’m going to be light on detail in this review.

The cover by the way is accurate to the novel. That’s how the main character, Lise, dresses save that she adds a narrow-striped red and white coat over the lemon blouse and multi-coloured V-striped skirt. Like everything in this book the clothing is carefully chosen.

From the opening page we know that something is wrong. The clothing is a clue. Lise is shopping for her work-enforced holiday to an unnamed Mediterranean destination. In the first shop she’s offered a dress that’s stain free. Lise goes berserk claiming that the very suggestion she’d need such a thing is an insult. In the next shop she chooses the colours you see on the cover. Her reactions are excessive; her choices off-kilter.

Just eleven pages in and that sense of something profoundly wrong becomes all the more pronounced. Here Lise is queuing at airport check-in:

There are two people in front of her. Lise’s eyes are widely spaced, blue-grey and dull. Her laps 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.

At times Spark repeats sentences as if they form some kind of mantra. We hear over and over that “She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking.” The eye skates over Lise, or would but for her choice of clothes and habit for making herself highly noticeable through arguments with shop-staff, pointless boasting to the check-in clerk or yet further arguments at duty-free and her hotel.

What follows is how chapter three opens. It may seem it, but it’s not a spoiler:

She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.

From that point the whole book takes on a nightmarish quality. We know Lise will die, but not who’ll kill her. Everything that happens is now overcast by what will happen. She’s searching for her “boyfriend”, whom she hasn’t met yet. When she catches the eye of a young businessman on her flight or gets noticed by an obsessive macrobiotic diet guru we wonder, as she does, “is it him?”

What’s key here is that this isn’t a crime novel nor is it a psychological novel. It is its own beast – utterly conscious of its own artificiality. Spark doesn’t attempt realism. None of the characters are given any depth or persuade as people. They’re automatons serving Spark’s will, which is perhaps a large part of what I didn’t like about the novel. It lacks humanity.

Lise in particular seems both oblivious and fated. She careens around in her ill-matched clothes leaving a trail which the police will find easy to follow, but underneath it there’s no her there. We never hear her thoughts. She seems a mystery even to Spark as author/narrator. This isn’t accident or incompetence. Spark means Lise to be hollow.

At times the artificiality jarred me, perhaps because the book sails so close to realism that I started to expect it to be realistic. When Lise goes to a department store there’s an incident which leads to a crowd having an argument near her and she also hears a news broadcast on a display tv. It’s all in English, or alternatively it’s all in the local language which Lise apparently speaks so well it might as well be English (which seems highly unlikely).

I found myself wondering how Lise could possibly follow what was going on around her. The answer ultimately is that it’s irrelevant. She can follow it because Spark wants me as reader to follow it. Language barriers are real-world issues. The novel isn’t really set in an unnamed Mediterranean country. It’s set in a non-place, a Newhon or Erewhon that just reminds us of our own world. In a way it might as well be about aliens on Deneb-IV for all it relates to credible people and events. Again, that’s not accident or incompetence.

Very occasionally Spark does misfire. I rather winced at this line which comes after a hotel maid is reprimanded for a dirty glass in Lise’s room: “ “The maid understands, laughs at the happening, and this time makes a quick getaway with the glass in her hand.” The phrase “laughs at the happening frankly isn’t English and felt uncharacteristically clumsy.

Mostly though The Driver’s Seat is a piece of flawless polished marble. Nothing here is chance or wasted. Even the title which for much of the novel seems as good a choice as any other eventually becomes all too horribly perfect. All novels are crafted but most pretend to nature. Spark doesn’t.

By the two-thirds mark I was struggling. I found the characters unpersuasive and Spark’s authorial voice oddly cruel. The prose drove me on (that and the knowledge that it’s short). As it unfolded to its ending I realised I was reading something much better and much more disturbing than I had imagined. The completed novel is ugly and unsettling – a literary maggot lodged in your brain. It is in its own way a masterpiece.

So, as I opened, it’s exceptionally technically accomplished but I didn’t like it. I rather wondered at the point, all this inhumanity dancing to the author’s obvious strings. Then I think about the impact and realise that is the point. It creates its own point. I’m not sure though that it creates enough of one to be worth the ugliness.

Other reviews

I’ve not noted many sadly but it was this one of John Self’s at The Asylum which first made me want to read this. There’s another good review here at themookseandthegripes. Lastly, this review by Sam Jordison at The Guardian is hugely critical of the book (and contains massive spoilers). I’m probably closer to Sam’s take than I am to either of John or Trevor’s save that I’d give the book more credit for its execution than I think Sam does. I may yet read Memento Mori, but equally after this I may be done with Spark. I’m not sure yet.

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16 Comments

Filed under Spark, Muriel

16 responses to “Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?

  1. I’ve not been online as much as I’d like recently and won’t be still for a few more days. After the weekend I should be responding more to others’ posts and to comments here.

  2. I think Ali Smith may have read this one…anyway very nice review. I loved this when I read it a while back, but there’s little to actually like, if that makes sense…

  3. I loved this one for its dark weirdness! But I have read some Spark novels that I didn’t care for that much. Have you read A Far Cry from Kensington?

  4. I have read Far Cry and indeed reviewed it here. I liked it much more than this, but oddly enough I’d say it’s a much weaker novel.

    Dark weirdness is definitely fair. I did think this was one you’d have liked Guy. I actually searched yours for a review but I figured it was pre-blog.

    Lee, most people love it. Me and Sam are I think the only ones who don’t and I was still impressed by it. I just didn’t actually like it.

  5. Intriguing response. I have this one but haven’t yet approached it probably because I was fearing it would be too dark. Spark can be very odd – and I love a lot of her books but there is always that darkness lurking.

  6. I wasn’t that keen on the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie which seems to be a hit with most readers.

  7. It’s not so much lurking here Kaggsy. It’s looming.
    I actually did like Prime Guy, but not so much that it wasn’t a decade or so before I read more Spark. I may not be Spark’s reader.

  8. Max: I’ve read quite a few and it’s been hit and miss for me. The hits have been good enough to keep me interested but not rabid.

  9. Jonathan

    It does sound rather odd. But that makes me want to try it…maybe.

  10. This has been on my list for ages. For some reason, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Then, while on vacation in Miami, came across a copy. Not sure how I’ll feel about it, but willing to give it a try. Ambivalence isn’t the ideal reaction, but sometimes we can’t help it. Oh, well… on to the next!

  11. What a coincidence I have just read this too. I haven’t written my review yet – might get round to it tomorrow. I really liked it. There’s little to like in the actual story so I understand your ambivalence. It was so cleverly accomplished however I couldn’t help but really like it. I loved that sense of nothing being right. It kept me rivited.

  12. It is rather odd, and definitely maybe worth trying…

    Let me know your thoughts Lollipop!

    Ali, that is interesting. Most people like it more than I did so your reaction isn’t a huge surprise. It is very accomplished I agree. I’ll look forward to seeing your thoughts.

  13. I too have had mixed experiences with Spark though I’ve not read this one. It’s not a novel that appeals to me very much, partly on account of its reputation but mostly because I think I might find it unpleasant or distasteful.

    If it’s any help Memento Mori is definitely worth reading. Not a perfect novel by any means – there’s a bit too much going on for all the threads to feel relevant – but an interesting one nonetheless. I liked it a lot.

  14. “Oddly cruel” – yes, one of the books I read had that particular trademark of her writing as well. A nastiness I found artificial.
    What baffles me are the badly written quotes. I’m not sure you saw my review on The Art of the Novel. This was the novel that was recommended the most by other writers as a brilliant. I’m really curious to find out how I’ll get along with it so far I had one hit – “The Prime of . . .” – and one miss -“Territorial Rights”.

  15. You make me feel bad for liking it:
    https://1streading.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/the-drivers-seat/
    Yes, there is always cruelty in Spark, but her examination of freewill in a form which in itself denies it is fascinating.
    And surely it’s one of the best deconstructions of a genre ever?

  16. Jacqui, it’s both unpleasant and distasteful, but it means to be which I think makes it less an issue. Of course it also makes it more effectively those things.

    I’ll give Memento a try.

    Caroline, artificial nastiness is starting to seem to me a characteristic of Spark’s work (and for me a flaw). That “the happening” quote is pretty bad, but it stands out so much because generally the book is very well written.

    Grant, most people like it! I’m an outlier. I wasn’t quite persuaded as to the examination of freewill. For me it’s a purely deterministic universe with author as god. It reminded me of McEwan in that (though only in that) with characters existing solely (and evidently) at the author’s whim.

    Good points at yours on Lise’s apartment (which I should have mentioned/thought more about) and the general flatness. And of course on the obvious Lise/Lies anagram which despite knowing about and being obvious I completely forgot about.

    On deconstruction though, not sure. I don’t think it’s close enough to most crime fiction to really deconstruct it. By contrast something like say Tim Park’s Loving Roger I think does more on that front by starting with a murder then spending the entire novel on motive. This feels to me like it’s travelled too far from the genre to say much to the genre (which is fine in that it’s its own thing but I’m less persuaded of its deconstructive power).

    Ooh, Stanislaw Lem’s The Chain of Chance – that I think is a good deconstruction of the crime genre. There’s a good review of it here: https://1streading.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/the-chain-of-chance/ 🙂

    Also, Martin Amis’s Night Train which I review here (https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2008/08/19/martin-amis-night-train/ – one of the earliest reviews on the blog). I think that’s good on deconstruction among other things. Come to think of it, is any genre more deconstructed than crime? I guess that’s a compliment to the genre.

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