Category Archives: Spark, Muriel

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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I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark

Many (many) years ago I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I’d guess that it’s the only Muriel Spark most people have heard of (because of the film). It was excellent, but somehow I wasn’t prompted to read more. It felt like I’d read the essential work. I hadn’t of course. I’d just read the famous one.

Recently I decided to give Spark another try and I chose A Far Cry from Kensington for the simple reason that I grew up in Kensington and it seemed that might lend it some personal interest. It’s a pretty random reason to read a book, but it worked out because Far Cry is quite simply superb.

Superb incidentally is very much a post-reading judgement. Early on in Far Cry I thought it rambling and baggy. It isn’t and by the time I’d finished I realised it was one of the more tautly constructed novels I’ve read this year. Stick with it.

farcry

The book opens with the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, lying awake with her mind turning back to her time living in Kensington in 1954. Years have passed. She no longer lives in London and it wouldn’t matter if she did because the Kensington of her today is a far cry from the Kensington of back then. This is a reverie of a lost world.

In 1954 Mrs Hawkins is young and enormously fat (it’s relevant). She works in an upmarket publishing house in the West End, mostly fobbing off authors and print companies who’re all chasing payment. The business is going bust and she soon reveals that her boss Martin York eventually went to jail for fraud.

Martin York isn’t a bad man. He overextended and overjuggled and ultimately comes unstuck committing a stupid forgery in the hope of buying a little more time. At his trial the judge reproves him with the words “Commercial life cannot be carried on unless people are honest” before sentencing him to seven years. A harsh penalty for a foolish misjudgment, but the penalty for honesty is one of the themes of this book.

In the evenings Mrs Hawkins goes home to a rooming house in downmarket South Kensington. Her landlady, Milly, is a charming but still respectable Irishwoman who runs a reputable house. The other tenants include a quietly middle-aged married couple, a medical student, a district nurse, a young woman with family income, and a polish dressmaker named Wanda Podolak. Like the publishing house few of them have much money. The difference between the people at work and at home is one of attitude, or perhaps of honesty:

At Milly’s in South Kensington, everybody paid their weekly rent, however much they had to scrape and budget, balancing the shillings and pence of those days against small fractions saved on groceries and electric light; at Milly’s, people added and subtracted, they did division and multiplication sums incessantly; and there was Kate with her good little boxes marked ‘bus-fares’, ‘gas’, ‘sundries’. Here, in the West End, the basic idea was upper class, scornful of the bothersome creditors as if they were impeding a more expansive view.

Both at Milly’s and at work Mrs Hawkins is much relied upon:

There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

There are two more key elements to throw into the mix. The first is at work:

At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story. I forget which of the French symbolist writers of the late nineteenth century denounced a hack writer as a urinator of journalistic copy in the phrase ‘pisseur de copie’, but the description remained in my mind, and I attached it to a great many of the writers who hung around or wanted to meet Martin York; and finally I attached it for life to one man alone, Hector Bartlett.

Hector Bartlett: he’s hanger-on to the famous and highly regarded author Emma Loy; a writer of terrible prose who uses his connections to get published; a man so petty that when in one scene a dog in a pub snaffles part of his sausage roll he dunks the remaining bit in mustard before feeding it to the unsuspecting animal.

Bartlett is entirely without merit, but nobody in the publishing world dares say so because Emma Loy is too important to upset. Nobody that is save Mrs Hawkins who calls him a “pisseur de copie” to his face and then repeats the phrase to anyone who asks what she did to offend him. If challenged why she said such a thing she merely replies that it’s true and says it again.

The second key element  is at home. Wanda Podolak receives a poison pen letter:

Mrs Podolak, We, the Organisers, have our eyes on you. You are conducting a dressmaking business but you are not declaring your income to the Authorities. Take care. An Organiser.

The only people who know about Wanda’s business are her friends, housemates and clients. The letter must come from someone she knows and trusts and that fact poisons her life. Someone is smiling to her face but intent on harming her.

Emma Loy has Mrs Hawkins fired for the pisseur de copie remark and over the course of the novel continues to make Mrs Hawkins’ life difficult. Loy has power in Hawkins’ world but Hawkins isn’t willing to cover her truth with a convenient lie. Mrs Hawkins suffers for her honesty, but at least knows where she stands and who stands against her. Wanda by contrast is completely lost.

Perhaps at this point you can see why I initially found the book a bit baggy. There was so much going on: the collapsing publishing house; the feud with Hector Bartlett and Emma Loy; Mrs Hawkins’ subsequent publishing jobs; the poison pen problem. Amidst all this Mrs Hawkins constantly makes retrospective asides to the reader commenting on the situations she encountered or the people she met while all this was going on. All I can say that Muriel Spark knows what she’s doing and is in complete control of her material. You can trust her.

What particularly stands out for me in Far Cry is the lightness of Spark’s touch. This is a very funny book. Mrs Hawkins is constantly offering advice, both to those around her and to the reader. She loses weight by just eating half of whatever’s put in front of her and offers this as a tip to the overweight reader “without fee, included in the price of the book”. Every few pages she passes someone “some very good advice”, and much of it is pretty good but there’s certainly a lot of it. My favourite, easily, was this:

It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, and that is my advice to everyone except Parisians.

Quite. What could one add?

The comedy leavens the tragedy. There’s a lot of serious stuff here: embittered hack writers; an imprisonment for fraud; the poison pen letters; and later some of the characters attach far too much credence to the quack-claims for an obviously fake box-apparatus that supposedly can be used to heal the sick (to me fairly obviously based on Orgone boxes save that here you don’t climb inside).The material could choke, but as with Bainbridge the treatment is so light that even at its darkest the book is a delight to read.

I’ll end with one final quote, taken from one of Mrs Hawkins later jobs where she becomes a literary editor. Her approach is one I would recommend to anyone else considering that profession:

‘When you are editing copy, Mrs Hawkins, what sort of things do you look for?’ said Howard Send. ‘Exclamation marks and italics used for emphasis,’ I said. ‘And I take them out.’

My advice to any aspiring writer who may happen to read this is to do as Mrs Hawkins does. She is, in this and many other things, quite right.

Other reviews

I actually don’t have any noted, but I suspect I may have missed some. If I have please let me know in the comments.

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