Muriel Spark has been one of those literary icons that has for a while been orbiting the periphery of my brain, but until recently I knew only two concrete things about her: that she wrote The Prime of Miss Brodie and that she was Scottish. Thankfully there are lots of well-read people out there who want to expand the minds of people like me – and to do this they’re capitalising on the fact that this year Muriel would have turned 100.
As a way of raising the profile of Dame Muriel, Scotland is celebrating this centenary with its #murielspark100 fiesta, as is Heavenali with her #readingmuriel2018 event. It was Madamebibliophile‘s review of The Driver’s Seat in particular that propelled me to read this novella …. and wow, what a book.
The book centres on Lise, a middle-aged spinster who is ‘neither good looking nor bad looking’, wears ‘old-fashioned lipstick’ and has a ‘judging’ mouth. We’re immediately pulled into a series of erratic and illogical encounters between Lise and others that leaves bystanders (and the reader) bewildered at her behaviour:
[Her] superior, a fat, small man, looked at her with frightened eye-glasses. Lise smiled and bent her head over her desk. ‘It can wait til you get back,’ said the man, and when she looked up at him he showed courage and defiance in his rimless spectacles. Then she began to laugh hysterically. She finished laughing and began crying all in a flood, while a flurry at the other desks, the jerky backwards movements of her little fat superior, conveyed to her that she had done again what she had not done for five years.
Early on it’s made clear that Lise is going on a holiday, and at this point we also learn that she never comes home – she is murdered:
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 and in a part of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.
And therein lies the genius of this novella – a ‘whydunnit’. We know that Lise is going to die, but the why is gradually and patchily revealed to us.
There are only a few characters in this novella, and not one of them is likeable. Spark has bestowed each of them with personality traits that render them either repellent or pitiable. They interact with Lise but they’re not interested in her, in turn they make little impact on Lise’s actions or consciousness. It’s for this reason that I found the book so unsettling; the whole story is underscored with an ungenerous insight into human frailty – narcissism, feeble-mindedness and above all fear of loneliness. Spark clearly had a keen eye for human weakness and she uses it ruthlessly here.
Spark’s writing is lean, but rich with detail. She has created a story in which nothing of much consequence happens until the last few pages, and yet there is a tone of menace and suspense throughout.
The Driver’s Seat was apparently Muriel Spark’s favourite novel, and no wonder. She has delivered a tightly-written, compact and devastating little book. I am genuinely still marvelling at how she did it.
Thanks to the work of her devotees, I can now add two more facts to my Spark repertoire: that she wrote The Driver’s Seat (and many other books besides), and that she was an unquestionably talented and phenomenally skilled writer.