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The Driver's Seat
by Muriel Spark (1970)
New Directions (1994)
107 pp

I decided to start my venture into the Lost Booker shortlist with the shortest of the bunch, Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. I could have produced this review as part of my Clock at the Biltmore feature that highlights classic New Yorker fiction fortnightly; The Driver’s Seat appeared in the New Yorker‘s pages on May 16, 1970. While I had no idea what I was in for, the violent New Directions cover offered little comfort.

The only other Spark novel I’d read was The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie. However, though there are some slight thematic similarities, The Driver’s Seat is not at all what I’d have expected from the writer of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. This one is hellishly dark.

There are several stylistic similarities, though. In both, Spark eschews foreshadowing and, early on, discloses information about the characters’ fates. For example, in The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie we learn almost at the beginning that:

Mary Mcgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famour for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire . . .

Similarly, in The Driver’s Seat Spark gives us an unflattering portrait of a character — the central character here — and lets us know that we won’t be with her for too long:

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, party by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.

And, just in case the reader didn’t catch the meaning of that “identikit” (which, incidentally, is the name of the film based on The Driver’s Seat, starring Elizabeth Taylor as Lise), Spark doesn’t keep us in the dark for long:

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.

Knowing that Lise will be dead the next morning doesn’t offer much light on the story, though. We don’t know who will commit the murder. Throughout the day Lise will meet several brutal men, and we will keep wondering, “Is it him?” But even if we did know who the murderer was early on, we would still have no idea why. And that is the crux of this story: why does this woman end up dead the next morning?

So we know the story won’t end happily. But, the story doesn’t begin happily either. Lise is going on a holiday, and she’s trying to find the perfect dress. Just when she thinks she’s found one, the sales clerk tells her it is made of that new stain-resistant material. Lise freaks out, giving us our first clue early on that Lisa is just not a stable person. This is not a comical scene, either; it’s uncomfortable to read. Spark has us in her control immediately, and her confidence is apparent without getting in the way.

Finally, Lise does find an awful dress she likes and goes to the airport. She keeps telling people that she’s going on holiday and that her boyfriend is waiting for her at the other end. However, we get the sense that she doesn’t know who this man is yet, only that she will know him when she sees him. And, just as in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie we get Jean’s common refrain “I am in my prime” whenever she defends herself, in The Driver’s Seat we get “he’s not my type” with almost everyone Lise meets.

The chapter on the airplane is strange.  Honestly, throughout the novel I felt I was reading something by Roberto Bolaño. People just kept doing strange things for no apparent reason. It’s unsettling. It’s also at this point when we meet, Bill, one of the most unsettling characters in the novel:

Lise’s left-hand neighbor smiles. The loudspeaker tells the passengers to fasten their seat-belts and refrain from smoking. Her admirer’s brown eyes are warm, his smile, as wide as his forehead, seems to take up most of his lean face. Lise says, audibly above the other voices on the plan, ‘You look like Red Riding-Hood’s grandmother. Do you want to eat me up?’

If you’ve seen the Elizabeth Taylor film, then you cannot get this image out of your mind. Bill is just creepy as he stares, almost salivating, at Lise. He’s on a macrobiotic diet, always eschewing Yin for Yang. On his diet he is required to have one orgasm per day. He will pester Lise through much of the book. If he doesn’t, he has to make up for it the next. And it gets stranger:

The engines rev up. Her ardent neighbour’s widened lips give out a deep, satisfied laughter, while he slaps her knee in applause. Suddenly her other neighbour looks at Lise in alarm. He stares, as if recognizing her, with his brief-case on his lap, an dhis hand in the position of pulling out a batch of papers. Something about Lise, about her exchange with the man on her left, has casued a kind of paralysis in his act of fetching out some papers from his brief-case. He opesn his mouth, gasping and startled, staring at her as if she is someone he has known and forgotten and now sees again. She smiles at him; it is a smile of relief and delight. His hand moves again, hurriedly putting back the papers that he had half-drawn out of his brief-case. He trembles as he unfastens his seat-belt and makes as if to leave his seat, grabbing his brief-case.

Throughout the book, Spark has her characters flashforward a day, and we see them answering questions about Lise for police reports. Here’s what the man who abandoned his seat says:

On the evening of the following day he will tell the police quite truthfully, ‘The first time I saw her was at the airport. Then on the plane. She sat beside me.’

‘You never saw her before at any time? You didn’t know her?’

‘No, never.’

‘What was your conversation on the plane?’

‘Nothing. I moved my seat. I was afraid.’

‘Afraid?’

‘Yes, frightened. I moved to another seat, away from her.’

‘What frightened you?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why did you move your seat at that time?’

‘I don’t know. I must have sensed somehting.’

‘What did she say to you?’

‘Nothing much. She got her seat-belt mixed with mine. Then she was carrying on a bit with the man at the end seat.’

Unlike a Bolaño novel, however, this one does begin to resolve itself, and we begin to connect the dots in the narrative. Ultimately, it is a sad novel displaying emptiness. And, in one final effort to compare this one to The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie: I think The Driver’s Seat is better.

11 Comments

  1. martine April 6, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    hi, read your comments with interest as I read and reviewed this myself recently. This is definitely a disturbing little book, though I was left wishing I had understood more about what was going on in Lise’s head, something very wrong but it is left unsaid.
    thanks for sharing
    martine

  2. KevinfromCanada April 6, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Your review and quotes certainly make this a much darker book than my experience with Sparks. Which for me is a good thing — I do like her very straightforward style and I think applying it in a darker context would work well. I have a copy of this book and will move it up the list and return with comments then.

  3. Trevor April 7, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks for your comments martine and Kevin.

    Martine, do you have any speculations about what is going on in Lise’s head? I think the title of the story says something. I’m still trying to figure out why her quest for control takes such a perverse angle though.

    Kevin, as always, I really look forward to your insights.

  4. Thomas at My Porch April 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    I am a big fan of Spark, having read Brodie first and then moved on to others in her somewhat prolific catalog including The Driver’s Seat. I think this is a fantastic book, and while it may be darker than some of her other works, I find Spark to always have a subversive side even when she is being polite and proper.

  5. Guy Savage April 12, 2010 at 12:12 am

    I really enjoyed this book and loved its bizarre aspects. I also appreciated the very odd film version with Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol. If you liked the book, you may enjoy the film. Taylor is so good in these neurotic roles–my favourite scene is when she goes berserk in the dress shop at the very idea she might be the sort of woman who puts stains on her clothes.

    This is the darkest novel by Spark I’ve read to date.

  6. Trevor April 12, 2010 at 10:34 am

    I looked up and watched some clips of the Elizabeth Taylor film, Guy, and it does look faithful to the book in content and style — meaning it was very unsettling. I would like to watch it front to end.

  7. Max Cairnduff April 13, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Thank you Trevor, I wasn’t sure which Spark to read next, like you before this I’ve just read Prime so far.

    Well, now I know, this sounds excellent, dark and troubling. A shame I’ll likely be reading it during sunny weather, I’ll have to save it for an evening alone from the sound of it.

  8. Lee Monks May 4, 2010 at 3:48 am

    I wasn’t aware of the film – I’ll definitely be checking that out. As for the book, I found it extremely unsettling and horribly believable. I know someone rather like Lise, which only adds to the disquiet. Initially, I felt that Spark was aiming far too transparently for ‘odd’, but I’m not sure that’s fair looking back. The air of unease here, and the disorienting, authentically askew dialogue exchanges make it a powerful work. The penultimate scene in particular is poisonously atmospheric and compulsive, teeming with dread.

  9. Trevor May 4, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Lee, your comment is, in itself, disturbing and very welcome in this discussion. The book is still very much on my mind.

  10. David Infense May 5, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    I have previously read four or five of Spark’s novels and was impelled to read The Driver’s Seat due to its inclusion in the Lost Booker competition.

    A week after reading the novella I am still thinking about Lise, the southern city and her plan.

    I presumed that Lise had a medical condition associated which made her more likely to stain her clothes hence the outburst in the shop – which made that scene much poignancy- what are people’s thoughts on this?

  11. Trevor May 6, 2010 at 10:19 am

    I didn’t have the same impression, David. I felt that she had the outburst because she simply didn’t appreciate the sales clerk’s implication that she ever would stain her clothes. She wants something that isn’t stain resistant. I wonder if the stains themselves were important to her plan . . .

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