October 21, 2013
Muriel Spark: The Driver’s Seat
I’ve written about Muriel Spark before on this blog – was it really over five years ago? - but that was one of her later books, as by then I’d read most of the novels from her greatest and most productive period. (That, I think by pretty common consent, would be the 1950s to mid-1970s.) In a recent phase of trying to avoid all the new titles coming in to catch up with older books, I decided to reread a book that is one of her shortest, most memorable and certainly starkest.
The Driver’s Seat (1970) is 101 pages long (in the irksome style of technology manufacturers who describe their products as “7.2mm thin”, I suppose I should say it’s 101 pages short). That is important because first, it shows that Spark has no interest in padding out her story – it is not one of those novels that is really an abruptly promoted novella – and second, because it means the story has almost no middle. It’s lean and hungry. There are many books whose beginnings or endings are praised, but how often do we say, The middle of that book? I couldn’t get enough of it. When you see a book without a middle – Patrick McGrath’s Dr Haggard’s Disease also comes to mind – it’s likely that rather than having only a beginning and an end, what has really happened is that the author has followed Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to “start as close to the end as possible.”
This is certainly what Spark has done in The Driver’s Seat. The beginning is very close to the end. We meet Lise, about whom all we know initially is that she is thin, 34 years old and has worked in an accountants’ office since she was 18 (“except for the months of illness”) – indeed, we don’t get to know much more about her in the traditional character-building sense in the rest of the book. She is contrary from the start: her first act in her story is to manically tear off a dress that she is trying on because the shop assistant has told her it doesn’t stain. Although she says this is because “I’ve never been so insulted … Do you think I spill things on my clothes?”, we learn that really it is because Lise does not want to repel the unwelcome or destructive: she wants to absorb it, inhabit it. She contradicts the assistant too in her choice of what to wear: clashing colours, eye-watering patterns. She wants to be noticed, remembered, found.
Here I hit the usual reviewer’s wall, in wondering how much I can reveal of The Driver’s Seat without limiting its effect. Like Golding’s Pincher Martin, it has an ending which is not just unforgettable but unremovable from the brain: you will never get rid of it. I read it this time knowing what was coming, but what I had forgotten is that Spark gives us some pretty strong hints along the way. Less than 20 pages into the book, for example, we learn Lise’s ultimate fate, and the warnings from the future come regularly thereafter (“So she lays the trail…”). This is an extension of the technique that Spark adopted in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where the narrator’s eye would rise for a moment to look into the long distance and report back what happens in the end to various secondary characters.
What Lise is doing when she contradicts the shop assistant is preparing to go on holiday. This is triggered by an incident at work, where an exchange with her immediate superior leads to her laughing “hysterically” (there is a lot of hysteria in The Driver’s Seat).
She finished laughing and started crying all in a flood, while a flurry at the other desks, the jerky backward movements of her little fat superior, conveyed to her that she had done again what she had not done for five years.
The early pages of the book are full of tips to the reader like this about where Lise comes from: psychologically, that is, rather than geographically. (We never learn her nationality. She denies being English or American, though she is hardly a reliable source.) There are references too which plant the idea of disappearance and erasure: in Lise’s small flat, “everything is contrived to fold away”; when she says goodbye to her colleagues, her lips are “straight as a line which could cancel them all out completely.” Once on her journey, she encounters numerous eccentrics, but by her flat single-mindedness, Lise manages to seem more disturbing than them all. At the airport, one woman asks her if she has “a young man.”
‘Yes, I have my boy-friend!’
‘He’s not with you, then?’
‘No. I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.’
Throughout her trip, Lise will speak to many people and make herself memorable to them all; their future roles outside the story, after the end of the story, are summed up briefly by Spark too, as witnesses, as bystanders, helping the police, quoted in the press. Here, when Lise says “I’m going to find him,” she means it literally. She weighs up each man she encounters in terms of whether he is her “type”. Her approach (“So she lays the trail…”) is memorable. “You look like Red Riding Hood’s grandmother,” she tells her neighbour on the plane. “Do you want to eat me up?” At times, in her destination city, she becomes tearful at her failure to find the man she wants. Otherwise, she is stoical and determined. “The one I’m looking for will recognize me right away for the woman I am, have no fear of that.” When she does find him, as to meet her intentions she must, her role is clear. “She made me go,” he will say. “She was driving.”
The question of control is central to The Driver’s Seat, as the title implies. When an elderly woman observes to Lise that “you have your whole life in front of you,” the reader raises an eyebrow knowingly, but it is notable less as dramatic irony than as an example of the author’s omnipotence. The presence of the writer – those flashes forward to the future, to the world outside the book – ensure that the reader never forgets that this is a story, not reality, and this conflicts with the psychological mining the reader wants to undertake in order to explain why Lise does what she does. She does it because her creator makes her do it. Spark’s characters are, in Nabokov’s phrase, galley slaves. It is the author, not Lise after all, who is in the driver’s seat.
This is, as I discovered when I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading it, a much-loved book. That is not a description which seems naturally to fit, but those who like it really love it. “Phenomenal,” said one. “AMAZING,” another. Getting closer to the point, one person called it “nasty. In the best possible ways.” John Lanchester, in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, notes approvingly that The Driver’s Seat “doesn’t tell us a single thing we want to hear.” Yet I remember harsh criticism of it by John Carey, when he reviewed Martin Stannard’s biography of Spark in The Sunday Times. Carey calls The Driver’s Seat an “empty experiment” and notes that
Stannard selects [it] as her “masterpiece”, apparently because it excludes the kind of person he feels superior to (“Readers seeking the comforts of realism are slapped across the face and sent spinning”).
There is an unpleasant tone to this comment, but what struck me more is that, if it is doubtful to judge a book on how you expect others to react to it, it is odder still to judge it by someone else’s expectations of how others will react to it. Carey observes with apparent disappointment that The Driver’s Seat marked for Spark a move away from “novels with intelligible plots, characters and moral issues,” with the implication that he approves of those. But I do not think it lacks any of those qualities. It is a refinement on and progression from Spark’s earlier work, rather than a departure from it; a horror story in broad daylight. It is a scalpel, cutting away the excess of the traditional novel and leaving only the core. It is a stiletto, piercing straight to the heart – or thereabouts.