The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)

Muriel Spark is one of those authors that’s hit or miss for me. I liked the first two books I’ve read (pre-blogging) – Girls of Slender Meansand The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Especially the first was a favourite the year I read it. The next one I picked was Territorial Rights– you can find my review here – and it was the first I really didn’t like. And now The Driver’s Seat is the second. I know it’s a favourite of many people, but I found it cold, sly, and just didn’t like the way it was told. Yes, it has amazing moments and I enjoyed some of the slyness but overall, it’s not my thing. That said, I can see why someone would like it, as it’s quite whacky and the writing is strong.

The book starts with Lise looking for the perfect dress. When  she is told by a salesperson that the one she’s been trying on doesn’t stain because it’s made of a special fabric, Lise loses it completely. From that moment on the reader knows that something’s very wrong with Lise. Two pages after this intro we find this passage, and it’s an excellent example of Spark’s slyness – and cleverness.

Her lips are slightly parted: she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and judging mouth, a precision instrument.

As a reader we’re so fascinated by the description of Lise, that we might overread the little aside about her illness. We sympathize with someone who’s spent her youth at an office she clearly doesn’t like, doing a boring, tedious job. We also sympathize with her wish to organize the perfect holiday, down to the perfect holiday attire. But then we see her in action, see how she reacts to people, talks to people and how she chooses a garish outfit that will make her look like a cross between a striped lollipop and an old-fashioned prostitute. So clearly, the illness is very important and it’s easy to see what kind of illness that might have been.

From the beginning of the novel we know what will happen to Lise. We’re informed by the narrator who, at times stays a pure observer, but, then again, becomes omniscient and foreshadows or reveals the outcome of the book. Lise will get into trouble. She will be found murdered. This isn’t a spoiler, as it’s revealed early on. Just after the narrator has dropped that bomb on us, he/she retreats and describes his creature from outside.

I was keen to find out, what went wrong and how Lise got herself killed. The end is surprising and echoes that first passage I quoted above.

So, there’s humour here, there’s an oddly fascinating character who plays roles, speaks in many different accents, does a lot of very outlandish thing, and courts danger. So, you may wonder – what’s not to like?

It was the tone of the book. I’m usually fond of characters behaving so wildly. But I didn’t care for the way Spark described “her creature”, like a scientist who describes a butterfly he’s just spiked. At times it is humorous. We’ve all seen people behave strangely. Because they were drunk or because they were crazy or just eccentrics and that can be very entertaining. But watching them like this also lacks empathy. It’s unkind and cold. Territorial Rights had a similar tone, similar slyness. Those who love Spark will say, yes, but that tone is exactly the point. I’m sure it is, but it’s too cold for me. That said, I will read her again because she’s a clever writer and says a lot about many themes – gender relations, things that we’re topical at the time like macrobiotic food, the way society reacts when someone doesn’t fit in. And I like how she disobeys many of the writing rules that are usually taught in writing classes these days.

To do this book justice, which I feel, I might not have done, I leave you with two quotes that show how strong Sparks’ writing is.  One quote is from a very humorous scene. The other one is one of those short things Lise says that reveal more than whole passages in other books.

The chandeliers of the Metropole, dispensing a vivid glow upon the just and unjust alike, disclose Bill the macrobiotic seated gloomily by a table near the entrance. He jumps up when Lise enters and falls upon her with a delight that impresses the whole lobby, and in such haste that a plastic bag he is clutching, insufficiently sealed, emits a small trail of wild rice in his progress towards her.

And here’s Lise. This is another “sly” quote as we suddenly get a look into Lise’s state of mind that’s more telling than most of what she does.

“It makes me sad”, she says. “I want to go home, I think. I want to go back home and feel all that lonely grief again. I miss it so much already.”

15 thoughts on “The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)

  1. This is such a brilliantly unsettling novel. You’re right about it being cold, it certainly is, and while it isn’t my favourite Spark, it is so memorable and so utterly bizarre I couldn’t help but wonder how she came up with this character.

  2. I think I can see why you reacted to the book like this, even though I haven’t read it yet. There’s a line perhaps where the coldness of the author and the skewering of this victim just becomes nasty. I guess it could make for uncomfortable reading.

    • I looked for a good adjective for a while and sky felt so right. I can understand why someone would like her. There’s no denying she’s a skillful writer. But she’s also written books that are very different from this.

  3. I have not read anything by Spark. There are few writers who wrote consistently great novels. Despite the fact that some people like this one perhaps it is just not her best. I think that the coldest that you mention would also put me off.

    As you know, I have read a lot of Anthony Trollope. He did not like suspense or surprises so he also gave a lot away early. It is an interesting technique.

    • In the 19th century these author intrusions were quite common. Here, it feels almost mean. Not towards the reader but towards the character.
      From the feedback of others, I’d say it’s not her most liked. Although, those who do, really love it.

  4. I read this over 20 years ago and really loved it, maybe because it was completely unlike anything I had ever read before. I can understand though why it might not work for some readers. It’s one book that I’d be interested to reread to see what I feel about it now that I’m older.

  5. I did enjoy The Driving Seat, finding it one of her more disturbing stories. I love the quotes you picked – ‘Bill the macrobiotic’ was enough to make me chuckle. It’s not my favourite (that’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye – which is just madcap and perhaps not the best to move onto), but I’ve loved many of the others mentioned above too. (Yet to read Loitering with Intent though…)

    • Bill the macrobiotic is a hoot. I knew a guy like that. He even went as far as eating whole grain rice uncooked.
      If The Ballad is as madcap as you say, it might not be the next o e I pick. I think I got. Memento Mori somewhere. Nobody mentioned that though.

  6. I really liked this, but I also agree with all you say. It is sly and cold. I just found it so unnerving and weird, I’ve never read anything like it. But it’s not one I recommend to people, because I think in many ways its an unpleasant novel. I can’t really explain why I liked it but I really did! Apparently there’s a film adaptation with Elizabeth Taylor as Lise, which I just can’t picture at all…

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