The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark was once commonly mentioned in the same breath as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, this is due in part to her  being Romantic Catholic, but mainly due to her precocious talent. Despite this, before The Driver’s Seat was book of the month at my book group, the only other book of hers that I had read was The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie. I also saw Scottish actress, Ashley Jensen, appear in a play of the same title in the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, many years ago, long before she was famous!

Muriel Spark was born, Muriel Sarah Camberg, in Edinburgh, on February 1, 1918. She was educated in muriel sparkEdinburgh,  where she attended the James Gillespie’s High School for Girls. There she met educator Christina Kay who became the inspiration for one of Spark’s most famous characters, Jean Brodie.  Although Spark is well known for her novels, she started writing through poetry and became editor of Poetry Review, and later published a series of biographies on figures like William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë. She is best known for her novels, notably Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In 1993, Spark received a special honor from Queen Elizabeth II. She named a Dame of the British Empire. Four years later, Spark won David Cohen Literature Prize for her life’s work. In 2004, Spark published The Finishing School, which proved to be her final novel. She died on April 13, 2006, in Florence, Italy.

The Driver’s Seat is a novella by Muriel Spark. Published in 1970, it was advertised as “a metaphysical shocker”. However, members of the book group were pleased that it was not a long book and was by a respected writer they had heard of.  It is indeed in the psychological thriller genre, dealing with themes of alienation, isolation and loss of spiritual values.

driver's seatThe book begins with a terse, quick scene demonstrating the extravagant madness of a 36-year-old woman called Lise. She takes the afternoon off work to do some packing for the holiday she is about to go on. Then she goes to a shop and selects a red and white coat and an orange, mauve and blue dress. When the salesgirl suggests she might not be able to wear them together, Lise abruptly disagrees. Lise’s presence is frequently excruciating. We are encouraged to laugh at her – but constantly reminded that to do so is awful. Especially when Lise herself mirrors that laughter with her own mad hilarity. I, for one did not find this a humourous book. I found it rather disjointed and very difficult to read. I was not alone amongst the group in that.

On the plane, Lise encounters a man called Bill who claims to be an Enlightenment Leader, a believer in the benefits of macrobiotic food and the principle that everybody should have one orgasm a day. Today, he is determined that Lise will help him have his: she, again does not agree. She elects instead upon landing to go on a shopping trip with Mrs Fiedke, a garrulous old woman, given to flashes of comical wisdom: the only real humour I recognised in this book. If The Driver’s Seat is a comedy, it is a bleak one. It is written throughout in a pressing, immediate present tense, so the story takes on an even darker hue because early on we are told that Lise will be found dead tomorrow. The book is a march to death. There is no question of whether Lise will be murdered, the only question is when and how. The answers, like much else in The Driver’s Seat, are unconvincing: in very few words Lise persuades another man she meets in the lobby of a hotel to take her away and strangle her. Like much else, too, this climax is nasty. I did not enjoy this book. The gratuitous unpleasantness was disappointing. I cannot recommend this book.

Valerie Penny



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