Thursday, 28 September 2017

Spark Again

Having taken a refreshing dip in masculine waters with Donald Westlake, I was soon back with my lady novelists - specifically Muriel Spark. I'd picked up a copy of The Driver's Seat in a local charity shop and, as I hadn't read it before...
 What can I say? It's very short, barely novella length, very strange and, even by Spark's standards, icy cold. It's also an astonishing piece of writing, the kind of thing that only a writer of dazzling talent could bring off (if she does bring it off - many of Spark's most ardent fans, it seems, found this one hard to swallow).
 What is it about? Well, it's impossible to say without giving the plot away - but, as Spark happily does just that by way of opening the third chapter of the book, it hardly matters. Lise, the clearly deranged main character, whom we first meet buying a bizarre selection of garish clothes in a London shop before flying off to some unidentified Mediterranean resort, is a 'murderee' (isn't there one of those in Martin Amis's London Fields? Did he get the idea here?). Lise is setting out to accomplish her own murder. She just needs to find someone to do it...
 We are told almost nothing about Lise, beyond the bare fact that she's worked in the same office for sixteen years - a few hints here and there, but nothing concrete - and must try to work out for ourselves why she is doing this, even as we hang on, pale and aghast, waiting to find out how she will bring it about. Happily there are supporting characters and incidental details - delineated with Spark's characteristic acuity - to diffuse our attention, but it is Lise's unexplained, inexplicable quest that drives the action to its climax.
 The author does not let us into the inner world of anyone in this novel - least of all Lise - but remains outside it all, omniscient but telling us almost nothing.  Perhaps that is the only way to handle these dark materials - and it works, to the extent that it keeps the reader reading, and adds up to something that looks like a satisfying whole, even if it's one you'd really rather not swallow. The New Yorker called The Driver's Seat 'spiny and treacherous', and those adjectives are dead right. It is also, like it or not, a rare piece of virtuoso storytelling.


  1. I heard a discussion on Radio 4 of The Driver's Seat a year or two ago; the book was characterised as being a story in which a woman decides not to be passive but to actively choose to be a victim. The argument was that Spark was making a feminist point. My first reaction was "Tosh" but the idea has stayed with me and may not be utterly idiotic, even if the person proposing it did bang on about "agency" and "empowerment" in a manner that made me uneasy.

  2. Oh dear, that sounds pretty silly - a woman's right to be murdered! Lise certainly has 'agency', but she's equally certainly round the bend...