Like many other readers, I have been drawn to Muriel Spark and her rather off-kilter view of the world in recent years, partly prompted by Ali’s celebration of her centenary in 2018. The Driver’s Seat is most definitely at the surreal end of the Sparkian spectrum – in fact, positively unhinged might be a more appropriate way of describing it. I can’t quite decide if it’s utterly brilliant or completely bonkers. A bit of both, I suspect, although I’m very much leaning towards the former. As soon as I’d finished this book, I immediately wanted to go back and read it all over again – one of the signs of a great book, I think.
As the novella opens, we encounter Lise – the central character in this twisted story – shopping for new clothes for a forthcoming holiday. Right from the very start, there is an anxious, unsettling tone to the narrative, one that mirrors Lise’s erratic behaviour when a sales assistant tries to identify something suitable for her. In the first shop, Lise tries on a rather garish dress, which she appears to like until the assistant mentions that the material is resistant to stains. On hearing this, Lise becomes extremely agitated (unreasonably so), and she simply cannot get out of the dress quickly enough. The very idea that she should need a garment made from stain-resistant fabric is completely abhorrent to her. At this stage in the game, we don’t know why Lise is reacting in this way, although the significance of this point becomes somewhat clearer towards the end of the story.
Spark’s descriptions of Lise are gloriously off-kilter, portraying her in a manner which suggests a frenetic energy and a buttoned-up quality to her personality all at once. There are mentions of an illness in her past – quite possibly related to her mental well-being as her neurotic behaviour has been noted at work.
She walks along the broad street, scanning the windows for the dress she needs, the necessary dress. 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 a judging mouth, a precision instrument, a detail-warden of a mouth; (p. 9)
Continuing her frantic search for a suitable outfit, Lise enters another store where she finds the perfect dress – another striking garment in clashing colours and a vivid, asymmetric design.
She swerves in her course at the door of a department store and enters. Resort Department: she has seen the dress. A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue. ‘Is it made of that stain-resisting material?’ she asks when she has put it on and is looking at herself in the mirror. ‘Stain-resisting? I don’t know, Madam. It’s a washable cotton, but if I were you I’d have it dry-cleaned. It might shrink.’ Lise laughs, and the girl says, ‘I’m afraid we haven’t anything really stain-resisting. I’ve never heard of anything like that.’ (p. 10 –11)
Not content with buying one eye-catching garment, Lise tops things off with a statement coat in a colour scheme that completely clashes with the dress she has already selected. Naturally, Lise doesn’t see things this way. In her somewhat deranged world, the two items go very well together, the clashing colours proving an intuitive match for her rather peculiar style.
More weird behaviour follows as Lise makes her way to the airport to catch a flight to an unspecified Mediterranean destination – possibly Naples based on various references to the area in the book. There are strange encounters with the check-in staff and other passengers in the terminal – think The League of Gentlemen or Inside No. 9 – a feature that continues during the journey. While boarding, Lise makes a beeline for a particular man, seating herself next to him on the plane. However, something about Lise’s behaviour disturbs the individual in question, and he moves to a different seat just as the plane is about to take off.
Suddenly her other neighbour looks at Lise in alarm. He stares, as if recognizing her, with his brief-case on his lap, and his hand in the position of pulling out a batch of papers. Something about Lise, about her exchange with the man on her left, has caused a kind of paralysis in his act of fetching out some papers from his brief-case. He opens 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. (p. 27)
I don’t want to say too much about what happens to Lise once she arrives at her destination; I’ll let you discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book. Certain aspects of her trajectory are made very clear from an early stage in the story, although the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the narrative are revealed more gradually over time. What I will say is that Lise appears to be searching for someone in particular, a boyfriend of sorts. At first, we begin to wonder whether this individual is real or merely a figment of Lise’s imagination, particularly given her erratic behaviour.
Interestingly, we never really get to know Lise as a person, her inner self or emotional feelings – even when she tells another character something about herself, it’s almost certainly a fabrication of sorts. There is an unstable, self-destructive aspect to Lise’s nature, a kinetic energy that propels this woman towards her inevitable destination. In some respects, Lise is a fish-out-of-water in the liberated age of the late 1960s. Sex is of no real interest to her; in fact, she positively rejects the idea when various men start making advances towards her.
The novella’s ending is quite brilliant, casting an entirely new light on Lise’s reasons for the visit and her actions while there. Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art.
(Several other bloggers have reviewed this novella including Max, Caroline and Ali. If they’re of interest, you can find my other posts on Spark’s novels here.)
The Driver’s Seat is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.
The Driver’s Seat is rather unhinged I agree, and brilliant at the same time. I couldn’t help but wonder what on earth Muriel Spark was thinking. She is so clever in this novel, brilliantly revealing more about Lise as the novel progresses but in a way that keeps the reader wondering.
I know! She must have been on something wild at the time for her imagination to run riot like that. It’s such a twisted story, completely unpredictable in terms of narrative trajectory. I feel I have to include it in my best-of-the-year list!
This was easily one of the best books I read this year, so fascinating and wonderfully bizarre! I am now quite tempted to reread it.
I think it would easily stand up to multiple readings. Once you know the overall direction of the story, it might be possible to spot other details or clues second time around? I suspect there’s quite a lot to unpack in terms of Lise’s psyche, certainly enough to justify another bite at the cherry.
I have not read Spark. She sounds well worth reading however. I like somewhat unusual narratives about unusual characters. Lise sounds so well crafted. I know people in real life who seem to fabricate almost everything about themselves.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone quite like Lise in real life, certainly not that unhinged. She’s a very distinctive character, one you’d find hard to forget.
I must have a Spark reading/rereading binge sometime soon. This one, to my shame, I’ve — far from just not having read — never even heard of, but it sounds decidedly yummy. Onto the mental list it goes . . .
There’s actually a film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Lise. I’m pretty sure it’s available to view in full via YouTube – definitely something to seek out!
Unhinged is a great word to use for Spark – she really is, but mostly in a wonderful way! I have this one and am keen to read it, having heard so much praise of it. Having said that, I did read a less favourable review recently, can’t remember where, from someone who I think found it too cold and detached. Interesting…. ;)
It certainly has the potential to be a Marmite book. Interestingly, Max wasn’t keen on it (there’s a a link to his review at the and of my piece). He found it oddly cruel and lacking in humanity… but very accomplished from a technical POV. An understandable reaction, I think – especially as we’re all likely to respond to something as striking as this in different ways.
I think it’s a fascinating piece of fiction, the sort of narrative that burrows its way into your brain, resurfacing every now and again when you least expect it. (I found myself thinking about it again fairly recently when I happened to see a woman on TV wearing a red top and bright yellow skirt – not quite as much of a clash as Lise’s outfit but a mismatch nonetheless.) It would be a great choice for a book group, certainly something that would evoke strong responses one way or another. I’d love to hear what you think of it if you can steel yourself to pick it up!
I think it was probably Max’s review I read! I’m sure I will pick it up – after all, I think I expect a certain amount of cruelty from Spark; she rarely gives her characters an easy ride. Hopefully I’ll like it as much as I like Marmite! :D
Ha! Let’s hope so. Actually, it may well have been Caroline’s review that you were thinking of as I just remembered this morning that she had written a post about it fairly recently. (I had avoided reading it at the the time with the intention of saving it until my own piece was done and dusted – but then it slipped my mind as these things tend to do!) Anyway, I’ve just read it, and it’s safe to say that Caroline found the book rather cold and sly, particularly in its depiction of Lise and her behaviour…
A “positively unhinged” story/character sounds like the perfect book to read in these odd times. This is a Muriel Spark I haven’t read but now you’ve got me very curious – will have to pick it up!
Cool! It’s definitely very striking. Clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, especially given the spread of views and comments it seems to have evoked, but a fascinating read nonetheless!
Oh this is a terrifying book. I can’t bear to read it again.
Terrifying is a great word for it. A very disturbing novella…and yet, I found it oddly fascinating!
She’s hit and miss for me. As you may remember I just reviewed it recently and it definitely was a miss. I’m glad it wasn’t my first Spark or I might not read her again.
Oddly enough, I just remembered that you had written about this novella fairly recently, so my post now contains a link to your piece. Apologies for forgetting to include it earlier. (I think it slipped my mind because I hadn’t read it at the time, preferring to wait until my own piece was done and dusted for fear of any bias or blurring of opinions. Anyway, it’s up to date now!) It is something of a Marmite book, evoking strong responses from readers one way or another. As I just mentioned at yours, I would suggest you try wither A Far Cry from Kensingston or Loitering with Intent as your next Spark, whenever you feel minded to try her again. They’re more generous than Driver’s – still wildly imaginative but more humane in tone.
Thanks so much for the link. I just wrote the same in my other reply. I do own Memento Mori. I hope that’s different from this one. It seems many people like Loitering with Intent a lot.
Memento Mori is excellent. Very funny…and yet there are some wonderful touches of poignancy, too. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it more than The Driver’s Seat. :)
I loved this one! Hunted down a film version with Elizabeth Taylor no less. I still remember the scene in the dress shop.
Isn’t it wonderful? So skewed and off-kilter. It makes me wonder what was going on in Spark’s head as she was writing it! I have a link to that film on YouTube, so I shall have to give it a watch. Maybe once things have calmed down at work as my spare time is somewhat limited at the mo.
Great review, Jacqui! This is one of my favourite books by Spark. So disturbing!
Completely! I’m so glad you enjoyed it too. Did you write about it, by any chance? If so, please feel free to add a link to your piece. You’re always welcome to do so.
I really must get around to reading some MS – you have renewed my resolve!
Marvellous! That’s what I like to hear. :)
Terrifying,disturbing, so many different opinions of this book and I love the quote about her lips ‘like the ruled line of a balance sheet’, I must read this!
It’s pretty amazing stuff. Definitely a book that will evoke strong reactions one way or another. I’d love to hear what you think of it. :)
You caught it well I think, and in the comments you caught my thoughts on it well too. I did think it expertly crafted, but it wasn’t at all my book. It felt a bit arid to me, intellectually clever but lacking humanity.
Since I don’t require sympathetic characters in my fiction or realism either it’s not the sort of reaction I’d usually have. I think perhaps this is a great Spark, great craftsmanship, but I’m just not Spark’s reader. Sometimes however good something is we just don’t get on with it.
Thank you. I’m glad I was able to convey something of the essence of the book, and your response to it. I can totally see where you’re coming from with the cruelty and lack of humanity. Spark does have a tendency to put her characters through the mill, and her portrayal of Lise is probably the most extreme example of that trait. I can’t recall if you’ve read either Memento Mori or Loitering with Intent? They’re closer in tone to Kensington, which I seem to recall you liking quite a bit. As you say, you might not be Spark’s reader. Nevertheless, if you’re ever minded to give her another try, those would be the two I would suggest. (Interestingly, I’ve yet to get anywhere with Spark’s debut novel, The Comforters, in spite of three aborted attempts. The only thing that’s keeping me from packing it off to the charity shop is a recommendation from Joanna Walsh; I’m pretty sure she rates it very highly!)
It’s striking how just in those few pull-quotes you’ve chosen one can get an image of this character (the clothes alone make me want to read the thing!).
I know! Her descriptions of Lise are masterful. Completely off-kilter, just like her clothes and general demeanour. Incidentally, the cover of my Penguin edition is spot on – the visual embodiment of Lise in her mismatched outfit…
Spark’s best novel? Probably her most experimental one. It’s interesting you describe it as ‘unhinged’ as it is in some ways almost the opposite: logical, calculated. Is Lise even a character? Spark seems to be verging on Robbe-Grillet . I also seem to remember that the clashing clothes were so that she would be remembered by witnesses – after…
That’s an interesting point about it seeming logical and calculated. You’re making me reassess my perceptions of the book! (Always an interesting aspect of these discussions with other readers.) Maybe it would be fairer to say that the ‘unhinged’ element relates to Lise’s mindset and behaviour? At least that’s my perception of her personality. And yes, I think you’re right about the notion that the clashing colours would be recalled by witnesses afterwards. There’s something very deliberate about that – as you say, premeditated and calculated. A fascinating book!
Have you ever taught it in your classes? I guess I’m wondering how students respond to it…
Hi Jacqui, I think you will probably enjoy this amusing video review of the film version that I included in my review. The reviewer is in the Completely Bonkers camp. https://anzlitlovers.com/2014/10/15/the-drivers-seat-by-muriel-spark-read-by-judi-dench/
Ah, thanks. I’ll take a look at that!
More lovey Muriel Spark, and it does sound quite enigmatic and crazy from the outset. I am intrigued and if I get a moment I will be reading this in 2020!
As usual thanks for the comments.
Very welcome. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it before. A very distinctive book in more ways than one…
Haven’t had much luck with my previous two Sparks. Maybe something “positively unhinged” is in order!
Maybe…If I had to call it, I think you might appreciate this book! Naturally, there’s only one way to find out for sure… ;)
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I rather suspect it is Spark’s reputation and the fact this was nominated as a ‘lost Booker’ that has kindled interest. Tne story has virtually no redeeming qualities, is quite ludicrous and ultimately vacuous. Good job some of her other work supplants this late onset madness.
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