The Driver’s Seat

drivers seat

No excuse is needed to re-read Muriel Spark, but the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of The Driver’s Seat seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Of course, it’s not the first Spark novel to make it to the stage – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted into almost every available medium, and a theatrical version of The Girls of Slender Means was to be seen in Edinburgh only a few years ago – but The Driver’s Seat seems such an unlikely candidate for performance. It was, apparently, Spark’s favourite among her novels, but it also has claim to be her most difficult (not difficult to read, difficult to like – just see Sam Jordison’s review in the Guardian if you don’t believe me). Short and sharp, as if written with a scalpel, it not only cuts up the conventions of the murder mystery, it does something similar with those of the novel itself.

Traditionally crime fiction begins with the crime and then unravels, clue by clue, the identity of its perpetrator. In The Driver’s Seat this is reversed: early in the novel we are informed that it will climax in murder:

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s neck-tie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at gate 14.”

The victim is Lise, an office-worker, who begins the novel shopping for holiday clothes, taking offence when she is offered a dress in a material that doesn’t stain. Typically, this comic scene is, in fact, our first indication of Lise’s role as victim. (As she says later, “As if I would want a dress that doesn’t show the stains!” i.e. blood stains). From the beginning she seems determined to leave clues to the uncommitted crime: she buys a garish dress and coat which clash, ensuring she will be noticed, and at the airport she seeks out the brightest cover, “holding the book up against her coat, giggling merrily.” Numerous unnecessary conversations with strangers occur, largely untruthful (her name, after all, is an obvious anagram of Lies). Throughout she claims to be searching for a man in the manner of a romantic novel:

“I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.”

This theme continues at the when the plane lands (“I was sure he was the right one. I’ve got to meet someone.”) and when she goes out shopping with Mrs Fiedke (“The torment of it…Not knowing exactly where and when he’s going to turn up.”) In this second reversal, the victim, rather than the detective, seeks the murderer.

A naturalistic reading of The Driver’s Seat is possible. Lise’s fragile mental state is evidenced in the novel’s first action, when she first laughs hysterically, then bursts into tears at her work. The coincidence of finding herself on the same flight at her killer is explained by her simply having placed herself there deliberately (the word ’followed’ is used, but we assume neutrally at first); she certainly seems to be well informed about him.

Spark herself is less concerned with naturalism, however. Her characters are deliberately superficial. The contents of Lise’s handbag are described in great detail, but we gain no access to the contents of her head. Even factual information is interpreted via observation:

“She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older.”

This is a novel of places, objects and voices – voices that do not communicate but cut across each other at cross purposes. In Lise’s apartment everything has been designed to fold away leaving only flat surfaces, a comment not only on Lise but on the emptiness of the modern world:

“The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into silence and obedient bulks.”

This emptiness is illustrated in fads like Bill’s macrobiotic diet, the momentary disruption of the student protest, and in Mrs Fiedke’s shopping. In retrospect, only Lise is purposeful.

The novel is also about fate and free will, as all Spark’s novels are. Lise attempts to assert her free will in a world where she is fated to be a victim, particularly as a woman. Twice, when she enters a car driven by a man, the man attempts to rape her; on both occasions she escapes with the car, in the driver’s seat. But even the driver’s seat is not the answer, as she tells her murderer:

“You’ll get caught, but at least you’ll have the illusion of a chance to get away in the car.”

Spark called The Driver’s Seat a ‘whydunnit’, but here we are not interested in the killer’s motivation – he is, Lise tells him, “a sex maniac” – but the victim’s, with ‘why?’ echoing in the reader’s mind at her every action until the final moment.

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13 Responses to “The Driver’s Seat”

  1. poppypeacockpens Says:

    My first Spark – recommended by a friend warning me to be prepared to be ‘discomforted’… I was, but in a very good way – reread it immediately & now planning to read more Spark… Just ordered Loitering with Intent after @MarinaSofia’s review… Yer Guardian chap really wasn’t keen was he 😜

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Tremendous review, Grant – great clarity. I wish I had this one in my set of five Spark novels, but sadly not. It sounds superb.

    I have to confess to trying The Comforters fairly recently. Maybe it wasn’t the right time, but I didn’t particularly click with the style and ended up putting it aside. I’ll have to try another at some point, but I’m beginning to wonder if (early) Spark is an acquired taste.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. I don’t think I’d recommend starting with her early novels – I picked up The Batchelors last year and found it hard going. Perhaps the earliest would be The Ballad of Peckham Rye – much more fun. What do you have to hand?

      • JacquiWine Says:

        That’s encouraging – there’s hope for me yet! I have Loitering, Kensington and Symposium (also Memento Mori, but I’ve had to put that one aside too). Would any of these three make a good re-entry point?

  3. MarinaSofia Says:

    Ah, this is one I haven’t read by Spark – and, with my love for crime fiction, it sounds like just the thing for me. Will have to seek it out!

  4. Cathy746books Says:

    I read this at Uni over 20 years ago and you’ve just made me remember why I loved it and want to read it again! Great review.

    • 1streading Says:

      It must be at least twenty years since I read it and I was worried it would disappoint me now, but I found it as riveting as ever – and not at all dated.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Tremendous review was what I was going to say, but Jacqui beat me to it. I thought a lot of people liked this one, I hadn’t realised it wasn’t popular.

    Anyway, nice points on artificiality and theme, and on the “obvious anagram”.

    Which other Sparks have you read out of interest?

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve read them all apart from The Mandelbaum Gate (not sure why) and her short stories.The early seventies ones are particularly good, though I also love the early The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

  6. Séamus Duggan Says:

    I love Spark and this is one I’ve been looking forward to. I’ve read Not To Disturb and The Hothouse… and this sounds similar in style.

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