Saturday 18 November 2017

Pity and Fear: The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

The tone, from the start, is unsettling, uncanny: over-detailed, affectless, and then with sudden accesses of poetry and metaphor. Of the heroine's pinewood furniture: 'The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into silence and into obedient bulks'. What is Spark's game? For she's certainly playing a game.

Like Anna in Anita Brookner's Fraud, Lise in Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970) has gone missing - or rather is about to go missing. Or rather is about to be brutally murdered. Spark, in typical postmodern Sparkish fashion, larks around with chronology. We know early on, even before Lise has arrived at her final destination - an unnamed probably Mediterranean city - that she is to die. We find out by the end how this comes about, and why. The ending is chillingly bleak.

Lise is unknowable, even by Spark ('Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?'), an author who's in the driver's seat but of a vehicle that's just a little bit out of control. The narrative has an established end-point, but the journey is unpredictable. Lise careers madly from scene to scene, picking up and idly shedding subordinate characters. The novel has a dreamlike quality, but this is a trick. Lise's life and her story are in fact strongly teleological: unknown to the reader, known only to Lise (and Spark, of course), a diabolical plan is in motion. There is nothing random about this novel.

The Driver's Seat depicts an immoral universe and might be seen as an immoral or amoral novel or rather novella: brutish and short. But it lingers in the mind, minatory, cautionary. Take care, says Spark. Her eye may be pitiless - the whole 1960s world of cheap foreign travel is richly evoked - but her heroine is pitiable, and a warning to us all. '[F]ear and pity, pity and fear' echo the tale's closing words.


As this is a blog largely devoted to the work of another author, it would be remiss of me not to consider Brookner's views on Muriel Spark. Here is Brookner in the New York Times in 1984 (see link here), offering a reading of a later Spark novel:
In all her novels Muriel Spark gives the impression that although she has risen above the problem of evil, the struggle has been great; the effort has left her in possession of a high-spirited despair, a sometimes painful irony - painful precisely because it is effective. One has sometimes yearned for what is not there, as if the victory of overcoming has exacted too heavy a forfeit. At times it has seemed as if the heart of the matter has been excised and only the nefarious transactions recorded. […] The Only Problem … is Mrs Spark's best novel since The Driver's Seat, and it is, yet again, a disturbing and exhilarating experience.

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