Tuesday 24 August 2010

The Driver's Seat

I'll kick off with the first novella I read at the weekend... although, first, a detour via the word 'novella'. Peter questioned the criteria for a novella - and he has a point. In the research I did once about short stories, the general consensus seemed to be that there was no strict definition for the novella. It's basically just a short novel, without necessarily any structural differences from a novel proper - and who can determine what qualifies as 'short'? Rather arbitrarily, I said 200 pages - but font and margin sizes can mean that 150 pages of one book would be 300 pages of another, and I didn't have time or energy to make word count estimates... so 200 pages was the number I chose to signify novella! As it turned out, of the seven I read The Driver's Seat (1970) by Muriel Spark was the thickest, at 160 or so pages - although I suspect it had fewer words than some of the others.

The Driver's Seat came with recommendation from Simon S, as did one of the other titles this week - so thanks Simon! It was also, apparently, recently in contention for the 'lost Booker' of 1970. I have read some Muriel Spark before (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) and, while I certainly enjoyed them, they didn't quite click. The Driver's Seat definitely did.

It tells the story of Lise, a woman who leaves work to fly south on holiday... but Lise is an oddball of the oddest variety. She is looking for her 'type' and isn't afraid to accost strangers to tell them so - but, when pressed, isn't sure what her 'type' is - just that she'll know when she finds him. We first meet Lise whilst she is buying clothes for her holiday - settling on a dress: 'a lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright Vs of orange, mauve and blue' along with a red/white striped coat. "Of course, the two don't go well together" says the salesgirl - but Lise thinks otherwise, and welcomes the attention such a brash outfit gives her.

About thirty pages in, the reader gets a bit of a shock. Although it comes quite early on, I won't mention it here - suffice to say, it throws the rest of the novel into some sort of waiting game, the reader never being quite sure where they stand. Spark's prose is deliberately - and deliciously - disorientating. We move in and out of Lise's thoughts, never quite grasping hold of her perspective, nor yet letting it slip entirely out of reach.
Eventually Lise takes a ball-point pen from her bag and marks a spot in a large patch of green, the main parkland of the city. She puts a little cross beside one of the small pictures which is described on the map as 'The Pavilion'. She then folds up the map and replaces it in the pamphlet which she then edges in her hand-bag. The pen lies, apparently forgotten, on the bed. She looks at herself in the glass, touches her hair, then locks her suitcase. She finds the car-keys that she had failed to leave behind this morning and attaches them once more to her key-ring. She puts the bunch of keys in her hand-bag, picks up her paperback book and goes out, locking the door behind her. Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?
The ending didn't come as a huge surprise to me - Spark leaves an enormous clue - but, as with Lise's travel throughout the mysterious city, the journey is easily as important as the destination. I finally see what is so special about Muriel Spark, and will definitely be on the hunt for more of her work now. Suggestions welcome...


  1. Memento Mori! Definitely the cruelest of Spark's works although more insidious than genuinely shocking and "pushing-the-envelope" as The Driver's Seat.

    The Driver's Seat is a neglected gem and I am so pleased that you discovered it.

  2. Phew... am glad you liked it. Interesting you mention the clicking with Spark on this one particularily. I felt something similar. I had read Aiding and Abetting and The Girls of Slender Means liked them alot, kind of liked The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but this one clicked with me too and became one that I loved. I then read Loitering With Intent which has sent me back to liking kind of alot again.

    I am saving Memento Mori which Claire recommends (and Polly once bought me a lovely copy of) till last as I have a feeling I am really going to click with that one too!

  3. I have read all of Spark's work as I studied her at university, and I think ALL her writing is simply brilliant! If you're keen to read more, I'd recommend 'Memento Mori', 'Loitering with Intent', 'The Abbess of Crewe' and 'The Mandelbaum Gate' for starters...

  4. In the magazine The Believer, Nick Hornby has been writing about Spark lately, which spurred me on to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I had been eyeballing The Driver's Seat as follow-up, so it was great reading your entry.

  5. Like you I've read the Prime and one other and thought, "ok quite liked that but not amazing". This sounds the ticket for getting me into MS proper. Thank you.

  6. I liked this one too though I wasn't quite sure at first. It's not a favourite book but it's quite cleverly done. It was my first Spark too and I'm looking forward to reading more.

  7. I've never read Muriel Spark but, coincidentally, I have one of her books here, home from the library:
    A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON. It was recommended by someone whose recommendations I take very seriously: Seattle librarian extraordinaire, Nancy Pearl, in her fabulous anthology BOOK LUST.
    I think I'm going to move it up a bit higher on my TBR pile.

  8. Claire - that's the one people keep mentioning, I'll have to go to the library... want to read more Spark before (ahem) the spark dies out.

    Simon - it's always a little nerve-wracking to see if people will like recommendations, isn't it! But you did very well :) Loitering with Intent will have to be another one to grab... also want to see the film of Jean Brodie.

    N - thanks for the recommendations, especially from someone who's studied Spark and still loves her!

    Pen Name - I do encourage you to track it down! Really quick read, but very striking.

    Catherine - persevere! I hope this is the one to tip the scales for you too.

    Mrs. B - the others I've read aren't quite in the same vein (which may or may not be a good thing for you!) but there's loads of recommendations in the comments from people who know more than me...!

    Yvette - Nancy Pearl has become a heroine of mine after she recommended Miss Hargreaves to the American nation! I haven't heard much about Far Cry From Kensington, but for many years it's been a title I like, and one I always think about when people mention Kensington or 'a far cry'


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