Monday, 5 April 2010

The Driver's Seat

This is a very hard book to write about, very hard. And if you haven't read it, may also be hard to read about. It is short, a novella, or even a long short story, and it deals essentially with only one day in the life of the protagonist, Lise. We meet Lise as she is shopping for clothes to wear on holiday. Then we travel with her, and spend just one day with her, in an unnamed foreign city. And this sparsity of plot is what makes The Driver's Seat so hard to write about - I could summarise the whole book, every incident, in three lines. I could tell you who she meets and what she does with them, the gist of all her conversations, in two more. But to do so would be to sidestep utterly the point of the book. There is no unexpected ending - we are told early on that her mutilated body will be found by the police the following morning. And Lise, poor, unbalanced, silently screaming Lise, spends the day we spend with her, looking for her murderer. Our only question seems to be: who is he? Which of the several unsavoury male characters that she meets will be the one?

This though, is not, in fact, our only question. Far more pertinent are the questions we have about Lise herself.

I am reminded of Martin Amis' London Fields, although of course, The Driver's Seat came first chronologically, if not in terms of my reading. Amis' murderee "knows the time, she knows the place, she knows the motive, she knows the means. She just doesn't know the man" who will kill her. This too, then, is Lise's predicament. But Spark writes in such a clean, almost jaunty, style that we forget that Lise does not have to go through with it. At any time, she can change her mind and not be murdered. But this does not occur to her, and nor does it occur to us, as we have been told already that her body will be found. It is, therefore, not stoppable.

Lise's movements are reconstructed by the witnesses who see and speak to her. We, as readers, seem to be listening to a series of police interviews. And yet... and yet... that is not what we are hearing, for there is a definite voice narrating this unfortunate tale. Is it Spark's voice? Some other omniscient narrator? And indeed, as omniscience goes, this narrator is seriously lacking, at one point asking us, "Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?"

Why? Why does Lise want to die? Why is suicide not an option, why must she be murdered? Why in this place, on this night, in this way? The more we question her, the further from her, and from knowing the answers to the questions, we seem to get. Is Lise even likable? And does it matter?

It is a story that is read by the head, the intellect, the intelligent part of the reader that wants to know - what does this book tell us about the human condition, about ourselves; what can I learn from it? And yet...and yet... she cries. Lise cries. Quietly and without explanation. And it is this that spoke to my heart. Such tininess, such plain-ness of detail, is what raises Spark's writing above the ordinary. In amongst all the questions this book throws up, the darkness, the coldness, the horror, is just a young woman crying, alone. Not sobbing: that would imply fear. Lise cries tears that simply roll down her cheeks. They are tears of grief.

There is no doubting Muriel Spark's genius as a writer. Jean Brodie has lived with me my whole life, since I first read her story many, many years ago. There too, was a tale edged in darkness. And now Lise will haunt me, forever, I suspect. Spark's women collect in the recesses of my mind, and like shadows in a candlelit house, frequently appear as a flicker in the corner of my mind's eye, so that I am forced to remember them and to consider their various fates. In this way, Spark speaks to my intellect. And yet...and yet...there is the heart, too. Spark always always has heart too.


Mrs. B. said...

I recently read and reviewed this one too. It's indeed brilliant though after I finished it I wasn't quite sure if I liked it or not.I have yet to read Brodie. I loved the film with Maggie Smith years ago and have been meaning to read the book for years. Love that picture of Spark!

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant review! I'd love to read it now. I also see you are currently reading The Chalet School in Exile - I love the Chalet School series!