It could be argued that Muriel Spark was the greatest Scottish writer of the 20th century, and it’s an argument I would have sympathy for. Even if you only know her for the 1961 novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ you’ll be aware that her writing is dark, playful and often wilfully obtuse. More than most writers you get the feeling when you read her that not only did she not bother if people liked her work, she perhaps didn’t expect it. There is a confidence in her writing, and a miraculous consistency in terms of quality, that makes her stand apart. Like most of the central characters in her stories, Muriel Spark couldn’t be ordinary or less than exceptional if she had tried.

* (I would skip the next paragraph if you want to get the full effect of reading the novel for the first time.)

I say stories deliberately, as Spark was a master of the short story as well as the novel, and I would recommend a collection of her shorter prose to everybody. ‘The Driver’s Seat’ falls between the two forms, being only 100 pages long. It is Spark at her most extreme, and shows just how she would play with readers, almost taunting them by subverting their expectations. How else could you explain her decision to tell readers at the beginning of Chapter Three that Lise, the central character, “…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 necktie.” ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is less a whodunit than a ‘whydunnit’, and the novel is about her journey towards that point in her life.

When we first meet Lise she is dress shopping for her trip abroad, and immediately the reader is made aware that all is not well. When offered a dress which ‘doesn’t stain’, she rips the offending item off as if it burns her, angry that she should be offered such a thing. If she is going to have a new dress, she wants it to stain, for reasons that will soon become apparent. It’s an arresting opening, and sets the uneasy tone which runs through ‘The Driver’s Seat’.

As she travels, Lise meets an array of strange characters. She spends time with Mrs Fiedke, an older lady who is waiting for her nephew to join her. The reader is aware that Lise’s behaviour is most unusual, but Mrs Fiedke is just glad of the company and doesn’t seem to notice, or care. Then there’s Bill, the macrobiotic diet guru who has to orgasm once a day as part of his strict lifestyle. Lise soon decides he is ‘not her type’. And that is the constant problem she has. She is looking for a man, but most of them turn out to be not her type, and she is very specific in what she wants. The men she meets constantly let her down, presuming that she is looking for sex, or at least sure that they are.

Often, when coming up with musical breaks for these columns, I just Google the title and see what come up. This month that has worked brilliantly as it took me to a song from the late ‘70s that I had forgotten all about. This is Sniff ‘n’ The Tears with ‘Driver’s Seat’. It’s followed by a clip from the film version of ‘The Driver’s Seat’, also known as ‘Identikit’, which sees Elizabeth Taylor meeting Andy Warhol. Yes, really:

The final chapter of ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is as dark and macabre as anything I have read, and in a lesser author’s hands could have been not only unsettling, but highly distasteful. There is a jet black comedic tone which runs throughout the novel, and it is evidenced in Lise’s matter-of-fact approach to her undertaking. It turns out all her odd behaviour from page 1 onwards was leading to this point, and she has planned it meticulously, just waiting for that last piece of the puzzle to arrive.

‘The Driver’s Seat’ is one of the most disturbing yet honest books you will ever read. Is it about mental illness? Well, Lise seems ‘crazy’ from the start, but then so does everyone else she meets, and at least she has purpose in her life. It’s more about the value of life, and who gives that life value. Is it the individual, or society, or something else? I think that Muriel Spark saw existence as a cruel joke, with her fiction a reflection of her world view, and that was never more clearly, or memorably, expressed than in this novel.

I said at the top of the page that Spark was one of the greatest novelists of her time. In his introduction, John Lanchester states “There are no bad Spark novels”, and I cannot argue against that. So why is she not more widely read? It’s hard to know, although the fact that she is so hard to categorise may have something to do with it. But that refusal to conform is part of her greatness. She looked at the world with equal parts wonder and horror, all with the hint of a knowing smile on her face, and that is what is expressed in her writing. Did she think she was better than everyone else? Probably, but once again, it’s hard to argue against her.

Alistair

All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.

Next Month’s Novel: Sophie Cook’s debut novel, ‘The Glass House’, fits well into the fine Scottish literary tradition of portraying dysfunctional families, and uncovering secrets and lies.

It’s a painful coming of age novel juxtaposed against the beautiful Perthshire countryside, and it’s the terrible reality set against this apparent idyllic life that makes the novel so affecting.

  1. Sophie Cooke, The Glass House (Oct)
  2. Leila Aboulela, The Translator (Nov)
  3. 50th edition of Indelible Ink (Dec)