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Note:  RECIPIENT  of eight honorary doctorates, and in the Top Ten of the Fifty Greatest British Writers Since 1945, Dame Muriel Spark was also SHORTLISTED for the Lost Man Booker Prize for 1970 for this novel.

“Lise’s eyes are widely spaced, blue-grey and dull.  Her lips are a straight line.  She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking.  Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.” – from The Driver’s Seat, 1970.

cover muriel spark driver's seatTen pages into this novella, which Muriel Spark claimed was her favorite among all her novels, the fate of main character Lise is not in doubt. Lise will be dead before the book ends.  Since the reader will suspect who the murderer is well before the murder happens, the author has always preferred to refer to this book not as a “whodunnit,” but as a “whydunnit,” a term she uses within the book.  From the outset the reader observes surreal, alarming, and clinically insane behavior from Lise, the victim.  At the same time the person who seems to be her murderer appears to be a just bit wacky.  Unexpected ironies throughout turn the novel on its head, creating a mood in which dark humor and bizarre surprises keep a smile on the face of the reader almost all the way through the novel – until the reader discovers the truth, that the person in “the driver’s seat” throughout the novel’s action is actually neither of the two main characters.  Instead, the reader has been controlled, managed, and manipulated until  this “whydunnit” of a novel turns into an unparalleled tour de force.

Author Muriel Spark (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Author Muriel Spark
(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Spark, a master of the “telling detail,” introduces Lise as she is shopping for a dress in an unknown European city.  She is about to take a vacation from her work at an accounting office, where she has seven employees working for her.  Single and in her early thirties, she has had periods of illness in the past, ever since she was eighteen, and the search for her dress does not get off to a good start.  Lise becomes outraged that the material of the first dress she has tried on is made of a new, stainless fabric.  Ignoring the advantages the salesperson points out regarding having such a dress while on a busy vacation trip, Lise tears off the dress, and, infuriated and yelling, runs out of the store.  Even Lise recognizes that this behavior is not normal, at this point, and she notes that she has not had a spell like this for five years – the reason her bosses have given her the unexpected vacation.  She continues looking for a travel dress, which she eventually finds,  “a lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue,”  which she will wear with a new summer coat that has narrow red and white stripes.  When a salesperson starts to question the color combination, Lise mocks her  – and the store. The following day, dressed for the trip in her wild, new dress and coat, she ignores the insult about her colors by the woman in the porter’s office at her residence, and with a sense of superiority, departs in a cab for the airport.

plane 3 seatsThe remainder of the book is as full of perfectly chosen, revelatory details as the opening scenes are, and the novella devolves into several locales and scenes within scenes which will keep the reader smiling at the absurdity, even as sinister signs arise regarding Lise and her world. The first such scenes which every person who has ever traveled through an airport will recognize – going through customs, getting a boarding pass, having the passport checked – feel fairly normal. At the bookstore, however, Lise meets a talkative woman whose goal is to find a book with a cover in the right colors for the guest room of her house. This woman will remember her conversation with Lise and report it to the police the following day.  On the plane, the seats are unassigned, and Lise ends up sitting between two young men whom she has noticed in the waiting room with great pleasure and taken care to follow onto the plane.  One, a “shiny” business man sits to her right, and the other, a young man “who seems anxious to be close to her,” sits to her left.  The conversation she has with the young man to her left so alarms the man on the right, however, that he changes his seat just before the plane departs, leaving the other man, who has been flirting with Lise very obviously, now sitting beside her without any others in the row.  This man introduces himself to Lise as “Bill,” telling her that the man who changed seats was “frightened by your psychedelic clothes…but I’m not.”

This Hotel Metropole is in Brussels, though the author does not indicate where the action takes place in this novel.

This Hotel Metropole is in Brussels, though the author does not indicate where the action takes place in this novel.

Bill goes on to share his life with her as an Enlightenment Leader who is going to start a health center in Naples, with special diets featuring macrobiotic foods which balance Yin and Yang. Indicating that he is her type, Bill invites her for a short drink after the flight at the Metropole, where he is staying, and though she pretends that she is supposed to meet someone else, she finally agrees.  From here the action speeds up – and so does Lise, who becomes more and more unhinged but appears more and more in charge.  When she arrives at her small hotel, she argues with the housekeeping staff, repacks her bags, leaves in a taxi she shares with an elderly woman, and “loses” her passport but ignores the fact.  She buys some men’s clothing for her “boyfriend,” gets caught in the chaos of a “stampede” on the streets, and steals a car which she uses to escape some problems.  Eventually, she decides she will meet Bill at the Metropole for a drink and maybe dinner.

Fiat 125, which Lise steals from its owner.

Fiat 125, which Lise steals from its owner.

As Lise’s life becomes more and more crazed, and the expected conclusion gets closer, the reader cannot help but admire the talents of Muriel Spark as she manipulates all her characters through the demands of Lise and keeps the suspense high.  The death of Lise, which has been promised since the opening pages, occurs within some grotesque actions which seem to have been completely engineered and controlled  by Lise.  There are several huge surprises, however, twists in the action which show well and truly who has been in the driver’s seat for the entire novel.  The publisher’s choice of cover should put to rest any questions about this.  A short novella with big ideas and an author in peak form.

ALSO by Spark, reviewed here:  NOT TO DISTURB


Muriel Spark, a photo obviously used for the cover art.

Photos. The author photo appears on https://www.gettyimages.ca   Photo by Uf Andersen.

The plane interior is from https://www.airlinereporter.com

The author does not say where the action takes place.  This Hotel Metropole happens to be located in Brussels. https://www.alamy.com

During the action, Lise steals a Fiat 125 from an attacker and escapes in it.   http://www.kucarfa.nl

This author photo is from:  https://fivedials.com  and was obviously used in designing the cover.

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Classic Novel, England, Humor, Absurdity, Literary, Mystery, Noir, Psychological study
Written by: Muriel Spark
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 05/27/2014
ISBN: 978-0811223010
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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