My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Murlel Spark’s 1970 short novel The Driver’s Seat, recommended to me by a friend and former student, reminds me of a phrase from another short novel, César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, wherein the protagonist’s life is described as “without secrets and yet somehow still mysterious.”
It is true that Spark’s novel refuses to explain its strange story via the usual post-Austen novelistic strategy of narrating from within its protagonist’s mind; at one point the narrative voice, a present-tense camera-like observer, except one with knowledge of the future, exclaims, “Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?” So this is not a conventional literary novel of inwardness. What is it instead? Spark tells us twice—I will return to these explanations at the end.
The Driver’s Seat is about a thirty-four year old single female professional named Lise who goes on vacation at the behest of her supervisor. She travels from an unnamed Northern city (probably London) to an unnamed Southern city (probably Rome). She buys an unusual outfit—loud clashing colors and odd shapes—and sets off, looking all the while for a man who is her “type.” Lise’s behavior is too weird from the start—as in the opening scene in which she berates a saleswoman for trying to sell her a stain-resistant dress (‘Do you think I spill things on my clothes?’)—for the reader to think that this will be a love story, but Spark’s foreknowing narrator gives the game away at the opening of chapter three:
She 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, in the grounds of an empty villa, in the park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.
Whoever occupies the driver’s seat, the car is heading toward death; and who occupies the driver’s seat is the novel’s animating question. Lise meets all kinds of people in her journey, and all of them are trying to control and manipulate her in some way, from the saleswomen who need to make a sale from her to the the various men she encounters, all of whom (despite every protestation and excuse) just want to fuck her. But Lise takes charge in an ultimate way: the man she is looking for is the one who will kill her, and the purpose of her journey is to arrange her own murder.
Lise is the apotheosis of the liberated woman. Spark does not stint on portraying the constraints from which women wish to be liberated, as the novel’s parade of male predators demonstrates. But this, despite its publication date, is not a “sixties” novel—in fact, it relentlessly mocks what it depicts as that decade’s crankish delusions, from macrobiotics to student revolt. Spark is entirely above imagining a sociopolitical solution to the problems of existence she describes. When Lise takes up with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness from Canada, Mrs. Fiedke, the old lady delivers a marvelous speech against feminism, which she interprets as a vast abdication of male responsibility:
‘They are demanding equal rights with us,’ says Mrs. Fiedke. ‘That’s why I never vote with the Liberals. Perfume, jewellery, hair down to their shoulders, and I’m not talking about the ones who were born like that. I mean, the ones that can’t help it should be put on an island. It’s the others I’m talking about. There was a time they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality today. All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn’t have made them different from us to the naked eye. They don’t want to be all dressed alike any more. Which is only a move against us. You couldn’t run an army like that, let alone the male sex.’ […] ‘If we don’t look lively,’ she says, ‘they will be taking over the homes and the children, and sitting about having chats while we go and fight to defend them and work to keep them. They won’t be content with equal rights only. Next thing they’ll want the upper hand, mark my words. Diamond earrings, I’ve read in the paper.’*
But if Lise can be understood as taking “the driver’s seat” just as so many death-driving male heroes before her have done, from Oedipus to Hamlet to Captain Ahab to Meursault, then she may be the exponent of a tragic non-political nihilist feminism—women having an equal share in the void (not a sign you’d carry at a protest). She says that she’ll miss when she’s gone “all that lonely grief,” the loneliness of people after the cafés have closed, the artist-flâneur-thinker’s share in death while living.
Lise tries to explain the book she is in when she gives to her hotel porter the trashy book she bought in the airport:
‘…it’s a whydunnit in q-sharp major and it has a message: never talk to the short of girls that you wouldn’t leave lying about in your drawing-room for the servants to pick up.’
So this is not a proper literary novel with all that Virginia Woolf free indirect discourse and it is not a genre thriller about who did what (the narrator spoils the plot in chapter three); it is a novel to make us ask why, it is “off the scale” of its form’s traditional aesthetics, and it runs counter to typical portrayals of domestic woman. It is avant-garde and ancient, its protagonist a mobile tragic heroine. The last sentence, describing the moment before Lise’s killer is captured, carefully guides us toward the tragic interpretation:
He sees already the gleaming buttons of the policemen’s uniforms, hears the cold and the confiding, the hot and the barking voices, sees already the holsters and epaulets and all those trappings devised to protect them from the indecent exposure of fear and pity, pity and fear.
“Pity and fear” were Aristotle’s words in the Poetics for the emotions tragedy was meant to purge:
…Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.
…for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.
Lise, a [wo]man like ourselves—a modern middle-class consumer—arranges by “design” an action that will arouse the proper emotions in those who see it on the news or read about it in the newspapers. Spark spells all this out, but the novel’s action is still mysterious.
Back to the final sentence: the police and the press are represented as wishing to evade their purgative—the literature Lise (who never reads) has made of her life and death. Modern life, from conventional gender politics to sixties radicalism, is a conspiracy against feeling the monstrousness of fate, the lonely grief. In the novel’s first chapter, Lise’s apartment is described; made of pine by an architect who later became famous, it stands for the tame kind of order to which Lise’s pursuit of sublime order—order in the chaos of death and destruction—will be contrasted. Of the architect’s work, Spark observes:
The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into silence and into obedient bulks.
Lise is both the tree that will not be subdued and the architect of a spectacle that will display the anarchic forces man (and woman) will never master.
*I enjoyed this passage not only because its predictions have come to pass, but because it is roughly what my grandmothers and great aunts and the nuns at Catholic school thought of feminism when I was a child.