Thursday, 15 August 2013

Battered Penguins - The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

The Driver's Seat opens with a baffling dialogue between a female customer and an assistant in a clothing shop. The female customer, Lise, who is the central character of the novel, is looking for clothing to wear on holiday, but the sales assistant's advice that the dress she is trying on is stain resistant provokes her to insulted rage. She leaves the shop and goes elsewhere. Then, having bought herself what she needs, - garments that she insists 'go very well together', even though, judging by the reactions of those around her, they do the exact opposite - she goes home to her 'meticulously neat' apartment, prepares for her journey and takes it. However, just before Lise boards her plane to depart on this journey, Spark informs us, without any explanation, that,  

'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 light of this, Lise's statement to her office that she is going to have the time of her life takes on a rather macabre ring.

On the plane and later in the country she is visiting, Lise behaves in ways that appear to make no sense. She engages the counter clerk at the airport in a long, inconsequential, possibly untrue monologue about her travelling habits, she chooses a book solely because of the colour of its cover, she announces to a stranger that she is going to find her boy-friend, she asks the man sitting next to her, 'Do you want to eat me up?', she deliberately leaves her passport stuffed down the back of the seat in a taxi, she befriends an old woman and then abandons her and she asks a policeman, 'Do you carry a revolver?' adding, 'Because if you did you could shoot me.'

Lise also constantly reiterates that she is engaged in a search for a man – someone who is 'her type'. 'I have to meet somebody', she tells a stranger at one point. 'There were two … on the plane', she explains at another. “I thought they were my type, ' she says, 'but they weren't. I was disappointed.' 'The torment of it,' she observes later in the novel, 'Not knowing exactly where and when he's going to turn up.'

Apart from a hint that Lise may have had some kind of breakdown in the past – in the opening scene it emerges that Lise has been given the afternoon off by her superior, who, after Lise had 'begun to laugh hysterically' and then 'started crying all in a flood', has 'conveyed to her that she [has] done again what she had not done for five years' - Spark provides no insight whatsoever into Lise's interior life. While her descriptions of Lise's clothes and surroundings are detailed, she remains steadfastly on the outside. When it comes to what is going on inside the mind of her creation, her only comment is, 'Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?'

I imagine Spark's aim in writing The Driver's Seat was partly to satirise the concept of women needing to find their 'Mr Right' , by presenting Lise's weirdly distorted quest for the one who will be her type. Spark's decision to supply no answer to any of the many 'Why' questions that the narrative provokes in the reader's mind may well be an experiment based on nouveau roman principles. Unfortunately, having read Robbe-Grillet's Le Voyeur and Nathalie Sarraute's Le Planétarium, I regard the nouveau roman as an arid side alley in the development of the novel, leading nowhere in its perverse rejection of the things that make the novel such a wonderful form.

Interestingly, The Driver's Seat, according to my edition, was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor, and it is film, it seems to me, that is the form that suits a narrative that provides no insight into characters or motivation. A novel that insists on dwelling on the surface, while initially intriguing, is actually a failed novel, in my view. Visual narratives now have a medium of expression that is ideal for them – cinema. Novels have another function – to go beyond the visual, to reveal what lies beneath.

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