Muriel Spark is pretty much synonymous with strange stories, so it’s unsurprising that The Driver’s Seat, a 1970 novella billed as a “metaphysical shocker” is deeply creepy.
It concerns the last holiday of Lise, a suicidal and lonely woman takes a holiday to an unnamed “southern” country (swarthy blokes, student riots, a couple of languages, old architecture) with the intention of being murdered. Not of killing oneself – that would be a little easy. But of becoming a murder victim.
I’m not actually giving anything away, here. The plan is revealed very early on, though we’re left guessing how and who until the very end, much as in a Christie work. Except Christie never worked macrobiotic orgasm-fanciers into her prose. It’s dated, but it’s swingingly strange.
There’s an element of playing fast and loose with mental illness in this work which appears a lot ropier now than it must have on publication. But what’s great about Spark’s writing is the way the reader senses that even she doesn’t know much about Lise.
There’s a very clean, very precise record of how things appear and what goes on, but there’s a vacuum where the main character sits. We see how she is treated by passing characters but we don’t really get to know much of her. Why is this happening? Can it be stopped? Who is this? All of these are unanswered. The result is a portrait of a stranger losing her mind.
The power of this work is how is grinds towards the end you know is coming. It’s that remorseless movement which makes this truly difficult (though not unpleasant) to read. We know how it’s going to end. We know This Can Not End Well, and yet we’re pulled into the story. If it were longer the appeal mightn’t hold, but at about 100 pages, this is taught and terrible.
There’s occurrences which may derail the plan – but in the same way we always know Superman will come out on top in the end, we know Lise’s plan is likely to be fulfilled. It’s bonkers, yet
(Incidentally, this novella was made into a film in 1974. It starred Elizabeth Taylor, had a cameo from Andy Warhol and looks to be pretty much ridiculous. It’s out of print, but my GOD how I’d love to see it.)