Last week was Muriel Spark's Birthday. Our book-club just finished reading The Driver's Seat, which has my favorite cover of a Muriel Spark novel, and my least favorite protagonist. In the novel we follow Elise as she prepares for, and begins a holiday in "The South" (somewhere vaguely Italian). But, characteristic of Spark's literary style, in the 3rd chapter we learn that she has been brutally killed on the grounds of a villa, that very evening. What was first a detailed account of a woman's carefully planned (albeit erratic) behavior turns into a death march.
I find the novel perplexing, compelling, and, fair warning, the conclusion is shocking and creepy. We never know why Elise does what she does, we are never allowed into her mind, and yet we see, quickly, that everything she does is deliberate, and wonder how it all leads to her eventual death. Many reviews discuss her evident mental imbalance, but I think a more interesting question is why? Why does she draw attention to herself? What is she looking for? I don't want to give too much away (though I won't really recommend this to everyone, only to people who have a thick skin and like Spark), so I'll leave the questions at that.
When I lead the discussion, I suggested that the book is about free-will and about fate. This quote, below, is what I was really driving at, and seems to me to be the perfect summation of all her work:
People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen in them and I keep this even tone. I’m often very deadpan, but there’s a moral statement too, and what it’s saying is that there’s a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They’re not important in the long run.
- New York Times, April 16, 2006By the way, much as I love Muriel Spark's work, the more I learn about her person the more I dislike her. Sometimes it's good not to read about a beloved artist's life. I don't suppose I'll ever tackle the 3 volume biography of Graham Greene for just this reason.