Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reading group: The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

Warning: plot-spoiler (though whether it matters with this book is a moot point, as our discussion will reveal).

There was radical division in the group over this very short novel (Mark's suggestion) of 1970 in which thirty-four-year-old protagonist Lise sets out on holiday with a firm purpose which appears initially to be to experience a holiday romance or sexual encounter, and in which we are told from fairly near the beginning that 'she will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab wounds.'

Mark pointed out in his introduction that it's a departure in style for Muriel Spark and for this reason when he read it about three years ago he didn't like it, but having thought about it for our meeting he now liked it very much indeed. He felt it's a book that's better for rereading; indeed - as I put in - it both invites and requires rereading, because it's only in the light of the gradual revelation that Lise's purpose is precisely to be murdered, that the true project of the book can be appreciated. However, it was the question of the project of the book over which we were divided, and our conflicting views raised once again the questions of authorial intention and the competing authorities of writer and reader.

Mark, John, Doug and I saw the book as a metafiction, a comment on traditional narrative with its assumption of omniscient authorial authority and confidence in the revelation of psychological truth, and on crime fiction in particular, which, with its careful plotting and complacency about the solubility of mystery, takes the mode to the extreme. The prose here is mannered in a way that, as Mark had indicated, is unlike Spark's usual fluent high satirical English style, and geared I would say to defamiliarise and disrupt conventional expectations, with insistent repetition and surprising, sometimes discordant imagery - a laughing woman in a brown overall, for instance, is 'emitting noise like a brown container of laughing-gas'. By making the protagonist the 'victim' (rather than a detective) and temporally leading up to the crime rather than away from it, and indeed by questioning or even denying her status as a victim, Spark effects a subversion of crime fiction, but thwarts any move towards traditional literary fiction by overturning the conventional literary narrative trajectory and beginning with the revelation of the end of the story, the murder. As Mark said, Spark called the book a 'whydunnit' rather than a whodunnit, but one wonders if this is another of her sly jokes, since, in the psychological terms of traditional novels, we never do find out why Lise wants to be murdered (apart from suggestions throughout that she is mad) - a gap we considered highly intentional on Spark's part - and the book might more accurately be called a howdunnit.

Someone said that Lise herself is a gap, and Spark does indeed withhold significant information about her, and does so in a signalled way via the mannered prose. We do not know Lise's nationality or, in consequence, that of some of the other characters; she never volunteers this information when people she meets tell her, seemingly pointedly, where they are from. We are told, with significant repetition, that she 'speaks four languages'; occasionally we are told she is speaking in one of those languages, which can come as a surprise to disrupt our assumptions and make us realise that on most occasions we do not know which language she is using; we do not know which country she lives in and flies from, we are only told, in Lise's notably stilted dialogue, that she lives in 'the North'; we do not know which city in which country she flies to, only that it is in 'the South' and that from there it is possible to drive to Naples. The narration eschews omniscient knowledge of Lise's feelings or motives but watches her from outside like a camera and, carefully, only surmises - she 'does not appear to listen' - or refuses even to surmise: 'whether she has failed to leave [the envelope] at the doorkeeper's desk by intention, or whether through the distraction of the woman's laughter, one could not tell from her serene face with lips slightly parted'; 'Lisa is lifting the corners of her carefully packed things, as if in absent-minded accompaniment to some thought, who knows what?' - a wry comment, I'd say, on both the fictive detective who takes the reader through a process of deduction via clues and the novelist who presumes possession of the truth about characters and drops clues for the reader. All in all, I said, I took the book as a spoof and a postmodern joke.

Now there were objections. Trevor didn't like my use of the words spoof and joke but he did agree when I said, Well it's a comment on crime fiction. I'm not sure exactly why he wanted this distinction: I think he felt the actual story and character should be taken more seriously than our reading did, and that he himself had felt at less of a distance from them than we had (and thought we were meant to be) (and he did say he had very much enjoyed it).  Jenny also didn't like my use of those terms, and went further: she didn't at all agree with our interpretation. She said she simply took the book as being about Lise's death wish. She said you could tell things about Lise's personality and feelings: she's old-fashioned and she's very controlling, her flat is sparse and over-neat, and we can deduce from the plot that she has spent time in a mental hospital and is deranged. Most of these things are true: it is stated that Lise wears old-fashioned lipstick, and the clothes she wears for her trip are of an old-fashioned length. However, her clothes are purposefully chosen as a chief aspect of the 'trail' that the narration tells us she is laying for detectives later investigating her murder: 'Lise in her knee-covering clothes at this moment looks curiously of the street-prostitute class beside the mini-skirted girls and their mothers whose knees at least can be seen./So she lays the trail'  (my italics). She is certainly very controlling, and her main characteristic betraying this is her firmly closed mouth, but it seems to me that in the context of the withholding of so many other facts about Lise, the constant over-repetition of this authorial observation, linked with the equally frequent observation of her parting her lips slightly 'as if in a trance', amounts to a send-up of this kind of authorial clue-dropping. I'd say the same could be said for the description of her flat, which went on at rather ridiculous but self-conscious length, and I said that I felt that that description had a more metafictive purpose: the way that everything in the flat folds away from view symbolises the way that Lise's inner life is folded away from both narrator or reader. Jenny didn't agree: she saw it as more straightforwardly implying things about Lise's character. Lise's control itself is to me in any case a satirical vehicle rather than a realistic psychological characteristic: by leaving clues for others to find and piece together Lise is acting like an author: she is in effect writing the story, in the narrative driver's seat. Jenny clearly didn't accept this either. She said she took the title 'The Driver's Seat' to mean, more simply, that by choosing to be murdered and setting out to find her murderer, Lise had taken control of events in her life.

Jenny said, in any case there is a plot and clues you can piece together, and it is a whodunnit in that you are kept guessing until the end who is going to be the man - which is true. John had previously noted that there was a conventional laying of red herrings in the form of the other, threatening-seeming men she meets who however turn out to be 'not her type'. Trevor said, mind you, I did think some of the coincidences were ridiculous, in particular the fantastic one of the bloke that Lise had once known and whom she wanted to murder her being on the same flight. I said that I thought that was part of the spoof (hesitating to use the word, but unable to think of a better). In fact the coincidence is developed: he turns out to have been booked into the same tiny hotel at their destination, and one begins to wonder if, rather than its being a coincidence, Lise has plotted even this, but since there is no evidence that we could pick up of such prior plotting we can't know - another send-up in my opinion, or calculated disruption of the conventional techniques of crime fiction. Doug now said that if the novel is the kind of novel Jenny suggested - a crime novel, albeit an inverted one - then it is a really terrible novel, but if it's the postmodern interrogation of such novels that we others thought it, then it's brilliant, and of course we others agreed. Jenny didn't agree with that either; she said she thought it was a good novel on her terms.

There was now some discussion which I'm afraid degenerated quickly into heated argument, as it foundered on our differing understandings of terminology as a result of our differing disciplines. I repeated my belief that you weren't intended to give the novel a psychological reading, and Jenny, a sociologist, strongly objected to my describing her reading of the novel in this way. The heated nature of the exchanges meant that I couldn't ask her why, or explain what I meant (the inference of characters' motives and feelings - their psychology - from descriptions of their behaviour). She and Trevor also objected to the term 'postmodern', and Mark and I did manage to explain what we meant by postmodernism in literary terms: a questioning of traditional narrative modes. Jenny told us what postmodernism was in sociological terms, but I'm afraid I've forgotten it, and Jenny seemed to stick to it in judging the book as not postmodern, so we were equally dismissive of each other's uses of the term. There was a spat about whether the book was realist or surreal. Jenny insisted it was surreal but John objected that the Surrealists were interested above all in the role of the subconscious in the writing process whereas here Spark is utterly, cerebrally in control. Mark now hotly objected that the book isn't surreal at all: the whole thing is couched in the careful realist observationist mode of the detective novel. Doug however pointed out that some of the incidents do have an improbable surreal nature - which is a different use of the term from that of John's, and I think what Jenny meant. I wanted to say that the book is neither of those things, realist or surreal, but playing with both modes to make a specific literary point, but didn't manage to do so. There was a calmer moment as we considered the crucial matter of Lise's wanting to be murdered and engineering her own murder. Some thought that it was so psychologically unrealistic as to be necessarily a kind of send-up, but Trevor and Mark pointed out that, actually, there are known cases of people agreeing to be murdered. I said that I thought it was a satirical comment on the theory, very current at the time of this novel's writing, that the victim is an agent in his or her own murder - Martin Amis's 'murderee', as Mark and Trevor reminded us - but no one seemed particularly interested in pursuing this idea. Finally Trevor made the point that the author may have intended the reading most of us were saying she had, but if people gave it a more conventional reading the author had no control over that, which is a point you can't argue with, and one that writers need to keep in mind.

Afterwards, thinking more about this, I pondered the ending. The policemen who will arrest the murderer are dressed in uniforms and trappings that 'protect them from the indecent exposure of fear and pity, pity and fear.' This, the final line of the novel, is of course a reference to Artistotle's dictum that the arousal of fear and pity in an audience is essential to good drama - an idea that has underpinned Western literature and deeply imbues conventional fiction with its insistence on allowing the reader to identify with and feel for (and believe in) characters, but which has been challenged by twentieth-century literary theory. What does Spark mean by the 'indecent exposure' of those emotions, and whose emotions are the policemen being protected from as they interrogate the murderer? Lise's? Or the murderer's? Because in fact towards the end of the novel I did at last find myself moved and identifying, and, in a reversal of convention, on behalf of and with the murderer. It is quite clear from his behaviour that he is frightened as Lise pushes him towards his crime - 'He is trembling'; ' "Stop trembling," '  she tells him; in a perverse way he becomes her victim - and in fact I found that this passage prompted me to read in the conventional psychological way, ie to know his emotions from his behaviour and that of Lise, and identify with him. It is hard, therefore, not to see this, like the conventional whodunnit embedded in the 'whydunnit' and pointed to by Jenny, as Spark's sly sleight of hand and an acknowledgement of the power of conventional emotion-based fiction.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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