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Muriel Spark: The Driver’s Seat

Spark moves away from her witty style to write a short absurdist novel about a woman who has seemingly gone mad. The woman in question is called Lise. She is from an unnamed Northern country, which may be one of the Scandinavian countries, where she works as an accountant. She clearly causes a certain amount of fear in people, though it is not entirely clear why. Her colleagues encourage her to go on holiday when she has one of her laughing outbursts (something which she previously did five years ago but does on several occasions during the course of the book.) We soon learn that, while on holiday, she will be murdered. We don’t know where she is going – we are only told that it is the South but there are clues that leave us to think it is Italy.

She claims to various people that she is going to meet an unspecified boyfriend but we have considerable doubts about this. She does meet, on the plane, two young men. The first is one of the characters who is afraid of her and rapidly changes his seat. He will later murder her. The other is a keen devotee of macrobiotic cooking and plans to open a macrobiotic café in Naples. He is very eager to have sex with her (his macrobiotic training requires him to have an orgasm a day) and nearly does. Her journey is fairly conventional. Indeed, it seems to be like a visit to an English or American city. Most people seem to speak good English. Most of the visitors seem to be from English-speaking countries. Her main activity the first (and last) day of her visit is to go to a department store, ostensibly to buy gifts. On the way from her hotel she meets the Canadian widow Mrs. Fiedke, who accepts her and her strange behaviour. The two women travel around together. Mrs. Fiedke even tries to fix Lise up with her nephew, Richard, who is to arrive later that day and who is, of course, the man who will murder Lise.

Lise’s behaviour might be described as strange or, rather, absurd. There is not just her outbursts of laughter but other events, such as her deliberate action in leaving her passport in a taxi or her heated refusal to buy a dress when she learns that it resists stains, indicate a woman under stress. It culminates in her final action – encouraging Richard, a known psychopath, to kill her. The message Spark is giving us is clear. Living in our regimented, consumer society can only lead to this sort of irrational response.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Macmillan