The Driver’s Seat – Muriel Spark

It’s only January and I have already devoured three Muriel Spark novels. I had already posted my thoughts on the rather wonderful Memento Mori, and I have yet to write about The Girls of Slender Means, which was brilliant and lived up to all the hype.

The Driver’s Seat is my third Spark novel this month.

the driver's seat

Of the three, The Driver’s Seat is the weirdest, strangest and the most riveting.

When the book opens, the main character Lise is at a department store trying on a new dress that she is looking to purchase for her vacation. Within a few lines on the opening page itself, we are made aware of Lise’s bizarre behavior when she starts tearing at the dress, impatient to get it off her body.

What sets off this reaction is a comment by the salesgirl that it is an outfit made from a fabric that cannot be stained. Lise is insulted that the salesgirl should even try to sell such a dress to her.

Why is Lise interested in a dress on which stains are easily seen?

Lise’s intention to not conform is once again on display in another shop where she finally purchases a dress with bright, garish colours and a coat which does not go with it at all.

Subsequently, some hints about Lise are doled out to us.

Lise is thin. Her height is about five-foot-six. Her hair is pale brown, probably tinted, a very light streaked lock sweeping from the middle of her hair-line to the top of her crown; her hair is cut short at the sides and back, and is styled high. She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older.

That’s about it. Also, we learn that she has been working at an accountant’s office ‘continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months.’

When her immediate supervisor urges her to go on a much needed vacation, Lise’s reaction once again gives an inkling that all is not possibly well with her from a psychological point of view.

Then she began to laugh hysterically. She finished laughing and started crying all in a flood, while a flurry at the other desks, the jerky backward movements of her little fat supervisor, conveyed to her that she had done again what she had not done for five years.

Lise dons on her brightly coloured and highly mismatched outfit and goes for her vacation to the South, which is never explicitly stated but could possibly be Italy.

Those bright colours ensure that she is never unnoticed as people stare at her wherever she goes. Maybe, that was her intention, that she leaves a mark on people’s minds?

More of Lise’s odd traits start spilling out. We never learn about her nationality and her claim that she can speak four languages seems dubious. Clearly, she is prone to lying.

We now come to that part of the novel (and this is pretty early on actually), where I believe the less said the better.

Indeed, in the first paragraph of Chapter 3, Lise’s fate is revealed to us, but because I delved into this novel having no clue what to expect, I was quite taken aback.

The next paragraph is also significant because it gives an idea of how Spark has turned everything on its head, a development that gives much food for thought after one has completed the book.

Crossing the tarmac to the plane Lise follows, with her quite long stride, closely on the heels of the fellow-passenger whom she appears finally to have chosen to adhere to. This is a rosy-faced, sturdy young man of about thirty; he is dressed in a dark business suit and carries a black brief-case. She follows him purposefully, careful to block the path of any other traveller whose aimless hurry might intervene between Lise and this man.

Why has Lise chosen to adhere to this man? Does she know him?

The development in Chapter 3 pretty much influences how you perceive the rest of the novel because we know what happens, but not the ‘how’ or more importantly, the ‘why?’

Meanwhile, Lise’s contrary and indefinable actions continue even when she reaches her vacation destination.

For starters, she appears to be on some sort of a quest to find her ‘boyfriend’. When she is asked whether there is a young man in her life, Lise responds thus:

‘Yes, I have my boy-friend!’

‘He’s not with you, then?’

‘No. I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.’

The response is a strange one. She is not trying to convey that she hopes to find a man at some point in her life, but that she is literally looking to find the man by the end of the day possibly. However, whatever men she meets, she writes them off as ‘not my type’, a refrain that is peppered throughout the novel.

What ‘type’ is she exactly searching for?

All of this clearly shows that Lise’s mind is unhinged. But is it? Because Spark also gives us hints along the way that Lise seems to have planned it all.

It is in this aspect that Spark refuses to pander to the reader’s expectations. We are constantly wondering why is Lise doing what she does, what is her motive? Spark doesn’t provide any.

Spark, sometimes, meticulously describes Lise’s actions – there is one section in the novel where Lise is in the hotel bathroom, taking out her purchases from her zipper bag, examining them and putting them back in – but Spark does not attempt to examine or even explain what exactly is going on in Lise’s head.

This is also where once again the ingenuity of Spark’s title for the novel is on display.

Who really is in the driver’s seat here? Is it Lise, who despite her heightened oddity, plots how she wants her fate to pan out? Is it Muriel Spark who controls the narrative and refuses to stick to the convention of the genre? Or, is it a literal meaning where Lise is actually in the driver’s seat as the novel reaches its conclusion?

In my new Polygon edition, The Driver’s Seat is a short novel at barely 90 pages, which can be read in a single afternoon. It is a lean, sharp, precise, brilliantly written book with not a single word wasted – all trademarks of a good Muriel Spark novel. Spark has painted a world that is alienated and only amplifies Lise’s heightened sense of isolation making her seem ‘unreal’ but in a compelling way.

It is very difficult to use the word ‘love’ when describing one’s response to the book because it just does not come across as an apt word.

It would be more appropriate to say that this is a superb and ultimately rather unforgettable novel that will be hard to dislodge from the mind.

Andrew O’ Hagan, in the introduction, writes:

The Driver’s Seat is a brilliant manipulation of our expectations, a glass of malt whisky in the middle of a fever, a hallucinogenic journey into moral doubt.

It’s hardly surprising then that Spark labeled it as her favourite of the 22 novels she wrote.

 

The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter

It is interesting how reading moods and phases can change every year. In 2018, I was keen on reading newer books released by some of my favourite publishers, whetting my appetite for innovative writing whether in English or translated literature.

2019 has started out differently. I have been greatly drawn towards early to mid-20th century literature penned by women. I already loved a couple of Muriel Sparks and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer.

Right now, I am thoroughly enjoying Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour and Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy. And I hope to read more of Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor in the coming months and also get to Shirley Jackson and Anita Brookner, whose novels I have not yet read.

Now, into this list, I would also throw in Angela Carter – the focus of this post – whose The Magic Toyshop I simply adored.

magic toyshop

The Magic Toyshop is a beguiling coming of age story that has shades of an adult fairy tale, both wonderfully surreal and grotesque all at once.

When the book opens, 15-year old Melanie is at the cusp of her sexual awareness, that she is a woman and no longer a girl.

The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.

Melanie has a 12-year old brother Jonathan – a strange child, living in a world of his own, fixated on building his model ships – and a 5-year old sister Victoria who is still a toddler. Her parents are well-to-do, and she lives in a clean, well-kept, comfortable home. There is Mrs Rundle, the housekeeper to look after the kids.

In the first chapter, we learn that Melanie’s parents are travelling in the United States, and so the kids are under Mrs Rundle’s care back home.

Melanie, meanwhile, wanders around the house, musing on her newly discovered sexuality, and in the midst of all this, comes upon her mother’s wedding dress. She wears it even if it’s too big for her and steps into the garden. It all becomes too much and scared, she makes a run for the house only to realize it’s locked. She has no choice but to undress completely, climb up a tree to get to her bedroom, and drag her mother’s wedding dress along with her. This scene beautifully captures how Melanie is still in that transition phase, not really a child, but not exactly a grown woman either, somewhere in between. She finally lands in her room, the dress all torn, and a fear of how she is going to tell her mother about it.

But that moment never comes because a telegram arrives relaying the news that her parents are dead. Melanie is devastated. Her world turns upside down.

In the new world, Melanie, with her siblings, has to now stay with her mother’s brother Uncle Philip and his family in South London.

The train was a kind of purgatory, a waiting time, between the known and completed past and the unguessable future which had not yet begun.

Gradually, we are given a glimpse of the family. We learn that Aunt Margaret is incapable of speaking and communicates with her family by writing. Her younger brothers Francie and Finn stay in the same house, Uncle Philip’s apprentices, helping him in the toyshop and the workroom whenever required. Francie is a musician, while Finn has a flair for painting and carefree and more irreverent of the two.

Aunt Margaret immediately takes to the kids especially Victoria and she to her. The chapters when Melanie moves in with her aunt and uncle are particularly poignant. Still beset by grief at the death of her parents and yearning for her old life, she finds it hard to adjust to her new surroundings. Although Aunt Margaret and her brothers do their best to make Melanie comfortable, Uncle Philip’s menacing and dominating personality casts a pall of gloom.

Jonathan, strangely self-sufficient in his own way, immediately adapts to his new life and his penchant for making boats works to his advantage.  Victoria, who is still too young to grasp the drastic changes in her circumstances, looks upon Aunt Margaret as her own mother. It’s as if her previous life didn’t exist.

A far cry from her clean and comfortable upbringing in the country, dirt and grime permeates Melanie’s new South London habitat, and Finn is at the epicenter of it. In fact, it reminded me of Charles Dickens and his masterful novel Bleak House, where the opening page is evocative in its description of a grubby and filthy London.

Eventually, Melanie too comes to love Aunt Margaret and actively starts taking part in their family life, which excludes Uncle Philip of course.

Uncle Philip is monstrous, just the kind of villain you would encounter in a fairytale.

His authority was stifling. Aunt Margaret, frail as a pressed flower, seemed too cowed by his presence even to look at him.

He is brilliant at making toys though but he bullies Finn. Finn’s insouciance particularly infuriates him.

One of Uncle Philip’s pleasures is staging puppet shows with the family as his audience, and here too he demands perfection from Finn. It is symbolic of how he is a tyrant in the household, the family members at his beck and call, as if they are live puppets whom he strings along.

There is one such puppet show staged in the latter half of the novel, at the centre of which is Melanie, which sets the tone for an action packed conclusion, and once again puts a question mark over her future.

Meanwhile, Melanie and Finn are drawn to each other. Carter has subtly and sensitively explored Melanie and Finn’s relationship where Melanie is simultaneously both attracted to and repelled by him, by how dirty and slovenly he is.

The curl of his wrist was a chord of music, perfect, resolved. Melanie suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

It was as if he had put on the quality of maleness like a flamboyant cloak. He was a tawny lion poised for the kill – and was she the prey? She remembered the lover made up out of books and poems she had dreamed of all summer; he crumpled like the paper he was made of before this insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness, filling the room with its reek. She hated it. But she could not take her eyes off him.

Carter is such an interesting writer and her prose is so luscious and captivating. She has an uncanny ability to weave fairytale elements into the mundane and it all seems so effortless.

Here is Melanie, in the first chapter, looking at her mother’s wedding photo…

Photographs are chunks of time you can hold in your hand, this picture a piece of her mother’s best and most beautiful time.

The first chapter is particularly strong in the way she has evoked Melanie’s sexual awakening and her curiosity about her body. Incest is also later hinted at but so expertly handled by Carter that it does not feel shocking. It is a wonderful coming-of-age tale and the dreamlike quality of the writing helps in blunting the impact of the darker shades in the novel.

The Magic Toyshop reminded me a little of Carter’s equally strong The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, where her radical take on fairy tales (as we have known them) was also painted with darker elements and hues of feminism.

The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer

I had a great run with NYRB Classics last year, as two of their books made it to my Best of 2018 list. Those two were – Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig and The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart.

Very keen that 2019 begins on a strong note as well in terms of reading, it only made sense to turn to NYRB Classics again, as I have yet to be disappointed by whatever I have read from their catalogue so far.

I was not wrong. The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer turned out to be heartbreaking and compelling read, yet another winner from the publisher.

pumpkin eater
NYRB Classics Edition

The Pumpkin Eater is a poignant novel about the challenges and pitfalls of marriage and motherhood told through the eyes of a woman narrator, whose first name we never learn, she is always referred to as Mrs Armitage. It is a tale of her descent into despair, and her gradual and tentative recovery.

The name of the novel comes from the following children’s nursery rhyme, also printed in the book at the beginning…

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.

He put her in a pumpkin shell

And there he kept her very well.

When the novel opens, Mrs Armitage (Mrs A) is at the psychiatrist, asked to talk about herself. It is quite a moving and touching opening, displaying how Mrs A is prone to bouts of hopelessness, and yearning to be useful.

‘When I was a child my mother had a wool drawer. It was the bottom drawer in a chest in the dining room and she kept every scrap of wool she had in it. You know, bits from years ago, jumpers she’d knitted me when I was two. Some of the bits were only a few inches long. Well, this drawer was filled with wool, all colours, and whenever it was a wet afternoon she used to make me tidy her wool drawer. It’s perfectly obvious why I tell you this. There was no point in tidying the drawer. The wool was quite useless. You couldn’t have knotted a tea-cosy out of that wool, I mean without enormous patience. She just made me sort it out for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again. You do see what I mean, don’t you?’

‘You would like to be something useful, ‘he said sadly, ‘Like a tea-cosy.’

Mrs A is married to Jake Armitage, who is now a successful screenwriter, a vocation that earns him good money and promises travel. They live in a large, comfortable home with servants who look not only after the house but also Mrs A’s growing brood of children.

Incidentally, Jake is Mrs A’s fourth husband – one of her earlier husbands had died, and she had divorced the other two. Not all her children are from Jake, there are many from her previous marriages too.

From very early on, Mrs A’s insecurity about her purpose in life, and a persistent feeling of fear is very vividly conveyed.

She is enveloped by a sense of emptiness and her so-called comfortable existence only compounds her feeling of isolation. Clearly, the comforts come at a price, not just financially but emotionally as well. Her home and her children are what define Mrs A. But now that there is the household staff to take care of both, what is left for Mrs A to do?

And yet she keeps having more children, possibly because that is the only thing that she knows to do best, which she feels gives meaning to her life much to Jake’s chagrin.

Jake, meanwhile, is anything but an ideal husband. He is quite clear about not wanting to father any more children, there are enough of them already as it is. And he is prone to having extra marital affairs, which keeps Mrs A on the edge because she is fearful of actually discovering them.

Mrs A also keeps referring to the tower (a new house) under construction, a place where the family will move to, a happy ending of sorts. But to the reader it never really comes across that way. It only gives an inkling of the false sense of hope that Mrs A harbours, a dream that will never really shape into reality.

When we went there it looked bleak and foolish, like a monument to a disgraced hero, a folly built for some cancelled celebration.

Through a series of flashbacks, we are also given a glimpse of Mrs A’s childhood, her unrequited love for a clergyman’s son, and her blooming friendship and fascination with Ireen, which only turns to deep disappointment when Ireen comes to stay with them.

Some sketchy details also emerge about Mrs A’s previous marriages although never in any great detail. And the children (who are never named either, the exception being her teenage daughter Dinah) are never presented as individuals but rather as a conglomeration of voices that keep running in and out of the house and demand her attention.

We are also given a hint of the difficult relationship she is likely to have with her children, when three of her very eldest possibly from her first marriage, are sent away to boarding schools when she is about to marry Jake. This is a decision that is taken by Mrs A’s father so that it becomes easier for Jake to provide for the family, a decision that Jake wholeheartedly agrees with. Mrs A’s opinion is not really considered.

All of these incidents only cement the fact that the major decisions in Mrs A’s life are largely taken by the men in her life, and her feelings and views are not given much weight.

If all this gives an impression that it is a bleak tale, it is, only that it is wonderfully written by Penelope Mortimer and in Mrs A she has created a character that is honest, frank, confiding and engaging so that her story tugs at your heartstrings. Large sections of the novel are written in dialogue, at which Mortimer clearly excels.

‘Don’t you think sex without children is a bit messy, Mrs Armitage? Come now. You’re an intelligent woman. Be honest. Don’t you think that the people you most fear are disgusting to you, and hateful, because they are doing something for its own sake, for the mere pleasure of it? Something which you must sanctify, as it were, by incessant reproduction?

‘You really should have been an Inquisitor,’ I said. ‘Do I burn now, or later?’

It really is a feminist novel in some sense, questioning a woman’s role in society as only a mother and a home maker without any other profession or vocation to give her a sense of identity and independence or even solace.

In the introduction to this novel, Daphne Merkin has given an account of Penelope Mortimer’s life and her tumultuous marriage with John Mortimer.

On reading it, one realizes how autobiographical The Pumpkin Eater is – Mrs A’s relationship with Jake is akin to her married life with John Mortimer.  The big difference though is that while Mrs A was dependent on her husband, Penelope Mortimer was not. She was an established author and she had her writing to fall back on, to help exorcise her demons.

On The Pumpkin Eater, Merkin further states:

Despite the passage of more than four decades, its concerns – the essential differences between men and women when it comes to matters of love and sex, the loneliness at the heart of life that can’t be assuaged by marriage or children – have not dated.

Memento Mori – Muriel Spark

For some inexplicable reason, I had never read Muriel Spark before. A few of her novels were languishing on my shelves, but I never felt compelled to open any of them.

But then, last year was Muriel Spark’s Centenary, and a newly generated interest in her books in the blogging world was just the push I needed to finally give her a go.

Also, although The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the one that seems to have gained the most popularity, it was precisely for that reason I decided to settle for another one.

And because I had the lovely Virago 40th anniversary edition of Memento Mori, it was a good enough reason, I thought, to be my first Spark novel.

memento mori
Virago Classics 40th Anniversary Edition

In Memento Mori, Spark touches upon the topics of ageing, mortality and relationships between the older generation, in a writing style that is caustic but laced with humour.

When the novel opens, Dame Lettie Colston (one of the main protagonists in the novel) is on the phone with Inspector Mortimer. Dame Lettie is persistently getting phone calls from a mysterious caller who only utters the words, “Remember you must die.” To be sure Dame Lettie is in her eighties and these calls frighten and perplex her. Moreover, she is convinced the police force is useless and not taking her seriously.

In the same chapter, we are also introduced to Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey Colston and his wife Charmian (the other protagonists in the novel). Godfrey and Charmian are aged 87 and 85 years respectively.

Charmian has been a successful novelist with many books under her belt, and in some sense Godfrey has lived under her shadow and has resented it. Charmian has had a stroke, and it immediately becomes apparent that she is having difficulty remembering people and incidents. For instance, she has a maid to look after her Mrs Anthony, but Charmian keeps calling her Jean.

Jean Taylor incidentally had earlier been Charmian’s maid for many years, but is now living the remainder of her life in a home for aged people. This section particularly has its funny moments (especially how the elderly in the ward judge the nurse in charge of them), and shades of poignancy when it comes to Jean Taylor’s plight.

A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally.

Then there is Lisa Brooke, who in some sense is the absent core of the novel. We are first introduced to her at her own funeral, but while she is not a living voice, we learn in a series of flashbacks, the influence she has had on the relationships of other characters, both while she was alive, and even now when she is dead.

Particularly, there is Mrs Pettigrew, who was Lisa Brooke’s maid. She is all set to inherit a substantial bit of her fortune if Brooke’s will is anything to go by but it is hotly contested by Brooke’s family and another dubious character Guy Leet.

As I write this piece, it has suddenly dawned on me of how many people and plot strands Spark has woven into this novel.

But I will focus on the main ones. And that is the relationship between Godfrey Colston and his wife Charmian, which to me was the highlight of the novel.

The first chapter, where we are introduced to them, is a hoot and pretty much set the tone for the rest of the hilarious exchanges between them.

Charmian has always been the successful one among the two giving Godfrey an inferiority complex, and a recent revival in her books only intensifies this feeling in him.

Hence, Charmian’s illness actually bolsters Godfrey’s sense of self allowing him to boss over and as Charmian puts it, ‘taking your revenge’.

Fifteen years ago, in her seventy-first year, when her memory had started slightly to fail, she realized that Godfrey was turning upon her as one who had been awaiting his revenge. She did not think he was himself aware of this. It was an instinctive reaction to the years of being a talented, celebrated woman’s husband, knowing himself to be reaping continually in her a harvest which he had not sown.

Moreover, it hardly comes as a surprise when we learn of Godfrey’s many infidelities – a fact he is desperate to keep secret from Charmian at all cost for fear of being judged by her.

But Mrs Pettigrew, who has recently been installed in the Colston household, now that Lisa Brooke is no more, manages to get wind of Godfrey’s secret and blackmail him.

Charmian, meanwhile, is no saint either and she too has a past which Godfrey is not aware of. In her own way she longs to be independent and free from Godfrey.

There is one particular section where both Mrs Pettigrew and Godfrey are out, and so she has no choice but to make tea all by herself. It’s a wonderful set piece that highlights Charmian’s immense pleasure in performing this task all on her own, giving her a whiff of independence.

When all was set on the tray she was tempted to have her tea in the kitchen there in Mrs Anthony’s chair.

But she thought of her bright fire in the library. She looked at the tray. Plainly she could never carry it. She would take in the tea-things one by one, even if it took half-an-hour.

By the second section of the novel, practically all the characters get these mysterious calls as did Dame Lettie initially; the message is always the same, calling to attention their impending death. But will this mystery get solved and how serious is it really?

There are also class differences that come across in the novel. Jean Taylor, particularly, wishes to go to a private home in Surry, but is thwarted by Dame Lettie.

Alec Warner had pointed out that these were days of transition, that a person of Jean Taylor’s intelligence and habits might perhaps not feel at home among the general aged of a hospital.

‘If only,’ he said, ‘because she is partly what we have made her, we should look after her.’

He had offered to bear half the cost of keeping Jean in surrey. But Dame Lettie had finally put an end to these arguments by coming to Jean with a challenge, ‘Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours.’

Dame Lettie, meanwhile, is a snob in the way she deals with her family, the way she perceives the police, and the way she handles these mysterious calls.

As I wrote earlier, Memento Mori is the first Spark novel I read, and I was floored.

Old age is not a great place to be in particularly if health is not on your side (based on experiences in my family), and a novel where the focal point is old age can get depressing if it’s not well written.

But that was never the case with Memento Mori.

‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.’

Other than possibly Jean Taylor, all the characters are flawed and none are likeable, which to me actually was a positive. I found them all consistently interesting in their shortcomings and brilliantly etched by Spark’s pen. Her prose is so sharp, deliciously wicked and brimming with wit that I found the novel to be a delightful and addictive black comedy.

A.L. Kennedy, in her introduction, could not have expressed better:

The world according to Muriel Spark is a startling place, constructed with intelligence, relish and extraordinary precision.

Everyone in the novel is well past their prime, with the possibility of death imminent. But it’s a fact nobody wants to accept. Rather than let go gracefully, the vindictiveness and rancor continues as it did in the past when they were young and even in middle age.

Perhaps, they needed to be reminded that they must die? That now is the time to let bygones be bygones and show some compassion?