Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat (1970)
Putnam Publishing, 1984

In between, I forget how chilling they are. Muriel Spark novels. Somehow I mix them up with other skinny reads (like Penelope Fitzgerald novels) and other UK authors (like Penelope Lively), and they don’t seem so upsetting, sitting there tidily pressed between paper covers.

And the reading years pass. It was 2005 when I read The Finishing School, 2007 when I read The Girls of Slender Means; both times I was surprised. And, even now, even expecting to be surprised, I remain unsettled and squirmy. The Driver’s Seat caught me unawares, as if I’d come to Muriel Spark without her having chilled me before.

It’s not like I’d forgotten all of it. I thought Memento Mori was deliciously creepy, although Loitering with Intent remains my favorite (but it’s probably time to re-read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). So I knew when we met Lise that she would turn out to be something “other than”.

I am not entirely fooled by the quiet convention promised by her work in the accountants’ office.

“Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick”: I know she is not ruled, not straight.

I looked ahead to her “final and a judging mouth, a precision instrument, a detail-warden of a mouth” and knew that there was more beneath Lise’s surface than we would have guessed at the beginning.

I knew that the description of her apartment was not a sign of order (“Lise keeps her flat as clean-lined and clean to return to after her work as if it were uninhabited”) but, rather,  controlled chaos. I was watching.

I knew that I should be particularly attentive to the gaps. So I sat up a little straighter at the mention that Lise had missed work for months of illness before the novel begins. That the porter’s bell is rung but remains unanswered.

I looked for what was left out, what was not said, what was implied.

I knew there was more to this: “She looks at this envelope as she goes, but whether she has failed to leave it at the door-keeper’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.”

I knew that lips can be parted for so many reasons (Lise’s run the gamut in The Driver’s Seat), but with Muriel Spark’s novels, mine are parted with a gasp. Even when I am expecting the unexpected, she still makes me wince.

Has she surprised you, too, with her fiction?