2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth and I have recently read her autobiography ‘Curriculum Vitae’ and one of her most famous novels ‘The Driver’s Seat’ which was first published in 1970. The main protagonist, Lise, is in her mid-thirties and is unhappy with her dead-end job. She hops on a plane to an unnamed southern European city looking for adventure and has a series of odd interactions with even odder people she meets along the way. Spark ingeniously drops a massive spoiler at the beginning of the third chapter in which it is casually stated that Lise “will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.” The narrative then continues as if this information had never been mentioned and the mystery of who the perpetrator is and how and why the murder occurs isn’t revealed until the final paragraphs.
‘The Driver’s Seat’ is a short and strange book. It’s a very clever example of a “whydunnit” but also one where I felt I was being constantly wrongfooted by its shifting tone and Lise’s frequently irrational and erratic behaviour towards others. Overall, it’s fair to say that ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is written with a distinct air of evasiveness, which makes more sense if considered in the context of Spark’s own life and her numerous reinventions. I recommend Spark’s autobiography ‘Curriculum Vitae’ which I bought in a second-hand bookshop during my visit to Edinburgh last summer. Published in 1992, it is primarily focused on her childhood and early adulthood up until she published her first novel ‘The Comforters’ in 1957.
Born and brought up in Bruntsfield, Spark attended James Gillespie’s School where one of her teachers, Christina Kay, served as the main inspiration for the character of Miss Jean Brodie from her most famous novel. However, it’s clear that Spark keeps the reader at arm’s length from certain aspects of her life. Following the early chapters where she fondly reminisces about people and places from her early years, there is a marked change of tone in the second half where she reveals very little about the more testing parts of her adult life. This is partly out of necessity – she worked at the Foreign Office in an intelligence unit during the Second World War – but the impact of the most significant events are skimmed over, notably her short-lived marriage in Rhodesia and her decision to leave her only son, Robin, to be looked after by her parents.
Spark was a very private person and it seems that one of her main motivations to publish an autobiography was so that she could correct inaccuracies from accounts of her life written by others, listing the errors at length towards the end. While her arch wit is to be admired in her writing, I finished the book with the impression that I really wouldn’t have wanted to get on the wrong side of her in person.
For another perspective of Spark’s life, I also recommend watching the BBC Four documentary ‘The Many Primes of Muriel Spark’ presented by Kirsty Wark and broadcast earlier this year (it’s no longer on BBC iPlayer, but is available on YouTube). Unlike ‘Curriculum Vitae’, the programme gives more detail about Spark’s career and her later years living in Tuscany with her companion, Penelope Jardine, until her death in 2006. Widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, Spark also remains one of the most enigmatic.
Which is your favourite book by Muriel Spark?