She enters the Resort Department: she has seen the dress. A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright Vs of orange, mauve and blue. ‘Is it made of that stain-resisting material?’ she asks when she has put it on and is looking at herself in the mirror. ‘Stain-resisting? I don’t know Madam. It’s a washable cotton, but if I were you I’d have it dry-cleaned. It might shrink.’ Lise laughs, and the girl says ‘I’m afraid we haven’t anything really stain-resisting. I’ve never heard of anything like that.’ Lise makes her mouth into a straight line. Then she says, ‘I’ll have it.’ Meanwhile she is pulling off a hanger a summer coat with narrow stripes, red and white, with a white collar; very quickly she tries it on over the new dress. ‘Of course the two don’t go well together,’ says the salesgirl. ‘You’d have to see them on separate.’
commentary: The first few pages of this book have the authentic frisson: a woman is shopping for her holidays, and you slowly realize that there is something wrong here, something off about her and her ways. She has already staged a scene in another shop because she was offered a stain-resistant dress. She is going to insist on wearing the clothes combination that those around her find risible and wrong. She is going on a trip to an unnamed city, and she is planning for something to happen to her there. Early on the reader is told what that is, what her fate is, but I will try not to spoiler. Lise is not ‘normal’ in the accepted way. But the question is: who is in the driving seat?
So it started out very well, but quickly fell into a long cold description of Lise behaving oddly on her journey and at her destination. There was one slight surprise later on, but nothing much else I found to like in the book. Except for the fact that it is very short, <100 pages, a novella.
Incidentally, my copy is a Penguin Modern Classic, and the blurb is ludicrous, and reads as if the writer has not read the book.
Lise leaves everything behind her, transforms herself into a laughing, garishly-dressed temptress and flies abroad on the holiday of a lifetime. But her search for adventure, sex and new experiences takes on a far darker significance…This combination of chicklit and romantic thriller is not, believe me, a fair description of the book.
A while ago, writing about another Spark book, The Public Image, I complained about a blurb which was both idiotic and a huge spoiler - quite the combination - and I also objected to Penguin’s dire blurb on a Kingsley Amis book, The Folks that Live on the Hill. Who writes these things?
I did find a very good description of the book elsewhere:
With its excruciating heroine, bleak mood and unconvincing plot, Muriel Spark's unlovable The Driver's Seat could struggle to win the author new fans
Which is pretty wholesale, but is a fair and accurate description. Searching to see what I had missed – what greatness I should have found in it – I found that line at the top of a most interesting review in the Guardian from 8 years ago. (And almost certainly the tagline wasn’t written by the actual reviewer, Sam Jordison.) I found the review very helpful, and there were a number of comments at the end of the article which were also well worth reading. This was a particularly striking one:
to me Spark has always smelled unpleasant... untrustworthy. I think she was a liar. Not a liar in the good way that fictionists are meant to be, but in the bad everyday way of saying stuff with conviction, and persuasively, that you know to be untrue. You can't believe anything she tells you about anybody else - a somebody else of her own invention or a somebody else who actually really lived in real life.- because I understood exactly what he meant (about various writers, and in fact not usually with Spark), and had never heard exactly that said before. And one thing that was bothering me was that opening and very striking scene about the stain-proof dress. Because I don’t believe there was any such thing, in 1970 or now, and no sales assistant has ever offered it. (But it plainly wasn’t intended as a figment of Lise’s imagination.) Spark, I think, wanted to make some point, some foreshadowing of Lise and her fate, so invented the idea.
Anyway. Not for me. In general I am a strong Spark fan, and the early Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I wrote about with such love recently, and Girls of Slender Means, and the later Loitering with Intent and Far Cry from Kensington – all are wonderful novels and ones that will stand the test of time.
The top picture seems to reflect the colour combinations that Lise likes, though the effect is very fetching here. It is Veruschka in Valentino in 1966, from Kristine’s photostream.
My second choice, from the same source, is also 1966, and shows the multi-coloured squares that Lise particularly liked on the dress that was eventually rejected for being stain-resistant…
Strange that the models have almost the same pose.