The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

The Driver's Seat cover

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark was first published in 1970 and I borrowed this copy from the library. All of Spark’s books were reprinted last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. This is a very quick read – as are most of her books, just a novella of 90 pages.

Like many of Muriel Spark’s books this is a strange read with really no likeable characters and particularly not the main character Lise. She had been working in an accountancy firm for years and she has decided that it’s time she had a wonderful holiday abroad. The book begins with Lise in a shop trying on a dress to wear on holiday. She ends up buying a dress and summer coat both of which have very distinctive patterns and clashing psychedelic colours. She looks a fright in them but it’s obvious from the beginning that everything that Lise does is calculated to get the attention of as many people as possible.

She gets into odd conversations with complete strangers, obviously determined to be noticed and remembered by everyone she meets. She’s looking for a particular man but she doesn’t know what he’ll look like although she thinks he might be on the plane.

This is a rather dark read but it does have flashes of comedy with one elderly lady saying:

“I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife”. I can see the reasoning behind that!

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book as the storyline is so obvious, it’s supposed to be obvious, the reader knows what Lise is up to, well, I say that maybe it isn’t so obvious to everyone but if you’ve had a Scottish upbringing as Muriel Spark had, then you know all about predestination and that very Scottish phrase – what’s for you will not go by you (your destiny will not pass you by.) It’s part of the Scottish psyche, just ask R.L.Stevenson.

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark was first published in 2000 and it’s the second last book that she wrote. I’ve found Spark’s books to be distinctly uneven and quite a few in my opinion are over praised and I have a theory about that but – later.

Having said that though I found this one to be a lot more entertaining than I expected it to be given the blurb on the back. Normally I’m not all that keen on fiction which involves real people as characters but in this case it works and is acceptable I think.

The actual person involved is Lord Lucan and I well remember watching the news one evening in 1974 – Lord Lucan was missing and his wife was seriously ill in hospital having been battered by him, the nanny had been bludgeoned to death. Lord Lucan was helped by his rich and influential friends and he never was hunted down despite being sought all over the world.

In this book a well-known and very successful psychiatrist Dr Hildegard Wolf is surprised when a man walks into her consulting rooms claiming to be Lord Lucan. He wants her help, she has a strange way of treating her patients as she spends her time talking about herself, but charges the patient a huge fee at the end of each consultation, you have to be wealthy to be able to consult Dr Wolf. What puzzles Dr Wolf most is that she now has two patients claiming to be Lord Lucan and they both look like him.

She wonders if they are working together somehow and have some ulterior motive. As Dr Wolf has a big skeleton in her own cupboard she’s very worried.

This is quite a dark book, but also amusing, I can’t make up my mind about its rating on Goodreads but I’ll probably be generous and give it a 4 as it merits more than a 3.

Now a bit about my theory on Muriel Spark’s reputation. I know that she was a bit of a party animal and she made friends with lots of well-known and successful writers who no doubt helped her a lot when she was forging her own writing career. Nowadays we would probably say that she went on a charm offensive! I suspect that there were plenty of other people writing better books at the time who never got them published due to not having the right connections, but such is life.

The other thing that strikes me about this Penguin copy of the book that I have is that it dates from 2001 and it cost £7.99 or an eye-watering $16.99 Canadian dollars. It has 210 pages, but the print size is massive, it could almost be described as being large print so if it had been published with a more normal print size the book would have been less than half the size it is. Back in the good old days Penguin would have published this novella along with another of her novellas (I have at least one of those Muriel Spark still slim volumes) and the price would have been the same as one normal sized Penguin book. So in 2001 we were being fleeced and probably still are!

The International Style of Muriel Spark at the National Library in Edinburgh

Light show

Yesterday we went up to Edinburgh for several reasons, the first one being to visit the Muriel Spark Exhibition on at the National Library of Scotland. It’s the centenary of her birth. When we got there I was disappointed to see that although they usually encourage people to take photographs they weren’t allowing it in this exhibition for copyright reasons apparently. She was born in Edinburgh but of course spent many years living abroad, mainly in Italy. Well the weather there would have been enticing apart from anything else.

Light show

It’s such a shame that you can’t take photos as Spark seems to have been a hoarder from an early age so there are even jotters from her schooldays of poetry she had written and a school magazine that she had poems published in. She saw herself as a poet despite writing so many novels.

She was a bit of a party animal and corresponded with lots of famous people that she had made friends with including Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, John Updike, Christopher Fry, Miriam Margolyes, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave and even the then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan. There are letters or telegrams from them but the typewritten letter from Marie C. Stopes (the famous contraception for women pioneer) who wrote the book Married Love is a scream. Stopes was vice-president of the Poetry Society and she was incensed at Spark being made president. In her letter Stopes describes Spark as being impertinent to her and she demands to know if Spark had been divorced by her husband. Presumably Stopes didn’t think such a person was fit to be the president. Spark’s reply says that she has no intention of giving her any details of her divorce, implying that Stopes is a dirty old woman for wanting to know what she hopes are salacious details.

If you click on the link above you’ll be able to see some of the things in the exhibition, such as her ration card. There are a couple of her dresses, one a long dark grey silk dress and a lovely blue velvet dress which apparently features in one of her books, I can’t remember which.

If you’re keen on Muriel Spark it’s well worth visiting – if you’re not too far from Edinburgh anyway. There are lots of early copies of her books on display and I just realised that I have far more of her books to track down than I thought.

I think that like many writers Muriel Spark was odd, it’s hard not to feel for her son whom she seems to have abandoned at a very early age, later she was incensed by his devotion to Judaism as an adult – she had ditched that religion and opted to become a Roman Catholic. It looks like she had no maternal instincts which must have been painful for him.

Light show

The photographs are of images that were being projected onto the front of the National Library of Scotland.

The 1968 Club


At the moment I’m reading A Small Town in Germany by Len Deighton for the 1968 Club which has been organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. This week came around far too quickly for me, I had intended to read a few books for it, but here are a few that I’ve read previously.

A Cargo of Eagles by Margery Allingham

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes

It’s an eclectic mix I think you’ll agree. I hope to have A Small Town in Germany finished soon.

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

The Public Image by Muriel Spark was first published in 1968. The setting is Rome and it’s about a young actress called Annabel Christopher. The Italians call her the English Lady-tiger and she’s married to Frederick who was also an actor when they first got married, but Annabel’s career has gone from strength to strength whilst Frederick found it difficult to get work. He eventually takes to screen writing instead, but he’s obviously very disgruntled at his wife’s success, and spends his time trying to chip away at her confidence. Annabel is supposedly a bit dim but of course she’s anything but dim.

It’s at a time when image is everything and so it’s very important that the paparazzi see the Christophers as the perfect married couple. Time and time again Frederick has told himself that he will leave Annabel, he has had a string of affairs over they years, but then Annabel gets pregnant and he delays leaving her again.

Meanwhile Billy O’Brien, a long term friend of Frederick’s since they were at drama college together is equally jealous of Annabel’s career and he does his best to cause trouble for Annabel and Frederick too, whilst pretending to be a friend.

I find Muriel Spark’s work to be very ‘curate’s eggish’ in that for me her books are hit and miss-ish and often just good in parts. I thought this was one of the more enjoyable ones but I found the ending somewhat underwhelming and just unsatisfying. I’m glad I read it though, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, I would have given it 3.5 if possible. My favourite of Spark’s books is still The Girls of Slender Means, but I think I’m quite unusual in that.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark was first published in 1996. It begins with Tom Richards who is a film director, he is in hospital as he has fallen off a crane whilst filming and he has broken a lot of bones, he’s lucky to be live apparently.

It’s the story of him and his dysfunctional family really but as none of them are particularly nice characters I found it difficult to get involved in it all. That could explain why although it’s only about ten days since I finished it, I find it has faded rather quickly from my mind – and that says it all really.

I do find Muriel Spark to be quite hit and missish. This was another choice from a local library and I thought I would give it a go as I haven’t read many of Spark’s more recent books, on balance I think I prefer her earlier work. Of course this is another one which qualifies for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was first published in 1961. It’s one of those books which I seem always to have known about, there have been a few TV dramatisations of it and of course a film starring Maggie Smith and Gordon Jackson. For that reason I was never in a rush to read the book although I have read a lot of Spark’s other books. In fact I think that for a long time I thought I had already read it. For a lot of people this one seems to be their favourite but my favourite is still The Girls of Slender Means, which nobody else seems to rate!

The setting is of course Edinburgh where Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, obviously a rather posh fee-paying establishment. She isn’t keen to stick to the curriculum, preferring to teach her own form of ‘education’ giving her own views on politics and art rather than teaching the arithmetic which will be necessary to get the girls through their exams. The school authorities are not happy about Brodie’s attitude and are looking for a way to get rid of her.

I wasn’t keen on the way this book was written, I don’t like it when an author ‘gives away’ the future fate of characters, jumping ahead to something which happens years in the future, and the repetition annoyed me too. How many times did we have to be told that Rose Stanley was famous for sex? It’s the sort of writing which was more usually used in poetry or song writing where you expect the same refrains to be repeated. But I don’t happen to be a fan of poetry.

It is however a very Scottish or maybe more correctly an Edinburgh book, very Calvinistic and split personality-ish, light and dark. Nothing is as it seems.

What I was thinking about when Miss Brodie was gathering her wee coterie of acolytes about her – her ‘creme de la creme’ was: What were the other girls in the class thinking? The ones deemed not to be special enough to be one of the chosen. I have in fact witnessed something very similar in the past, amongst grown women can you believe it? all fluttering around their goddess. I know that I was just observing and thinking to myself – what a bunch of embarrassing idiots. So the likelihood is that one of the girls, or all of them who were not in the Brodie set, would have spiked the Brodie guns many years before and complained to the headmistress about her via their parents. But that’s me over-thinking a book – as usual, because obviously if that did happen, there would have been no book.

I read this for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge which is thankfully being carried on into 2015. I haven’t read any Scottish non fiction at all this year as far as I can remember and I must rectify that soon.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

The Comforters cover

The Comforters was the first of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels to be published. It was published in 1957 and as I’ve just recently finished reading Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s first novel I have to say that I did notice similarities between the two, they’re both a bit crazy, written by Scots, influenced by Calvinism and are about writing and characters, with books within books. The Book of Job also features in both books.

At the beginning Laurence Manders is on holiday, staying with his grandmother Louisa, and on waking his first morning there he overhears her asking at the baker’s van for a wholemeal loaf, claiming that Laurence won’t eat white bread, which isn’t true. Laurence works for the BBC, isn’t sure if he is still engaged to Caroline Rose and his main hobby seems to be snooping into everyone’s business, even reading their letters. When he finds a cache of diamonds in the centre of the wholemeal loaf he thinks that his grandmother must be part of a diamond smuggling gang.

Caroline Rose, his sometime fiancee has converted to Catholicism, whilst Laurence is a lapsed Catholic. Caroline has taken herself off to a Catholic retreat as she is having some sort of nervous breakdown and hears a typewriter which seems to be narrating her thoughts.

Throw in a handful of unusual characters, including one Georgina Hogg, a ghastly self-righteous and poisonous pain who was almost certainly a nod to James Hogg’s book The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and it all adds up to a strange but enjoyable read, although it isn’t one of my favourites by Spark.

This book was written as Spark was converting to Roman Catholicism and she was very poor and undernourished. Whilst writing the book Spark took Dexedrine which was apparently used as an appetite suppressant in the 1950s but resulted in her having hallucinations, like the Typing Ghost in this book, she didn’t realise that it was the drugs which were to blame for the hallucinations and she continued to take them for 3 or 4 months. Well, they led to this book I suppose and she certainly wasn’t the first writer to have her imagination boosted by drugs. Just think of Lewis Carroll!

I read this as part of the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

Books and a dental mishap

Last night I fancied a treat so I unwrapped a creme egg, my first of the season. I actually paused before chomping into it because that first bite is always a bit scary as the chocolate is so thick at the top. The worst happened I’m afraid and a front capped tooth sheered off, so I had an unexpected trip to my dentist in Glenrothes today to begin to get it all sorted out. I’m now exactly like that girl in the advert which warns you to take care of your teeth – or else!

Anyway, after the dentist I had a look around the town and went into The Works, more in hope than expectation really because their choice of books has been dire the last year or so, but I was in luck. They were having a stock liquidation sale and they had quite a lot of books at the princely sum of £1 each and amazingly there were four that were worth buying. So I bought:

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby. I read and enjoyed South Riding years ago and I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages.

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard
. Apparently this one was on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour but I missed it. I like her writing, sadly she died just a week or so ago, but I suppose she had a good innings – as THEY say.

Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge
. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of her books, this one is yet another Titanic setting which did put me off a bit because I think that that subject has been overdone in the past but I’m sure I’ll enjoy this, if that’s the word in the circumstances.

And lastly, Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White. I’ve never heard of this author before but it’s vintage crime and apparently this book inspired the classic film The Spiral Staircase. I thought that would have been inspired by the Mignon Eberhart book of the same title, but I bow to their superior knowledge!

Crazily, on the way home I dropped into the museum shop as it’s a good place to get unusual cards and I made the mistake of hopping into the library next door, which due to the refurbishment is now only one step away. I couldn’t resist the new books shelves and ended up borrowing:

The Doll – short stories by Daphne du Maurier
Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford
The Comforters by Muriel Spark
Summer by Edith Wharton

I’m trying to read my way through everything by du Maurier. I think it was Peggy who mentioned Elisabeth Gifford, but I haven’t read anything by her yet. The Muriel Spark book will count towards the Read Scotland 2014 challenge and I’m also trying to read my way through everything by Wharton, so that was a great haul of shiny new books. Now I just need the time to read them all!

You might want to have a listen to Pam Ayres reciting her poem – I wish I’d Looked After My Teeth. – It’s exactly how I feel although of course I don’t have her rural English accent. But ‘tak tent’ (pay attention) as we say or used to say in Scotland, and if I ever eat another creme egg I’m thinking that I might just bash it on the head with my rolling pin, to soften it up first. If you have a better idea of how to go about eating one safely, let me know!

Symposium by Muriel Spark

This book was published in 1990 and it begins with the hereditary Lord Suzy shouting “This is Rape” – his home has been burgled during the night as they slept and he feels violated. He can’t stop talking about it and when he and his wife attend a dinner party soon afterwards he is still relating the experience.

It was an okay read but I was glad that it didn’t take long as it’s only 145 pages. I find Spark’s books to be very ‘curate’s eggish’ – I don’t normally rate books but if pushed I would give this one no more than 2 out of 5. The whole storyline is quite predictable. There are no likeable characters and it really annoyed me that she has a character with red hair who is evil and the fact that she has red hair is talked of by others – “…what malign vibes that girl gives out! That red hair – ”

I had thought that that Victorian habit of giving the bad guy red hair had died out but apparently not with Spark. It’s so lazy, just like giving the baddy in a western a black hat or making the evil person in a modern film a chain smoker. It gives sustenance to those idiots (and there are plenty of them around) who think that it’s acceptable to make denigrating remarks to people simply because of the colour of their hair. They wouldn’t get away with it if they were making remarks about the colour of a person’s skin, so I don’t see why it should be acceptable for hair colour. There are characters in this book who tell the police that a person’s red hair is natural -as if it means it’s a foregone conclusion that they are a murderer.

It all adds to the nonsense which redheads are expected to put up with. I’ve always just assumed that people who do that are sick with jealousy!