If you knew exactly when you were going to die, and you had just enough money to treat yourself to something you’d desperately wanted all your life or buy presents for the people you loved, what would you choose to do?
This question arose out of contemplation of The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark’s novel nominated for The Lost Booker, ultimately losing out to JG Farrell’s Troubles. It isn’t what Spark is asking her readers to think about, per se- it is just one of those random, idle thoughts that creep into your head.
The Lost Man Booker Prize was thought of as a palliative to the injustice done to books published in 197o and considered worthy of one of the biggest prizes in literature, because the people behind the Booker had suddenly decided in 1971 that books published that very year, and not the previous, would be eligible for the prize. The Booker, too, of course, has been extremely susceptible to controversies like any other prize, and very often books winning the honour don’t seem to justify the hype.
Farrell has been widely spoken of as a worthy winner. Having not read Troubles, I haven‘t thought much about it, but I did enjoy The Driver’s Seat. It doesn’t lay bare the entire story in clear terms- on the contrary, Spark leaves a lot to imagination. While she liberally strews hints of the fate that awaits Lise, her protagonist, as the story builds up, she doesn’t invest in superfluity to describe a history that may be of no consequence. Of course, I’d like to know why Lise acted the way she did, but when a writer challenges her readers to use their heads and come up with plausible explanations for her characters’ actions, she connects with them in a special way- she makes them work for the pleasure of getting the most out of her writing. (The first story to challenge my imagination that comes to my mind is The Lady or the Tiger- a short story from my English textbook at school- where the fate of a man, condemned to death if he opens the wrong door, lies in his passionate, jealous lover’s hands. We wrung our hands in agony and complained about the author’s cruelty in leaving us in the dark.)
The minute details of Lise’s actions are beautifully described- you see her there, in her impossibly bright clothes, conspicuous on account of her jarring incongruity. The various encounters, leading up to the ghastly finale, though seemingly humane, have a sinister undercurrent running through them.
Spark is no ordinary writer. Her power lies in her storytelling and the consummate ease with which she summons it. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a brilliant study of human nature, and at different levels, you more or less begin to sympathise with the characters and condone their fallacies. Jean Brodie, a schoolteacher “in her prime”, creates a close-knit set of girls whom she hopes to impress her mark upon. She dislikes blind, unquestioning conformity, and anything that isn’t good enough for her will not do for the Brodie set either. Her ploy doesn’t succeed the way she hoped it would, and the “betrayal” brings to an end her prime, or so her girls think- but she lives on in several ways, loved and remembered well by the ones she nurtured. The characters are intriguing and human, and extremely interesting to study.
Two novels down, I am still unable to slot Muriel Spark into one particular category as a writer- and I look up with eager eyes at the two thick volumes of her collected writings that stand on my bookshelf.