As I think I've already said, I've read four novels for MSRW, and another three over the past two years. I had been thinking that seven in all wasn't bad going but I have already been amazed by the (to me) totally unknown corners of the Spark oeuvre that people are uncovering. Anyway, today I'm going to say something about two of the ones I've come to fresh, as it were, and they are:
I'm not really sure why I chose The Finishing School. I suppose I may have liked the sound of the plot, or the fact that it was set in Switzerland, but I have a feeling it was a fairly arbitrary choice. I certainly hadn't realised until I picked it up that it was MS's last novel, published in 2004 when she was 86. Briefly, the novel tells the story of the events of a term at College Sunrise, a mixed-sex finishing school. Run by would-be novelist Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina, the school started in Brussels but has become a 'mobile school', moving first to Vienna and now located in Switzerland. Rowland's teaching speciality, not surprisingly, is creative writing, and one of the students, seventeen-year-old Chris, is writing a novel which is proceeding at a tremendous rate. Rowland, meanwhile, has a complete writer's block and sits day after day in his office staring at a blank page. This is the central concern of the novel, and very entertaining it is. Rowland hates Chris and would like to drown him in the lake, especially when publishers and film-makers start to take an interest in him and his work. Chris meanwhile resents Rowland's interference, but at the same time is unable to work unless he is somewhere in Rowland's vicinity. Nina is fed up with Rowland and falls into an affair with an attractive local art dealer, while Rowland rather feebly pursues one of the French maids, who is also sleeping with Chris.
I found the novel really charming and often funny. Certainly it's not the best of Spark's work, but even slightly less wonderful Spark is still well worth reading.
The Driver's Seat is quite another kettle of fish. First published in 1970, it was advertised as a 'metaphysical shocker' and is sometimes described as a psychological thriller. Clearly, as you'll know if you are a regular visitor here, this was what attracted me to the novel, but believe me this is quite unlike any psychological thriller I've ever read before. Set somewhere in Northern Europe, perhaps Scandinavia, this novel concerns a young woman called Lise who, at the start, is buying clothes to take on a holiday to warmer southern climes (Italy?). She is trying on a dress which is patterned with green and purple squares on a white background, with blue spots within the green squares, cyclamen spots within the purple. Delighted with the colours she is all set to buy it until the salesgirl says 'And it doesn't stain'.
"Doesn't stain?" The customer has flung the dress aside.
The salesgirl shouts, as if to assist her explanation. "Specially treated fabric...If you spill, like, a drop of sherry you just wipe it off. Look, Miss, you're tearing the neck'.
"Do you think I spill things on my clothes?" the customer shrieks, "Do I look as if I don't eat properly?"
Clearly, Lise has severe psychological problems which become increasingly apparent as the story proceeds. But as the narrative is told from her point of view (and in the present tense) the reader is caught up in her bizarre logic and forced to some extent to go along with it. Her strange taste in clothes, which have to be violently brightly coloured, her sparse room with its interior straight out of, presumably, Ikea, her sudden bursts of anger, and her insistence that she is going on holiday to meet somebody, a gentleman, who she is sure she will recognise once she sees him -- all these and more add up to a very disturbing and disturbed young woman. What's more, Spark tells us at the beginning of Chapter Three that
She 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 now travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.
If you are at all familiar with Spark's novels you will recognise this kind of time-shifting as a very common method of hers -- she uses it a lot, for instance, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Here of course it powerfully affects our reading of what follows. Who is going to perpetrate this act? Could it be macrobiotic Bill, who she meets on the plane, and who wants to sleep with her because his strict diet and lifestyle includes the requirement of one orgasm a day? Or will it be the businessman, also on the plane, who she feels sure is her gentleman but who moves seats quickly to get away from her? Or what about old Mrs Fiedke, who she drags around a department store, tormented all the time by the thought of never knowing exactly when or where he's going to turn up?
As you can probably tell, I really loved this novel. Yes it does contain violence and so some people (Simon for example) may not want to read it. But that is, I would argue, secondary to the brilliance of the characterisation of this extraordinary woman who, for all her borderline insanity, became for me strangely loveable. Highly recommended!