Monday, June 25, 2012

A Spark of life

Strangely enough, I have more short fiction to share with you today. I guess these are what would be called "novellas": The Driver's Seat and The Finishing School, both by Muriel Spark.

If I were at all smart, I would not be talking about two books in one post. It should be pretty obvious that I need all the material I can get these days; with my return to the US looming in the very near future, I've been reading more scholarly stuff and spending my time on the trains staring at the ads fretting (and frankly the future forecast looks like more of the same). The highlight of my bookly life lately has been recommending a book to The Manolo (!).

But it's best for you the reader if I talk about these two short books together, and I am all about you the reader and that's why you love me. Ahem.

The Driver's Seat is a creepy, creepy little story: there's a lot that's off and unsettling but I couldn't quite put it all together until the very end. Whereas...

The Finishing School is lower-key, featuring two characters who are obsessed with each other, and how their obsession grows and impacts the rest of the community. The Driver's Seat was first published in 1970, and The Finishing School in 2004. The Finishing School understandably has that little bit of unreality about the way it portrays its young adult characters. It's hard to put a finger on any particular scene or detail that's wrong; although the characters have cell phones and laptops it just doesn't quite feel organic. Really the effect is to make the time frame of the novel feel vague, which is not such a bad thing.

Reading these two novels... novellas... really brought out an interesting characteristic of Sparks' writing, which is the way she plays with the timeline and with what you know and don't know. For example, in The Driver's Seat, she states fairly early on that Lise will soon be found murdered. She doesn't hint; she states; it's not so much foreshadowing as foretelling. She does this in The Finishing School as well, and there she also will abruptly move into a scene with two characters discussing something whom you wouldn't expect together. Then the camera moves back, so to speak, and Sparks tells you that they're discussing the matter in bed, and they've been sleeping together for the last several weeks. It's an interesting technique, and I think it helped keep both these shortish stories moving.

The Driver's Seat is part of the Penguin "Modern Classics" series and has an introduction -- which is actually really good. Or maybe I'm just saying that because the author tells you to stop reading at a certain point if you don't know the story already. Thanks, introduction writer! It was one of the hard lessons I had to learn at some point in my grown-up reading career, that "introductions" despite the name are rarely any good for someone reading the book for the first time. Ok, maybe that's an exaggeration. But it's an exaggeration I stand by.


  1. I see what you did with that title.

    I've read...two books by her? No, three. And the only one I really liked was The Abbess of Crewe. She seems to really go for these female authority figures who come unhinged, and I don't know how to feel about that. Other than slightly uncomfortable. But she has her hilarious moments, which are a-ok by me.

    1. That's interesting; because I think the introduction to TDS (too lazy to type) mentions this authority-figure thing, and yet neither of these really has that as a feature. I guess Lise is sort of a controlling female but in the context of the story she's a tourist. And TFS has two male characters at the center.

  2. Introductions are just GIANT, sneaky spoilers of everything that is good and holy in the world. I, too, stand by your exaggeration.