diary of old and new books #4

The Driver's Seat and The Snow Ball

Jan 23

Title: The Driver’s Seat Author: Muriel Spark Publisher: Penguin Years elapsed: 51 Representative quote:  ‘Her lips are slightly parted; she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually expect for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say for sixteen years and some months.’

Today, as anticipated, is better. Klaus and I go for a walk in the morning. In the park lots of people run, a toddler in an enormous coat weaves figures of eight between plastic cones, a small group of people dressed in full hiking gear approach the gentle incline of the hillock. We give up on our walk before getting to the lake. I love my local park, it is unquestionably the best one in London but, like many of us, the only place I've spent more time than in my home is here. We listen to the records James Baldwin had collected in his house in St Paul de Vence and I try to remember a world in which I once made a pilgrimage there, stayed in someone else’s house, walked the streets of a place I didn’t live. Imagine! I try even to remember a world in which I once felt the sun warm my skin; it has been so cold. Were it possible to go there now, it would be with my shiny new brexit blue passport which I’d open at the border not just to be checked but also to be stamped. Part of my journey might even be, should a ‘prominent brexiteer’ I’ve never heard of have his way, via Britstar. I work on an application for something, we decide on dinner and a movie, and I get into the bath to read Muriel Spark’s The Driver's Seat

The Driver’s Seat is about a woman named Lise who is on her way to get murdered, but not before she finds the right dress. Reading, you don’t know this from the off, but after the opening scene in a shop where Lise is trying on an elaborately patterned mini-dress and then has a disproportionately bad reaction—frantically and indignantly tugging at the zip to remove it as if it’s suddenly full of jack jumpers or had become unbearably scratchy—to the sales person telling her it’s made of stain resistant material, you know something’s up. Still reeling from the implication that she might be so clumsy as to spill ice cream or coffee down her skirt she, with her lips slightly parted, endeavours to find a different outfit from a different shop. When finally she does find a top the colour of lemon zest and a skirt patterned with what sounds like migraine inducing multi-coloured chevrons, she pairs it with a striped coat and the fitting room attendant makes the mistake of suggesting that, all together, it might be a Bit Much. Of course, Lise launches into a diatribe about the woman’s parochial attitudes. The woman is an idiot. It’s the sixties. Lise, like everyone, has a mini-skirt. She’s booked her annual leave. She’s getting on a plane on her own. 

When she is looking for her departure gate, gate 14, that’s when we find out she’s travelling towards her own death, like Vagabond but with intention—desire even—rather than resignation, and that tomorrow she will be found in the grounds of an empty villa having been stabbed. On the plane, she is inevitably seated next to someone who is as evangelical about macrobiotic diets as she is about not being insulted by people who work in shops. When he starts talking I feel my shoulders immediately tighten with the sense memory of similar encounters I’ve had travelling alone. Once on a plane journey home to Oklahoma City a man told me, knowing absolutely nothing about me beyond what he could see, that he referred to people like me as ‘CEOs’. He responded to my confusion with great joy and a look that expressed the deep satisfaction of the upper hand, explaining that people like me attended church on ‘Christmas and Easter Only’ and, smiling, handed me a leaflet produced by his church and urged me to reconsider. My skin prickled with fear and shame for the duration of the flight, as it did when I encountered Bill, TheDriver’s Seat’s yin yangsplainer extraordinaire. You’ve probably met him, he’s got something you don’t want and he wants to give it to you, whether you like it or not. Is he the murderer? You certainly wouldn’t put it past him. But The Driver’s Seat copes with the lack of jeopardy around the fact of Lise’s death by introducing the reader to and building up suspicion not just around Bill but around other men, men with undoubtably weird energies or nefarious intentions of their own. In this way, Spark manages to create an unbelievably taut atmosphere, like an elastic band twitching at its limit. You know what’s going to happen, you know how it’s going to happen, but in the end, even when he is standing over her, blood inevitably staining her dress, you’re not quite sure it’s just him who did it.

Jan 24

Title: The Snow Ball Author: Brigid Brophy Publisher: Faber & Faber Years elapsed: 57 Representative quote: ‘all women want their heads chopped off, don’t you know that yet?’

I have slept well for the first time in weeks and wake up with a cat curled into my stomach. Klaus and I potter, make breakfast sandwiches, and marvel at the snow when it starts. I open the window wide so that Cy can look out and she's transfixed for a long while. Our friend who lives across the way is on her balcony showing her parents in Sydney the snowfall and we wave at her and at them and decide to boot up and go out. Snow transforms the park and the people in it. The landscape feels new, foreshortened by a gauze of poor visibility, somehow more risky but infinitely more fun. There’s an air of ease and calm joy, too, as if everyone has finally exhaled. I am pleased by the change of pace too. The park is usually a chaos of walkers, runners, joggers, cyclists, e-scooterists, roller bladers, and so on but today everyone is moving at more or less the same speed, everyone taking care not to be wrong footed by snow or ice. I spend the afternoon assembling myself a reading list for some upcoming submissions, watch a bit of football, have a bath, clean the kitchen, make dinner, fantasy flat hunt in other countries, and get into bed to read The Snow Ball.

I haven’t ever read any Brophy—but plenty of people I know enjoy her writing, including my pal Eley who has written the wonderful introduction to the new edition—so I don’t really know what to expect from it and don’t try to find out anything beforehand. Afterwards the Faber website tells me about Brophy’s abiding interests in myth, sexuality, Mozart, and psychoanalysis. This tracks, certainly the novel’s protagonist Anna K is not shy about her preoccupation with ‘Mozart, sex, and death.’ but I don’t feel out of my depth reading it or like my ignorance where Mozart is concerned in any way obstructs my enjoyment. And I really do enjoy this book.

The Snow Ball’s action takes place over the course of an eighteenth-century-themed New Year’s ball in Anna’s fancy friend Anne’s enormous and equally fancy house. Anna is alone. She is worrying about ageing and whether or not her face might be considered beautiful. And she’s assessing all the other attendees. She is being assessed, too, though she doesn’t yet know it, by the teenage Ruth who keeps stealing away from her first ball to write in her diary so that she can ‘have exact record of how felt at time: b/se am sure most people falsify when they remember such things afterwards’. Anna sort of reminds me of (very dear!) friends of mine who watch certain TV programmes in despair, pointing out that the bird call in such and such a scene is completely, unforgivably inappropriate for the setting. She is obviously brilliant—possessed of a keen aesthetic sense and an ability to instantly recognise a costume’s period inaccuracy—but at times, like for instance the time of a New Year’s Eve ball, kind of insufferable. She’s convinced people come to fancy dress parties as their daydreams and when challenged by Anne who offers up the five Marie Antoinettes in attendance as evidence to the contrary, says ‘all women want their heads chopped off, don’t you know that yet?’ And there is a sense that the mystery and anonymity afforded by the costume might let loose latent, strange desires. Indeed, when the clock strikes midnight, a masked Don Giovanni kisses Anna ‘gently and erotically’. But no sooner have they found one another than Anna bolts to the plush, sateen bedroom of her host Anne. As she reapplies her makeup, she and Anne share salacious gossip about their lives, their desires, and the other guests before Anna asks, sotto voce, for Anne’s help finding Don Giovanni. For the rest of the novel, we follow these three women. Anne and her husband, who indiscreetly slip in and out of the ball, Ruth, an archetypal rich teenage lesbian with literary ambitions, who has come as Cherubino, and Anna in her pursuit of DG. It’s the hot stuffed leather of books: suffused with excess, intensity, possibility, and a faint, lingering air of threat; oily to the touch, dripping with metaphor, furtive glances, and repartee about music and death; and it’s so densely detailed about everything that it’s almost grotesque. I loved it.