Alan Taylor 29th March 2010
MURIEL Spark’s Panatella-slim novel, The Driver’s Seat, has been shortlisted for The Lost Man Booker Prize, a wheeze set up to correct a terrible injustice. In 1971 the Booker – as it was then known – changed its rules and many books which were published the previous year and which would normally have been eligible were excluded for consideration for the rookie prize. One was Spark’s. The five others on the shortlist include Nina Bawden’s The Birds on the Trees, Troubles by J.G. Farrell, The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard, Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault and The Vivisector by Patrick White.
Though three judges chose the shortlist it is now up to the Great Unwashed to decide who the winner will be. Voting is via the Man Booker Prize website and the winner will be announced on 19 May, 2010.
Here at the SRB, of course, we cannot look further than Spark’s small but perfectly formed work of art, which she invariably described as her favourite. As Martin Stannard says in his recent biography, it was written when she was at the height of her powers and the chutzpah with which she delivered her tale of Lise (a woman with no surname) who is seeking someone to kill her is simultaneously breathtaking and shocking. Lise is hard to pin down. We know she is thin and about five- foot-six. She might be 29; then again she could be 36. She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking. She travels light and speaks four languages, though we know not which is her native tongue. When she meets men she is viewing them as her potential killer. When she rejects them as “not her type” it is not because of their unsuitability as intimates but because she has no desire to be murdered by them. Typically, Spark lets us know from the outset what Lise’s fate will be. What is unclear is how events will unfold. As Stannard rightly says, the novel “reads in part like the scenario of a film noir, switching back through other cinematic genres: romantic, comedy, slapstick.”
Like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Driver’s Seat made the transformation from print to celluloid, this time, though, with unhappy results. The director was Franco Rossellini, who cast Elizabeth Taylor – no relation – as Lise and, weirdly, Andy Warhol as a peer of the realm. Though Spark obligingly rewrote some of the dialogue for Rossellini, she steered well clear of Taylor and Richard Burton, her husband, who had pledged to stay off the booze. Stannard does not make any comment on the quality of the movie. One movie website, however, describes it as Taylor’s “craziest role ever” and nominates as its most memorable line: “When I diet, I diet and when I orgasm, I orgasm!” It seems to me unlikely that Spark was its author.
Mercifully, the movie is not available on DVD. Asked what she thought of Taylor’s part in it, Spark said she looked as if she wanted to be given a martini rather than be murdered. The novel is available in Penguin Modern Classics. Treat yourself if you haven’t read it.