You answer the phone, an anonymous caller says “Remember You Must Die”….and then hangs up.
Muriel Spark’s third novel, Memento Mori, published in 1959 is a blackly comedic, sometimes savage, sometimes tender journey towards death, following a group of aged upper middle class intellectuals, their servants and companions, towards their final breaths.
To quote a definition of the title (Wiki) :
Memento mori (Latin: “remember that you have to die”) is the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.
Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable
Spark had converted to Catholicism (from Presbyterianism) some 4 years earlier, and faith was clearly important – if not to say a potential conflict, in her life. Spark’s father was Jewish, her mother Presbyterian, and one of the central relationships in this novel, that of a successful writer, Charmian Colston and her wealthy businessman husband, Godfrey, features several spats around what Catholics do and do not believe. Charmian is a Catholic, and Godfrey seems to simultaneously envy and despise her beliefs.
Someone appears to be terrifying several members of the group of elderly and very elderly people as that someone – or perhaps even a group of someones – is making anonymous phone calls. All the caller says is “Remember you must die” Some of the elderly group bear this with equanimity, taking it as a philosophical statement. Others are outraged, terrified or in denial. Curiously, each person describes the caller’s voice very differently, and their attitude towards the phone call, as well as the description of the anonymous voice, seems to suggest more about the nature of the person receiving the call than anything else.
A major concern for all the cast of wonderfully delineated characters is health – both their own, and that of their contemporaries. Everyone is watching everyone else, both for their physical decline and frailties, but, more importantly, for evidence of what is happening to compos mentis. And the observation of the others is not always done with kindly intent, but is as much to do with self-preening, schadenfreude or pure greed – what might be in the fading one’s will, and might steps be taken to ensure one’s own benefit?
There were twelve occupants of the Maud Long Medical Ward (aged people, female)…..These twelve old women were known variously as Granny Roberts, Granny Duncan, Granny Taylor, Grannies Barnacle, Trotsky, Green, Valvona, and so on.
Sometimes, on first being received into her bed, the patient would be shocked and feel rather let down by being called Granny….A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions, But she was a woman practised in restraint; she never displayed her resentment
Everyone’s lives have secrets, and the very elderly, by virtue of their longevity probably have more than the young. No matter that some of the most scandalous and shameful secrets are those from long long ago, keeping secrets of affairs, business malpractice and savage rivalries matter as much to the nonagenarians within these pages as they might to someone in the middle of active exposure.
Trying to discover who is responsible for the alarming ‘Memento Mori’ phone calls, a retired detective is engaged..but, in a nice little crime fiction twist, some of the recipients of the calls suspect the detective himself.
It might sound as if this could be a grim or a depressing book, think, rather, a kind of combination of a lids-off, Ortonesque lively exposure of sexual shenanigans – even though these are innocent by modern standards, with Dorothy Parker sharpened pen nib humour which is barbed and deliciously deadly. Spark is writing about serious matters, and the pathos and sadness blows land, in amidst her sparkling, inventive, sometimes savage account of the one-way journey we are all making
On the first occasion it had been necessary for him to indicate his requirements to her. But now she understood…..(he) placed on the low coffee table a pound note….Without shifting her posture she raised the hem of her skirt at one side until the top of her stocking and her suspender were visible. Then she went on knitting and watching the television screen….(he) gazed at the stocking-top and the glittering steel of the suspender-tip for the space of two minutes silence. Then he pulled back his shoulders as if recalling his propriety, and still in silence, walked out
(I have obviously removed character names as it is for the reader to discover identities!)
There are, for sure some horrible individuals within these pages, lying in wait for the vulnerable; there are also the mildly dotty, the seriously vanished who-knows-where, the kind of lifelong committee person who can be such a stalwart – and such a pain – in the doing-of-good
Spark creates brilliantly drawn characters, and the reader needs to pay attention to all of them; their lives are wonderfully entangled, and there are some complicated twists to discover. It is the economy and precision of her writing which makes this such a delight – and, of course, the fact that though this is a comedic book, in many ways, it is darkly serious at heart. A light touch on an inescapable subject
I read this as part of Ali’s through the year journey with Muriel Spark, ReadingMuriel 2018
BTW, UK readers wanting to buy this on Kindle – at the moment (26th Jan) gets you a translation of the book into Italian. Which may not be what you are hoping to buy.
I believe the lovely Virago Modern Classics version which I got on a used, market place seller, is reprinting and will be out in May