Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Without going into all the details, it’s probably fair to say that my previous encounters with Muriel Spark have been a little mixed. Nevertheless, given how enthusiastic several of my blogging friends are about this author, I’ve been meaning to give her another try for a while. Having just finished Memento Mori, I think I am finally beginning to see what there is to love about Spark, in particular her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. Judging by this book alone, she was quite a writer.

spark

First published in 1959, Memento Mori focuses on the lives of a group of English ladies and gentlemen in their seventies and eighties, all of whom are linked by family ties, social connections and various secrets reaching back over the previous fifty years. As the novel opens, we learn that Dame Lettie Colston (one of the central characters in the book) has been on the receiving end of a sequence of mysterious phone calls from an unknown male caller. Each time the message is the same: ‘Remember you must die.’  The police seem of little help in the matter, and the nuisance calls continue. Another more conventional writer would have used this set-up as the basis for a mystery novel, focusing on the incidents themselves and the search for the perpetrator. However, Spark does something much more interesting with this idea, using it instead as a means of exposing the behaviours of various members of the group, exploring a range of social issues such as class, ageing and our attitudes to mortality.

While Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey shows some concern for his sister’s welfare, he has pressing problems of his own to deal with. His elderly wife, the once-famous author Charmian Piper, is now in need of care as she is exhibiting signs of dementia. Much of the joy of this novel comes from the acerbic exchanges between the various members of this family, the delightful Charmian being especially prone to mixing everything up in her mind. Here’s a brief extract from one of their conversations.

‘Are there lots of obituaries today?’ said Charmian.

‘Oh, don’t be gruesome,’ said Lettie.

‘Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?’ Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

‘Well, I should like the war news,’ Charmian said.

‘The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,’ Dame Lettie said. ‘If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean perhaps…?’

‘Lettie, please,’ said Godfrey. He noticed that Lettie’s hand was unsteady as she raised her cup, and the twitch on her large left cheek was pronounced. He thought in how much better form he himself was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine. (pp. 5-6)

Towards the end of that quote, Spark touches on one of the novel’s recurring themes, namely the different characters’ observations on the process of ageing. Godfrey is proud to be in control of all his faculties, and as such he has a tendency to measure himself against his various friends and peers. Another member of the group, the gerontologist Alec Warner, makes a habit of covertly studying each of his elderly acquaintances by way of an amenable third party (Olive, granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering), recording intimate details about them on a series of coded index cards. He seems strangely obsessed with every aspect of their behaviour as a means assessing their mental and physical health.

While Memento Mori is not a traditional plot-driven novel, several developments happen along the way to keep the reader entertained. At an early stage in the story, Lisa Brooke, a long-standing acquaintance of Godfrey and Charmian, passes away, leaving a significant inheritance to be settled. Her former carer, the poisonous but highly capable Mrs Pettigrew, is staking her claim on the estate, as are the remaining members of Lisa’s family and her estranged husband, Guy Leet. While the details of Lisa’s will are being investigated, Mrs Pettigrew accepts a role as Charmian’s carer, thereby creating all manner of mischief and tension within the Colston household. There are some priceless exchanges between Mrs P and Mrs Anthony, Godfrey and Charmian’s housekeeper – too long to quote here in detail, they are tremendously well-observed. The sly and cunning Mrs Pettigrew isn’t above a spot of blackmail either. She recognises several weaknesses in Godfrey, most notably his strong sense of male pride and his penchant for the occasional dalliance here and there. As such, she sets out to use these flaws in his character to her advantage.

One of the most enjoyable things about this novel is Spark’s portrayal of the relationship between Godfrey and Charmian. There is a very interesting dynamic here. As Charmian starts to rally, her mind improving and sharpening over the winter months, Godfrey finds himself experiencing a corresponding decline. It is almost as though Charmian’s spirits have to wither before Godfrey’s can bloom. As it turns out, Godfrey has always been a little resentful of his wife’s success as a novelist. In some ways he seems to enjoy bullying Charmian, treating her as a helpless child whose memory cannot be trusted. There is a wonderful scene where Charmian makes an afternoon tea all on her own while Godfrey and the others are out. Nevertheless, on their return neither Godfrey nor Mrs Pettigrew is willing to believe Charmian, Mrs P deliberately lying in the process as a means of putting her charge in her place. I love this next passage where Charmian begins to question her sense of duty to Godfrey.

She looked at Godfrey who was wolfing his rice pudding without, she was sure, noticing what he was eating, and she wondered what was on his mind. She wondered what new torment Mrs Pettigrew was practising upon him. She wondered how much of his past life Mrs Pettigrew had discovered, and why he felt it necessary to hush it up at all such costs. She wondered where her own duty to Godfrey lay – where does one’s duty as a wife reach its limits? She longed to be away in the nursing home in Surrey, and was surprised at this longing of hers, since all her life she had suffered from apprehensions of being in the power of strangers, and Godfrey had always seemed better than the devil she did not know. (p. 125)

Interestingly, there is another strand within the novel, one in which the quietly tragic rubs up against the darkly comic. Charmian’s former maid and carer, Jean Taylor, now resides in the geriatric ward of a public hospital. This thread allows Spark to convey a different set of emotions, namely the loss of independence and sense of humiliation one may well experience on entering such a place.

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 practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally. A nurse brought her an injection. (p. 10)

The other grannies in Jean Taylor’s ward provide some comic moments to balance the poignancy, obsessed as they are with the constant rewriting of their wills and the search through the horoscopes for signs of good news.

Spark also uses this element of the story to pass comment on a range of social issues. Before she entered the hospital, Jean Taylor had longed to move to a private nursing home in Surrey; but Godfrey (her employer at the time) had quibbled about the cost, preferring instead to extol the virtues of the new and progressive free hospitals with their advanced standards of care. This would not do for Godfrey himself of course; instead, this distinguished gentleman imagines himself spending his final years in a nice hotel, possibly somewhere like the establishment in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful book, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

By the end of this marvellous novel, virtually all of the main players in the group will have received one of the mysterious telephone calls with the message ‘remember you must die’. Astute readers may have guessed the true identity of the caller by now, but if not, all will be revealed in the closing stages of the story. In Memento Mori, Spark has delivered a sharp yet moving tragi-comedy about the nature of ageing, one that might just provide us with a timely reminder of our own mortality and the need to treat each other with compassion while we’re still here.

Memento Mori is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

73 thoughts on “Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

  1. 1streading

    So pleased you enjoyed this. Hard to believe Spark wrote such an accomplished meditation on ageing early in her career. Hopefully this will lead you on to many more of her wonderful novels!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I owe you a big ‘thank you’ for encouraging me to preserve with Spark. I think I’m finally beginning to come round to her charms! Yes, good point about this coming so early in her writing career (I think she was only 41 at the time). It’s quite remarkable really, especially given the insight into the emotional impact of ageing and some of the challenges this process can present. I wonder how she managed to capture that so accurately…

      As for more Spark, I’m hoping this will be the gateway novel for me. I still have another three or four of her novels on the shelves so I’m certainly not short of options!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, good point about the metaphysical. She uses it to great effect here; it’s such a key element of the mood she creates. As you say, so clever. I think I’m going to enjoy reading more of Ms Spark in the future!

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    This sounds both entertaining and a salutary warning! Spark was just into her 40s in 1959 – well into middle-age for that time. I wondered if it was crossing that threshold which had prompted the novel. Great review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, I wonder. I guess I was thinking of 41 as being relatively young, but you’re right to point out that the ageing thresholds were much lower in those days. Even so, she seems to have captured the world of these elderly characters so effectively. It’s a terrific novel, very sharp and clever for its time.

      Reply
  3. Caroline (Bookword)

    There is a great deal to enjoy and admire in this novel, especially the disembodied voice of the reminder. But I found the eccentricities too distracting, too nasty, too like Angus Wilson to really appreciate this novel. The sharpness is at the expense of ageing not in sympathy with it, or to see much of its possibilities.
    Great review, as usual.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting. It’s definitely more acerbic than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, that’s for sure. I can see what you mean about the sharpness. Poor Charmian had a rough deal at times, not only from her family but from Mrs Pettigrew too. Even so, I thought the scene where she prepared the afternoon tea all on her own was really touching – and it demonstrated what she could do when given the freedom and scope to make her own decisions.

      Have you reviewed this one, Caroline? I was thinking about how it might fit with your older women in fiction series (or perhaps not, given your concerns about some of the barbs being at the expense of the process of ageing).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll like her, Simon. Reading Pym has helped me to tune in to Spark’s wavelength. In a way, this novel could be viewed as a spikier, more mischievous version of one of Pym’s social comedies. There are definite similarities between these writers, although Spark seems the more acerbic of the two.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I hope you do, Madame bibi. It’s right up your street. Very sharp and on point. I think I’m finally beginning to see what there is to enjoy in this writer’s work…

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    As you allude to, this sounds like it dispenses with the cliched and the predictable. The fact that such a premise would lead to a character driven novel is very refreshing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, I like the fact that she did something completely different with the premise. Looking back on the story as a whole, it seems very clever and original for its day. I don’t want to say too much about this as it’s best if readers discover a particular aspect of the book for themselves.

      Reply
  5. hastanton

    I’ve had a ‘difficult ‘ relationship with Spark too …I do remember enjoying Brodie ( after watching the TV series) and also Girks Of Slender Means which was a series too way back when ! After hearing so much love for her I tried The Drivers Seat fairly recently but didn’t really ‘get it ‘ . Clearly I must persevere! Will try and get this from Library !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I must have read Brodie at the same time as you, just as the TV series was on air in the late ’70s. While I liked it at the time, I suspect many of its subtleties were simply lost on my teenage self! It’s a novel I really ought to re-read at some point, just to get a better fix on it. Funnily enough, I’ve been wondering whether reading Barbara Pym earlier this year may have helped me to tune in to Spark’s wavelength. I read Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, last year and really didn’t get on with it at all. Then I tried Barbara Pym and something about the style of these social comedies just seemed to fall into place. Memento Mori is edgier than the Pyms I’ve read, but there are some clear similarities between these two writers, certainly in terms of the worlds they create. There’s a very wicked vein of humour on display here – I really think you’d enjoy it!

      Reply
  6. Jonathan

    I was just looking at a list of her books last night and wondered which would be a good one to read – I’ve read Jean Brodie of course. It looks like this would be a brilliant one to read.

    That’s a hideous cover though; almost enough to put me off reading it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this would make a great re-entry point with Spark. I’ve been struggling with this myself over the past year or so, but everything seemed to fall into place with this one. I really loved it. You might have to bite the bullet with these covers as all the VMC editions are in the same style. I guess you could always keep an eye out for an old copy with a different cover, a vintage edition perhaps – maybe a trawl of the charity shops is in order!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries, Ali. It happens to me all the time! That’s great. I really think you would enjoy the social comedy in this one as the scenes are so acutely observed.

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui. This was the first non-Brodie Spark I read, and I was a bit taken aback at first, but soon realised there was much more to her than just “The Prime…”. She’s dark and strange and rather wonderful – really must read more of her books (and goodness knows Mount TBR is stacked with them!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I must admit that it’s taken me a while to tune in to her wavelength, but I think I’m beginning to ‘get’ her style now. I’ve had a couple of false starts with her non-Brodie novels in the past year or so, possibly a question of timing although it’s hard to tell. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more of her darkly comic novels in the future! Like you, I have a few lurking in the TBR.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I meant to say that there’s a lot going on in this story, several different layers and stands all woven together. It also strikes me as being the type of novel that might give rise to different responses depending on the reader’s age and experiences in life – so maybe a re-read would be in order at some point?

      Reply
  8. Poppy Peacock

    Oh I love the sound of this one; with such astute nuances and lines like ‘The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint’ I’ll definitely be seeking it out.
    With the mix of context and humour it makes me think of of the Radio Play with Judi Dench & Alan Bennett’s based in a care home… http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/media/audio/behind-the-scenes/81919614

    I really want to explore Sparks more … Focused Reading Challenge for 2017 perhaps?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent. I’m glad you like the sound of this one, Poppy. Some of Jean Taylor’s scenes in the hospital ward are rather poignant. In some ways, the melancholy feel in this strand of the story acts a sort of contrast to the sharp humour elsewhere. It’s hard to get that balance right, but I think Spark pulls it off here. (Penelope Fitzgerald is another author who can do this – I’m thinking of Offshore, her novel set among a community of barge dwellers on the Thames.)

      Many thanks for the link to that play. I’ll have a listen a little later.

      Reply
      1. Poppy Peacock

        Balancing dark humour and melancholy is a skill… my own writing always tends to drift towards this style so thsnks, I’ll look up PF’s Offshore. Hope you like the play… it does make me chuckle😄

        Reply
  9. Gubbinal

    “Memento Mori” is one of my favorite contemporary novels. I love the character of Mortimer (and the implications of his name) and also Granny Trotsky. It is well worth re-reading. Thank you for a splendid review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s very good on names. That’s another quality she seems to share with Barbara Pym – a talent for creating characters with the most apposite names. The grannies are wonderful, aren’t they? Almost like a Greek chorus, passing judgement on everything around them.

      Reply
  10. MarinaSofia

    I just read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont this weekend and was reminded of Memento Mori. I’ve read Muriel Spark much more than Elizabeth Taylor and was actually struck by the difference. Perhaps when I was younger I appreciated Spark’s sharp tongue and wit more, while now I am more inclined to love Elizabeth Taylor’s gentleness and empathy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting how our perceptions and tastes for different styles of literature can change as we grow older, Mrs Palfrey being a case in point (I doubt whether I would have taken to it so well had I read it 30 years ago). I think it’s fair to say that Elizabeth Taylor is more sympathetic towards her characters than someone like Muriel Spark. There is a great deal of compassion in her portrayal of Mrs P, which makes the ending all the more poignant and moving. Nevertheless, as a sharp and acerbic look at lives of a group of octogenarians, I thought Memento Mori was excellent!

      Are you planning to write about Mrs P? I do hope so – would love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
  11. realthog

    I read this when I was about 10 or 12 and still remember how much I enjoyed it — to my surprise, because at the time, for me, fiction didn’t really exist outside science fiction. I suppose I ought to read it again sometime, but there are far too many books I haven’t read even once, so . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How interesting. What an unusual book to read as a youngster. I wonder what I would have made of it at that age. (It might have reminded me of my grandfather and his friends, all of whom seemed rather eccentric at the time.) It must have made quite a change from the sci-fi world with all its weird and wonderful inhabitants. I’m really glad you enjoyed it so much!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting. I have read Brodie, but it was a long time ago and my memories of it are very sketchy to say the least. I’ll read it again at some point, but I’m probably more interested in her non-Brodie novels for now. Out of interest, do you have a favourite or two?

      Reply
  12. Guy Savage

    A Far Cry from Kensington is my fav. A near perfect novel I think. Although I also really like The Driver’s Seat which is WEIRD. A very low budget film was made of that starring… can you believe it … Elizabeth Taylor. I loved it as she wasn’t afraid to play these risque roles. What a woman. Here’s a youtube clip

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That is completely insane! I had no idea that Driver’s Seat had been made into a film, never mind one starring Elizabeth Taylor – that alone is enough to make me want to seek it out.

      Delighted to hear that Kensington is a favourite as I have a copy on the shelves. I’m looking forward to it already!

      Reply
  13. Elena

    I have never read any Muriel Sparks either, but your review makes this book sound fascinating. I think that the mere fact that a group of 70-year olds are the main characters is already reason enough to read it. I mean, we always talk about gender, race, ethnicity… But what about age? Why is everyone young or middle-aged in the novels we read?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. It’s relatively rare to see the elderly take centre stage in fiction, but they certainly steal the show in this one – I really enjoyed it. I do hope you’ll give Muriel Spark a try at some point. This would make a pretty decent starting point especially if you like the sound of the characters and the premise.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Memento Mori would definitely stand up to a re-read as there’s so much going on. In fact, if I had a criticism of it, I’d say she might have tried to pack a little too much into it. Then again, this was only her third novel, so one can’t expect everything to be perfect!

      Reply
  14. bookbii

    I love Muriel Spark, I’m really glad you enjoyed this novel. Memento Mori isn’t one that I’ve read, but it sounds like it has all the Spark hallmarks: a dark subject, sardonic sense of humour, well drawn and believable (if at time ridiculous) characters. Her books are very tight, her characters not generally that likeable. and very accomplished. Which others do you have?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s a great summary of Spark’s style as there’s plenty of acerbic humour on display here – and, as you say, her characters ring true even if they are are not always terribly likeable! (I’m absolutely fine with that as long as they feel credible to me.)

      This one came as part of a five-book set from The Book People, so I have Loitering, Kensingston and Symposium to come (I read The Comforters last year, but for some reason it just didn’t fly with me). I also have The Girls of Slender Means, which I picked up separately. Do you have any favoutites or suggestions of which to try next? I’ve been trying to read them in order so far.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        I’ve read Jean Brodie, which is marvellous; The Driving Seat, The Comforters and Aiding and Abetting. All of them were good, though The Driving Seat is magnificently chilling.

        Reply
  15. Max Cairnduff

    This or The Driver’s Seat will probably be my next Spark. Nice review as ever and one that does inspire interest in it.

    My impression is that Spark’s output may be a little variable, which could be why your previous encounters were mixed. This seems to be one of the best.

    Interesting comment by Caroline on the novel’s sharpness. I’ve never had the impression Spark was a particularly empathic writer. Perhaps a weakness. Perhaps not since she’s not trying to be Taylor.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. I’d heard some great things about it so I was determined to give it a decent shot. Maybe my timing was off when I read The Comforters last year, or perhaps I was just struggling to tune in to Spark’s wavelength (I suspect her brand of humour might be something of an acquired taste). Either way, reading Barbra Pym earlier this year has almost certainly helped to whet my appetite for this kind of social comedy, if one can call it that – Spark is certainly more acerbic (and more cutting) than Pym, but they share some similarities in style/themes.

      I would love to hear what you think of this one – there’s so much going to get your teeth into here, and the themes are really interesting. The mental impact of ageing, a growing awareness of our own mortality, even the choice between NHS and private care – plus there’s the interplay between the different characters at the heart of the story.

      I think it’ll be a while before I get to Driver’s. I know it’s considered to be one of the highlights of her oeuvre, but as I already have another four of her novels on the shelves there’s little point in my buying any more right now!

      Reply
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  18. Caroline

    I’ve had a similar experience with her books. She isa bit hit or miss with me but this sounds excellent.
    Funny enough, I came across three recommendations of Driver’s Seat in the last day or two, so it might be the one I’ll try next. I did enjoy The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a lot though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s not just me, then – that’s a relief! I thought this was excellent, really sharp and thought-provoking too. She strikes me as being a very inventive writer, always full of ideas and new ways of looking at things. Driver’s Seat is considered to be one of her best, if a little weird. I think I might have to work up to that one!

      Reply
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