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.
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.