Memento Mori: Muriel Spark (1959)

How nerve-wracking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old!”

At the heart of Muriel Spark’s wickedly funny novel, Memento Mori, lies a chain of anonymous phone calls in which the speaker says “Remember, you must die.” These anonymous calls set off a series of events as various characters react to the calls with anger, terror and, in some cases, interest. While most of the characters in the novel are connected, the telephone calls bring other characters together, but perhaps the least predictable fallout from the phone calls is the way in which the past comes calling in various ways. So here’s a breakdown of the characters:

Dame Lettie Colston. Unmarried, one of those social do-gooders. Busy bossy everyone about and arranging their lives.

Godfrey Colston, heir to a brewing company. Perennially unfaithful to his wife. “Obsessed by the question of old people and their faculties.”

Charmain Colston, novelist. Dotty. But not as dotty as she appears.

Charmain’s former employee Jean Taylor who lives in a nursing home. She’s mostly glad that she lives there and isn’t subject to the wild emotional challenges of life outside of the home.

Lisa Brooke, deceased, a woman whose death unleashes other plot developments.

Guy Leet, charming, even now in old age and ill health. Charmain’s former lover.

Mrs. Pettigrew. Lisa Brooke’s conniving housekeeper

Alec Warner. A emotional vampire whose obsessive, morbid interest in the health and health reactions to exciting or traumatic news reflects his own fear of morality.

Various residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward

Inspector Mortimer, retired, who investigates the phone calls.

Other minor characters

While chapter one kicks off with an anonymous call, the plot thickens when Dame Lettie, a dreadful bossy woman, persuades her brother, Godfrey to employ Mrs. Pettigrew to ‘take care of’ Charmian. Mrs. Pettigrew was supposed to inherit her employer, Lisa Brooke’s estate, but since that doesn’t work out as planned, Mrs. Pettigrew must move on to pastures new. Dame Lettie, a woman who lacks a particle of empathy, argues that Charmian “needs a bully,” and her desire to see Charmain in thrall to Mrs. Pettigrew is not without malice:

Mrs. Pettigrew has a constitution like a horse,” said Dame Lettie, casting a horse-dealer’s glance over Mrs. Pettigrew’s upright form. “And it is impossible to get younger women.”

“Has she got all her faculties?

“Of course. She had poor Lisa right under her thumb.”

“I hardly think Charmain would want to —

“Charmain needs to be bullied. What Charmain needs is a firm hand. She will simply go to pieces if you don’t keep at her. Charmain needs a firm hand. It’s the only way.

At the core of the novel, lies mortality. An unfaithful husband find innovative ways of straying, nasty people become nastier, and dottiness is a refuge from the more unpleasant things in life. Charmain, who ponders the limits of marital obligation, Jean, who proves immensely powerful, even from a care home, and Guy, who remains pleasant company in spite of ill health, bad luck and old age, are the nicest characters in the book. Mrs. Pettigrew with her very practiced way of infantilizing the elderly is the nastiest person in the book with Dame Lettie as the runner-up. Mrs. Pettigrew insinuates herself into the good graces of those with power, and coopts others, who don’t want to be seen as dotty, into her crew. What a horrible woman.

Memento Mori: Latin translation: Remember you must/have to die. (I had to look it up.) So it’s no surprise that the themes of death and dying appear here, and while that may seem morbid, how one choses to approach life, how one accepts aging, and how one choses to live life are also themes. Charmain has chosen to approach life in a very particular way–as has Guy Leet, in spite of ill health. At the same time, there’s 87-year-old Godfrey choosing to pursue women–even if these days it means paying for the privilege (in more ways than one) of salivating over the view of a suspender belt. Somehow Muriel Spark’s mordant, black comedy brings the idea of the best way to live one’s life, and how to waste it, in sharp relief.

“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 would like the war news,” Charmain 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 …?”

There are lessons here about death and dying, but there are also lessons for life. The novel argues that people don’t change. Youthful bores become old bores. Pleasant, kind young people become pleasant kind, old people. We don’t change. We distill.

A delightful, darkly comic read.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Spark, Muriel

5 responses to “Memento Mori: Muriel Spark (1959)

  1. This is our all time Muriel favourite. ‘ You must be losing your faculties’ is in our quiver of family insults Great review which will hopefully bring new readers to this dark funny tale.

  2. I liked this one a lot, the dark humour is so good.

  3. My favourite Spark! I revisited it fairly recently (along with my book group) and found it just as delightful as I had remembered, back in 2016. Charmian is actually a lot sharper in reality than she seems to make out…and Godfrey’s obsession with his faculties continues to crack me up. A great review of a very fine book!

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