No 555 Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

‘The prospect of death is what gives life the whole of its piquancy. Life would be so much more pointless if there were no feeling that it must end.’ Muriel Spark

Memento Mori is a novel about death which is also extremely funny. It is introduced as a mystery: an anonymous phone caller is contacting a group of elderly friends saying simply ‘Remember, you must die’.

Who is making these calls? Is it one person, speaking in different voices and accents? Or is it, as Inspector Mortimer, the detective assigned to the case muses, Death himself?

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Memento Mori is a novel concerned about death and in particular death as it is viewed by the elderly, who feel that the inevitable end is closer to them than it is to others. It is a short novel, but features a lot of characters as the narrative switches from one point of view to the other, watched over by an all-seeing but unnamed Spark narrator.

It has a simple, but brilliant premise and each character’s reaction to the phone calls belies their attitude to death and their willingness to acknowledge it. Some assume that this is a nuisance caller, others that it is an enemy trying to frighten them. Some are scared, some bemused, and other nonplussed.

The police have no idea what is going on, until eventually Inspector Mortimer himself becomes a suspect. Various explanations are proposed and then discarded while some characters find the message oddly comforting.

Once the calls begin within the group, old secrets and hidden desires start to resurface and the veneer of respectability with which these characters live their lives is shown as mere artifice, hiding jealousies, adulteries and blackmail.

Set in the 50s, the novel has little to date it, mainly because here is little period detail. As such, Memento Mori still seems fresh and original, particularly now with our modern obsession with health and longevity.

The unpleasant philanthropist Dame Lettie Colston reports the call to the police. Her brother Godfry remains uninterested until he receives a call of his own. His wife Charmain, a novelist agrees with the caller and is happy with the reminder. Blackmailing maid Miss Pettigrew reacts by blanking the call from her mind entirely.

Dame Lettie’s former maid Jean Taylor, who is now a patient in the Maud Long Medical Ward with eleven older female patients, believes that the caller is making perfect sense.

It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.

It seems that those who want to think the least about their deaths are those who are pestered the most, while the ones who either have faith or have accepted that death is coming, react best to the calls. Denial of death it seems, just brings more and constant reminders.

Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.

Structurally, as you would expect from Spark, Memento Mori is pitch-perfect with a subtle and pervasive tone. It is at once slightly creepy and very funny and while being set in a very specific time and place, it is universal.

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Because ultimately, death is universal. We all must remember we will die and Spark seems to be asking the reader to imagine how they would react, if that call was to come to them.

Or do we even need the call to remember that life is finite? Memento Mori is a strangely life-affirming book. The humour, particularly from the ‘Grannies’ in the hospital who function as a kind of Greek Chorus, is wickedly pointed and is served with a relish for life, rather than for death.

I read this as part of Heaven Ali’s Reading Muriel 2018 challenge, although I am very late in posting. Next up I hope to read Loitering With Intent.

Read on: iBooks

Number Read: 192

Number Remaining: 554

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

30 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Such a great review – it sounds like a spectacular study of not just the character types in this story but also of how readers project their own thoughts and fears into books. I’ve only read The Comforters by Muriel Spark, although I hardly remember it; I think I may pick this book up and dive back into her work.

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  2. I read this decades ago when I was still, I think, in my teens. I can still vividly remember the opening, when someone finds he’s stolen a cake he doesn’t want from the funeral tea just Because It Was There, and has to get rid of it. The rest’s a bit of a blank, alas, although I do remember enjoying the book a lot. It’s been on my To Be Re-Read List for a few years now.

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  3. Brilliant review of possibly my favourite Spark so far. In the hands of another (lesser) writer, this novel may well have gone down a more conventional ‘mystery’ route, but with Spark’s flair and creativity it turns out to be much more imaginative than that.

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  4. A super and perceptive review. This Spark has grown on me since reading – I think I was too irritated by Lettie to enjoy it fully while reading, but now I appreciate its cleverness. I loved the scenes in the hospital with all the Grannies.

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  5. This is one of my favourite Sparks. I think along with the one about the May of Teck Club. I think they have the best blend of surreality and reality. There was also an enjoyable adaptation of it on the television when I was a child.

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