Memento Mori

Muriel Spark

Macmillan 1959
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013
Muriel Spark's best known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, deals with the lives of six schoolgirls and a teacher; the most striking feature of Memento Mori is that almost all its characters are over seventy.

The central strand has some of the elements of a mystery novel. An anonymous caller keeps ringing Dame Lettie to say "remember you must die" and then others start to receive the same message, though they all report a different kind of voice. There is a murder. And there's even a (retired) police inspector.

As well as the insensitive Dame Lettie and her selfish brother Godfrey, the characters include Godfrey's wife Charmian, a novelist whose works are experiencing a revival but who is beginning to suffer from dementia, Alec Warner, an amateur gerontologist who records data on people over seventy, the poet Percy Mannering, the ladies man Guy Leet, and retired police inspector Mortimer and his wife. Two of their servants have prominent roles, the scheming Mrs Pettigrew and the faithful (in her own way) Jean Taylor. And Jean spends the novel in an old-age home, revealing something of the fate of the ageing lower classes.

A few surprises from the past are uncovered, but this is not a "look back" novel with most of the action in the past: it really is a novel about old people, about their present concerns and actions. This is quite an achievement in itself, and if Memento Mori has a formal failing it is that the denouement involves the sudden prominence of a character, Godfrey and Charmian's son Eric, who is only fifty seven.

A more practical problem is that much of Memento Mori now seems dated: as Guy comments to Charmian at one point, "without a period-sense as well, no-one can appreciate your books". Outside the largely unelaborated theme of the phone calls there is little reflection on universal themes and many of the particular obsessions and preoccupations of the English upper middle classes in the 1950s, over status, class, sex, religion and so forth, no longer have the same resonances. Spark's prose is also fairly pedestrian.

Despite all this, Memento Mori remains a striking and memorable novel.

March 2013

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%T Memento Mori
%A Spark, Muriel
%I Macmillan
%D 1959
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0333015800
%P 246pp