Friday, 15 November 2013

Book Review: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark is a month of commemoration: All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, “Kristallnacht” Memorial Day, Armistice Day, Veterans’ Day, Remembrance Day. At least in my Central European corner death and war are a quasi-omnipresent theme at this time of year. As you may have noticed by now, I joined into the contemplative, even melancholy mood. I gladly do this because I believe that in our modern and fast-paced era we tend to forget that life is finite by nature and that our history is paved with senseless slaughtering. Today, however, I decided to give you a bit of a break and to approach death from a humorous side. I think that Memento Mori by Muriel Spark is just the right choice. 

Dame Muriel Spark was born as Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh, Scotland/U.K., in February 1918. Until after World War II she led the life of an English teacher, secretary, intelligence officer, wife and mother. Then she dedicated herself to a literary career starting as a poet, critic and editor at first. Encouraged by her conversion to Roman Catholicism as well as by the fellow authors Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, she ventured at her debut novel, The Comforters, which was published in 1957. Over the following five decades the writer produced a great number of successful novels along with short stories. Her most famous works are Memento Mori (1959), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Girls of Slender Means (1962), The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), The Public Image (1968), The Driver’s Seat (1970), Loitering with Intent (1981), A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), and The Finishing School (2004). After an interim of several years in New York, USA, the author settled in Italy in the late 1960s. Dame Muriel Spark died in Florence, Italy, in April 2006.

The plot of Memento Mori revolves around a circle of Londoners in their seventies and eighties who have known each other for ages, most of them well-to-do and suffering to different degrees from the common afflictions of advanced age. One after another receives anonymous telephone calls which account for the novel’s unusual title. The Latin phrase “memento mori” is generally translated as “remember you must die”, the sentence which the mysterious strangers pass on to their elderly targets. Each one of the protagonists reacts differently to those calls. Dame Lettie Colston understands them as an immediate threat for her life and during the course of the novel the charity lady with a cold heart becomes increasingly paranoid. For her brother Godfrey the calls are little more than a good reason to grumble and make accusations, while his wife Charmian, a once famous novelist seeing a revival of her work, takes them easy. On one occasion she answers the anonymous caller:
“… for the past thirty years and more I have thought of it from time to time. My memory is failing in certain respects. I am gone eighty-six. But somehow I do not forget my death, whenever that will be.” 
Charmian Colston’s former servant and companion Jean Tayler lives in the geriatric ward of a hospital among other “grannies” more or less confined to bed and begins to meditate on death when she hears about the calls. Alec Warner, her friend and almost fiancé of old times, on the other hand, observes the reactions of his peers with the precision of a scientist and records his findings. Others like Mrs. Pettigrew, who has been engaged to take care of Charmian Colston and who blackmails Godfrey, choose to simply ignore the calls. The retired police Inspector Henry Mortimer wonders whether it might not be Death himself calling, since he can’t make out the offender any more than his former colleagues. In fact, the callers are described differently by their victims as regards presumed age, social background, and even gender.

In Memento Mori Muriel Spark displays the whole range of human reactions to the fact of impending death from sheer terror over stubborn denial to patient expectation. Of course, the characters are exaggerated into types and yet as a reader I never got the impression that they were completely unrealistic. Quite on the contrary their idiosyncrasies adopted during a long life and two wars make them appear very human and give room for quite a number of funny turns despite the serious topic. Thanks to Muriel Spark’s economical language and simple style the novel is a pleasure to read. I didn’t even mind that the narrator ever again comments actions and thoughts as a nineteenth-century writer would have done.

Altogether Memento Mori by Muriel Spark is an exhilarating and amusing read with a critical undertone regarding our ways to deal with (or rather to push away) death and old age. My verdict: highly recommended!


  1. I haven't had a fantastic experience with the two Sparks I've read. Perhaps my English isn't good enough to understand all the underlying jokes.

    This one seems funny though I. I should try her again, in French this time.

    PS: have you read Dolce Agonia by Nancy Huston?

    1. With the exception of a few short stories (which didn't leave much of an impression), I don't know any other works of Muriel Spark although The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been on my pile of books to read (which is discouragingly big) already for a while. In a nutshell, I don't know if I'd like her other novels.

      It's certainly true that understanding humour/jokes in a foreign language requires true mastery... and cultural awareness. Personally, I like English humour very much, others don't. However, I'm sure that I missed quite a lot of the funny parts, too.

      No, I don't know Dolce Agonia by Nancy Huston. To be truthfully, I never heard of it, nor of the author. Thanks for the suggestion Emma!


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