Thursday, August 16, 2007

Memento Mori - Muriel Spark

First published 1959; cover shown is the 1961 Penguin (UK) paperback edition. Cover art by Victor Reinganum. 220 pages.

One of Spark's most critically acclaimed novels, Memento Mori looks at everyday life for the elderly, shying away from nothing. Illness, incontinence, senility, hysteria and death are looked at using subtle black humour and a refreshing matter-of-factness. Then there are the other not so usual aspects: infidelity, blackmail and murder.

The novel focuses on a group of London-based men and women now aged in their seventies and eighties and all connected in one way or another, whether by blood, marriage or extramarital affairs.

Among them is Charmain, a once respected novelist who is recovering from a stroke; Godfrey, her husband, who pays to see young women's suspenders and stocking tops; Jean, once Charmain's maid and now confined to a hospital ward; Mrs Pettigrew, Charmain's current maid who is blackmailing Godfrey; Guy Leet, who was once Charmain's lover and is now disfigured by age and illness; and Dame Lettie, Godfrey's sister.

Observing all of these characters, and others, is Alec Warner. Once a lover of both Lettie and Jean, he is now aged in his seventies and spends his days recording any and all information about old age and its various embarrassing and painful side effects.

Spark intertwines each of the character's stories using the premise of anonymous telephone calls. Each of the elderly characters receives the calls, during which the caller merely states, "Remember you must die", before hanging up. Despite strenuous efforts the police cannot trace the caller, who seems to change his voice - from young to old, male to female - at will.

From page 20 the characters begin dropping like flies; the majority from natural causes, while others are helped along. Spark keeps up the subtle humour throughout, creating an entertaining and thought provoking book, which centres on the first of the four last things to be ever remembered (as per the Roman Catholic Penny Catechism): Death.

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