I have to confess to never having read anything previously by Muriel Spark, not having seen even the film version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, probably her most famous novel. I picked this up in Hatchard’s recently, and am not entirely sure why (I seem to associate it with another Virago publication I picked up at the same time, so they may have been located together).
Memento Mori was Spark’s third novel, set (and written) in the 1950s, though apart from the mention of servants, and the reaction of the characters to past scandals, the people featured and their behaviour are entirely modern. The main characters are all elderly men and women who have lived full and active lives – Dame Lettie Colston, a well-known penal reformer; her brother Godfrey, heir to a brewing fortune; his wife Charmian, a one-popular novelist; Jean Taylor, former companion to Charmian; Alec Warner, an elderly student of age and the old, once in love with Miss Taylor; and several others, including the ‘Grannies’ living on Jean’s hospital ward, and various old friends and former lovers.
The novel starts with anonymous telephone messages to Dame Lettie: a man’s voice saying simply “Remember that you must die.” Dame Lettie is much distressed by the messages, though she thinks that the police, to whom she has reported the matter, are convinced that she is imagining things; certainly her brother Godfrey, not the most sympathetic of characters, thinks so. Until he too receives the messages: except that they aren’t from the same person. Latterly, many of the other characters also receive these messages, and their reactions are entirely different to Lettie’s and to Godfrey’s, though very consistent with what we know of their characters.
The characters are sharply drawn, though the author treats them sympathetically (possibly apart from Eric, middle-aged low-achieving and resentful son of Charmian and Godfrey), and the novel is funny, in a wry kind of way, through its neat turn of plot and astute observation. Although almost all the characters are elderly, Spark gives them humanity which means that, although age and death are mentioned a lot, one doesn’t get the sense that they are old in mind, even if they are in body.
It’s not a long novel, but there is a lot of pleasure to be had in Spark’s well-chosen and unflowery prose, as well as the gradual unravelling of the mysterious phone calls, and the development of the characters: for example, Jean’s simple confession makes a huge difference to the relationship between Godfrey and Charmian, and gives Godfrey confidence to resist blackmail. In fact, the reader feels as though these people really existed. The incessant bickering between two characters regarding literary figures (one is a poet and the other a critic) makes their relationship seem real and eventually affectionate – as though they are too old to hold grudges any more, or tell lies to each other. I liked Charmian’s change from forgetful dottiness to sharpness under the malign influence of a new companion, and Alec Warmer’s obsession with collecting facts and notes about the elderly (always asking people to record their pulse rate after being given bad news, for example) is both amusing and understandable.