Sunday 19 May 2019

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

This book has something powerful in common with Ending Up by Kingsley Amis — both are tales about old people plummeting towards the end of their lives. Which you'd expect to be depressing, boring and a number of other things....

But as with the Amis book, Muriel Spark's 1959 novel Memento Mori features such a spiteful wit and such fascinating interaction between its memorable characters that it's actually quite a vivid pleasure to read.

One thing that is different from Amis, though, is that there's a supernatural mechanism at work in Spark's book. Her collection of old bastards start receiving anonymous phonecalls reminding them that they are going to die.

The voice sounds utterly different to each recipient, and the police seem strangely unable to trace the calls. Pretty soon it becomes evident that there is no human agency at work here. 

The phone calls are never explained — except to the extent that the police detective concludes "Death is the culprit" — but that doesn't matter. Spark's interest, and the reader's, lie elsewhere than cut and dried explanations...

Muriel Spark is sharply funny, as when she skewers a bore: "Olive closed her eyes and relaxed while his voice proceeded into the late afternoon." (Again this reminds me of Amis.) 

And she writes economically, lucidly and wittily.  At one point she remarks, "There was altogether too much candour in married life." Nice aphorism, Muriel.

She's also come up with a remarkable cast of characters, including the sinister and despicable Mrs Pettigrew, a truly scary servant with no respect for her employers; the despicable and resentful Godfrey Colston who regards his wife Charmain's "every success as his failure"; and Alec Warner who has "an almost cannibal desire" to record and analyse the effects of the phonecalls on the people in his circle. 
Spark has a bold and amusing style which at times is almost cartoonish — in a good way — as when describing how Charmain's "mind munched over the humiliations she had received from Godfrey."

And she is both psychologically acute and has a real gift for expression. Charmain has been aware of her husband's infidelities for decades, while pretending to be entirely ignorant of them: 

"He would never forgive her for having played this game, for over fifty years, of knowing nothing while at the same time knowing everything, as one might be 'not at home' while actually in the house."

Or how about this for brilliance of description. "Her words depressed him. They were like spilt sugar; however much you swept it up some grains would keep grinding under your feet." 

Having sung the praises of Memento Mori, however, I should add that if you haven't read Muriel Spark before I wouldn't recommend starting here. Try instead her wickedly funny The Girls of Slender Means, written four years later, in 1963.

(Image credits: Good Reads. The British hardcover with the purple dustjacket is from Wikipedia. The Penguin with the black and white caricature of the mouth and the phone is from We Buy Books at ABE. The Diogenes edition is from Text + Tone via ABE.)

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