Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark

Nearly all the characters in Memento Mori are over the age of 70; all, of course, are British--some from the upper class, others who were/are their servants. Many have been receiving strange anonymous phone calls in which the caller says "Remember you must die." The voice of the caller varies from person to person--some say he has a lisp, some that he is old, others that he is young or foreign. The reactions of the recipients of the call are equally varied--Dame Lettie, the first to receive the calls, is driven nearly mad by them while her sister-in-law Charmian is not in the least perturbed. The police cannot determine the source of the calls or, indeed, whether the calls have actually happened or are some kind of mass delusion. Retired Inspector Henry Mortimer says the caller must be "Death itself." 

As the elderly Brits deal with the evoked and real presence of death in their lives, Spark also gives the reader a view of servants trying to manipulate/blackmail employers into appearing in their wills (and those employers constantly changing their wills--one character leaves 22 wills behind when she dies), husbands and wives hiding long-past infidelities and resentments from each other, a self-styled geriatrician attempting to study aging in a naturalistic manner, and the humiliation of life in a nursing home. The frequently shifting third-person narration gives the reader the opportunity to get inside the heads of multiple characters--most of whom avoid thoughts of death by preoccupation with their individual plots/obsessions. 

Despite the potential darkness of the subject matter, the book is quite funny . . . and then one of the characters dies suddenly and violently. This event gave me a jolt--but the book continues in the same satiric manner to the end, when the author wraps up with a description of how all the characters eventually died. 

Memento Mori has been described as "one of the great novels in the 1950s," but that feels like overstatement to me. It's an amusing jab at certain types of British characters but I didn't find it particularly insightful about death, as some reviewers evidently did. 

Favorite passage
Godfrey's wife Charmian sat with her eyes closed, attempting to put her thoughts into alphabetical order, which Godfrey had told her was better than no order at all, since she now had grasp of neither logic nor chronology.

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