Unforgettably astounding and a joy to read, Memento Mori is considered by many to be the greatest novel by the wizardly Dame Muriel Spark. In late 1950s London, something uncanny besets a group of elderly an insinuating voice on the telephone informs each, " Remember you must die. " Their geriatric feathers are soon thoroughly ruffled by these seemingly supernatural phone calls, and in the resulting flurry many old secrets are dusted off. Beneath the once decorous surface of their lives, unsavories like blackmail and adultery are now to be glimpsed. As spooky as it is witty, poignant and wickedly hilarious, Memento Mori may ostensibly concern death, but it is a book which leaves one relishing life all the more.
Dame Muriel Spark, DBE was a prolific Scottish novelist, short story writer and poet whose darkly comedic voice made her one of the most distinctive writers of the twentieth century. In 2008 The Times newspaper named Spark in its list of "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
Spark received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1965 for The Mandelbaum Gate, the Ingersoll Foundation TS Eliot Award in 1992 and the David Cohen Prize in 1997. She became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993, in recognition of her services to literature. She has been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 1969 for The Public Image and in 1981 for Loitering with Intent. In 1998, she was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for "a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature". In 2010, Spark was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970 for The Driver's Seat.
Spark received eight honorary doctorates in her lifetime. These included a Doctor of the University degree (Honoris causa) from her alma mater, Heriot-Watt University in 1995; a Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris causa) from the American University of Paris in 2005; and Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, London, Oxford, St Andrews and Strathclyde.
Spark grew up in Edinburgh and worked as a department store secretary, writer for trade magazines, and literary editor before publishing her first novel, The Comforters, in 1957. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961, and considered her masterpiece, was made into a stage play, a TV series, and a film.
That is what I told myself while preparing a completely unnecessary book order earlier today (unnecessary because I have several lifetimes' worth of books at home already, and exquisite libraries around the corner as well, so I was really just giving in to an unreasonable addiction). I almost ordered Memento Mori by my favourite sparkling lady, until I heard a voice inside me calling gently:
"Remember WHAT you have read!"
As if a stranger had taken it upon himself to call me in the middle of my everyday business to tell my aging, unreliable brain what I shouldn't have forgotten, I repeatedly saw a scene from this novel popping up from nowhere in my mind. Thinking I hadn't read it, I thought that was very odd. I checked my most reliable source of book memory - Goodreads - and felt confirmed. Ha - I really haven't read Memento Mori yet, as it isn't shelved.
But why do I feel that I know how it starts and ends then?
I move on to check my less reliable source of book memory - the labyrinth of my physical library, spread out over literally all livable space in my home. And there, on a top shelf, I see a copy of the book. And disturbingly, it is even put in the right spot, next to the other Sparks I KNOW I have read, because I have reviewed them. Remember what you have written...
It is not proof enough, though, because I buy books and forget them for decades until I find them by accident after buying another copy of the same book. But it is a reason to delete Memento Mori from my current shopping bag...
My newfound copy is yellowish, oldish, probably from a thrift store, and I open it at a random page. Well, now I have some proof at least. It is full of my idiosyncratic book conversation with myself. Exclamation marks, underlined sentences, random notes that don't make sense to me now. I HAVE READ IT!
And to double check, I open the first page and read the scene I thought I remembered before I knew I had read the book. And there it is, magically re-enacted. The phone rings and disturbs the peace of mind of an elderly lady. Who wants strangers to remind us of the fact that we get older, and that we are working full-time on fulfilling our lives, full-speed towards completion of our existence?
Obviously, oblivion is the only mercy that nature or supernatural power has granted us?
That is not what Muriel Spark thinks. She wants order in the world of humankind, especially in inevitable and important matters such as death. If no other order can be established, then at least she would like us to be aware of our lives - as far as that is possible. Charmian, for example, a charming old lady past her prime, doesn't have much left to choose from, but some kind of order there has to be:
"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."
That makes me think I should move Spark away from Atwood, where she is shelved in my library at the moment, as that defies chronology, logic AND alphabet, thus being a bit too unruly for an organised mind like Godfrey's. I do hope I remember to do that tonight.
In an attempt to organise my thoughts on this novel, which I have read and forgotten and re-remembered and which I am now reviewing for further proof of its existence in my mind, alphabetical or otherwise, I stumble upon the LAST page as well. That makes for a nice symmetry, I believe, and so Muriel Spark must have thought as well, for all the characters in the novel, who were to be reminded that they shall die, have now fulfilled their lives, and been given meaning and sense by properly dying.
Of course we want to know HOW they died, so we get a list, but I am slightly disappointed that it is not alphabetical, neither by name nor by illness. Do I take it then that it is a chronological list of fulfilled life? That would be the most logical conclusion, so I will stick to that until proven wrong.
Either way, Muriel Spark has a most elegant way of telling us she doesn't really like her characters, or humanity as such, very much. And her way of dealing with that dislike for humankind is to kill it off with charm and wit!
Memento mori! And that you must read as much as you can in the meantime. Spark is a must!
A circle of elderly people in 1950's London are regularly phoned by a stranger who says only 'Remember, you must die,' before hanging up. There is Charmian whose popular novels are undergoing a resurgence of public interest. There is her husband, Godfrey Colston, the brewery magnate, now retired, whose adulteries never seem to go farther than a fugitive glimpse of ladies' stockings and garter clips, and even this may overstimulate him. There is Percy Mannering, the slobbering old poet and grandfather of 23 year old Olive Mannering, one of Godfrey's "whores." There is Eric Colston, the son, a loser, who may be based on Spark's own son, Robin, who fought with his mother tooth and nail, publically excoriating her for being a bad mother. There is Alec Warner who keeps up a torrent of note-taking and record-keeping of the circle's activities to no apparent end. There is retired Inspector Mortimer with the bad heart who views the hoax calls as coming from Death himself. There is the avaricious old servant Mrs. Pettigrew who is blackmailing Godfrey with his old adulteries. Finally, there's the late, libidinous Lisa Brooke, whose fortune might go to any one of these individuals. This dark comedy is a wonder of economy and judicious patterning. It was published in 1959 and has aged remarkably well. One might say it's ageless, as all true classics are. It can be enormously funny. The writing is always impressive. Read it.
You probably only have to read one Muriel Spark novel to realise she doesn't hold human beings in very high esteem. Unless, perhaps, they are mad. She has a soft spot for mad women, as long as they are disruptive. As if this for her is the most adept and wise response to life.
Momento Mori gathers together a set of characters in their twilight years all of whom behave as if they are immortal and are motivated almost exclusively by base emotions. The mercenary self-absorption to which they are prey should be tempered by a series of disarming telephone calls they receive. "Remember, you must die," the voice always says. The voice, of course, is Muriel Spark's. But will her characters listen to her?
The other day I had to stand in line behind an elderly man who was buying dozens of lottery tickets, dozens of scratch cards and a copy of The Daily Mail. I can imagine it was a similar experience that inspired Muriel Spark to write this novel.
This novel is a little longer than is usual for Spark. It's madcap and often very funny. But I can't give all her novels five stars. So this is a 4+.
These are the words spoken by a mysterious prank caller, at various times, to the huge cast of elderly characters who populate this novel.
It's true, no one gets out of this alive, but who is this caller, and what is his purpose in relaying this message? And, perhaps, more importantly, what was Muriel Spark's purpose in writing this odd 1959 novel?
The group of aged characters receiving these calls - whether it's the rotund Dame Letty who enjoys lording her ever-changing will over people in order to get them to do her bidding, or the once philandering Godfrey, who still has a penchant for women who wear stockings, or the conniving Mrs. Pettigrew, who manipulates her employers to bequeath her their fortunes, or the on-and-off senile Charmian, who seems like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth but whose past isn't nearly as blameless as she'd have one think - aren't very likeable. In fact, despite their advanced years, they haven't achieved any level of emotional maturity, and are more self serving and narcissistic than a bunch of toddlers.
Some of the characters live independently, some live in care homes. Some are quite active, others walk with sticks, and some suffer to the point they feel death will never come. But all the characters are completely wrapped up in their own childish pettiness. So much so, the story takes on a satirical bent.
This makes for a highly entertaining, darkly comic story. Spark tells a tale that could be quite bleak indeed, if not for the consistent infusion of much welcome humour. She very ably shows that there are two sides to old age and decline, always two sides. The difficulty, the tragic loss, that's there, to be sure. There's also the rather comic spirit that persists, that pushes in spite of it all, right up to the end.
But as I reached the conclusion, I did scratch my head a bit.
Is it a look at the absurdity of aging? Or the dire state of human beings in general? An opportunity to laugh, in the face of our shared, inevitable fate?
Maybe. Probably. But when you think about it, what makes life truly meaningful is the knowledge that one day, it must end. Memento mori. Maybe that's why the author felt her silly characters needed a reminder.
One of the epigraphs Muriel Spark chose for this book is from W B Yeats' poem 'The Tower': What shall I do with this absurdity – O heart, O troubled heart – this caricature, Decrepit age that has been tied to me As to a dog’s tail?
The absurdity of aging that troubles Yeats so much in 'The Tower' is also the theme of this book, but as I read though Muriel Spark's story, I thought about another kind of absurdity — the utter ridiculousness of the plot of Memento Mori! I began to wonder how Muriel Spark makes her absurd scenarios stand up. The first book I read in my current Spark season, Loitering with Intent, had a very bizarre and jumbled plot full of caricature characters, though it was a most entertaining and clever book nevertheless. The plot of Memento Mori is equally muddled, and its characters are complete parodies except for one or two, but once again I was drawn in and smiled and applauded my way through all the farce. How does she do it, I wondered...
Then I picked up a third book, The Abbess of Crewe, which proved to be by far the most absurd of the three. I was shaking my head in wonder at Spark's audacity when I came across this bit of convoluted reasoning: 'What are scenarios?’ says Winifrede. ‘They are an art-form,’ says the Abbess of Crewe, ‘based on facts. A good scenario is a garble. A bad one is a bungle. They need not be plausible, only hypnotic, like all good art.’
Not plausible but hypnotic. Ah ha! That explains it, I thought. I'm hypnotized. And so I will continue to be while I have Muriel Spark books to read. …………………
Apart from being cited in the epigraph, W B Yeats pops up later in this book when a character suggests the poet might be responsible for the telephone calls the decrepit characters keep receiving, telling them to remember that they will die. Yeats isn't the hoax caller (I think), but when he was mentioned in that context, I thought I'd better read his poem, 'The Tower'. Perhaps it would be a key to the whole book. And it was in a way. There was this line, for example: It is time that I wrote my will. Quite a few of Spark's characters are preoccupied with their wills, and are constantly rewriting them. Yeats goes on to talk of …the wreck of body, Slow decay of blood, Testy delirium, Or dull decrepitude. Or what worse evil come—The death of friends… I realised that Yeats' poem is like a summary of the entire book, and quite a more serious and philosophical meditation on the theme of Memento Mori than Spark's. But there's philosophy in Spark's version too, though fortunately she adds plenty of wit and fun to leaven the lump, as it were. Incidentally, I picked up that phrase from the fourth of Spark's books I've read in the last week, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a book with its own share of philosophy and absurdity. But more of that in the next installment...
I see, I saw, I will see again those little old ladies and those little old gents in their little homes, their big homes, their differently sized homes that have often become traps, leaving them stranded from humanity, distances crossed less and less by the younger, by their families;
I see, I saw, I will see again those old timers in their hospital beds, their managed care facilities, their hospices, waiting to die and yet not really believing it.
Oh to be old, to be very very old! To be elderly and yet not considered an elder, and certainly no fount of wisdom, alas. Experiences that are clung too, that defined them, that are rattled and bounced around in their heads time and time again, to obsess over and analyze and to bore the young, and each other, when brought up time and time again.
Repetition does not make the heart grow fonder but patterns can be awfully hard to extricate yourself from... and so they and we can't help but repeat the same mistakes and tell the same stories and go through the same motions time and time again. Better luck next life!
Muriel Spark has empathy but little sympathy; she is a rare creature. Her terrorized seniors and their little, little worlds are sharp and shiny, crystalline creations. No adorable seniors here, huggable and eager to be hugged! Well perhaps a few. But mainly we have some beautifully thorny hothouse dwellers, real through and through, but with just that little touch of stylization to make the experience even more surreal. I am so thankful for our central character, kind and dotty author Charmian, gradually regaining her senses, and her former maid Jean Taylor, dreamy and well-intentioned with just a little side of calculating. And the lovely and loving couple of former-Chief Inspector John and Mrs. Mortimer, happily enjoying their eccentric golden years. They were a few bastions of sweetness, at least. But I loved the less charming cast members almost as much: dreadful Dame Lettie Colston and her tightly-wound brother Godrey; predatory Mrs. Pettigrew; perverse, quietly decent Guy Leet and his cantankerous poet frenemy Percy Mannering; Granny Barnacle and Granny Valvona; and especially Alec Warner, retired sociologist, calm and careful, obsessed and quietly tragic, unconsciously creating mayhem with his not-so-innocent questions and notifications.
Spark has such a pleasant style when dealing with such potentially heavy themes, much like Alec Warner himself: calm and careful, obsessed with memory, quietly tragic beneath the very dry humor, subtly mining the unconscious of her creations and the mayhem they continue to create around them and within themselves.
Synopsis: a wide range of seniors begin receiving mysterious calls from a wide range of callers unknown, all who repeat the same admonition: "Remember you must die." Indeed!
4.5 stars This is Spark at her witty and acerbic best with a novel that is funny with a good dose of macabre. I sometimes think that Spark doesn’t really like her characters and here she really puts them through it. The title is Latin for “Remember you must die” and the book revolves around a group of elderly friends, a number of whom start to receive anonymous phone calls, where a voice says “Remember you must die”. The caller seems to know where people are as calls are received at the houses of friends and relatives as well and sometimes if the person isn’t available a message is left. The recipients of the messages are a group of upper middle/upper class English worthies. Company owners, a novelist, an ex-policeman, a Dame. All quintessentially English and they are all mercilessly satirised and exposed for what they really are. Their reactions to the calls are very different and Spark is a very good observer of human nature. Death is really the star, but is only given free rein to create to create havoc towards the end. The protagonists are in their 70s and 80s and Spark takes us round genteel nursing homes, long stay hospital wards, upper class dining rooms and into the realm of sometimes tyrannical servants. It is a world that even in the 1950s was beginning to disappear. But Spark livens up what may seem to be rather staid with a murder, a secret wedding, a fake death, a car crash, an irresponsible and wastrel son and an elderly man with a penchant for stockings. But then Spark picks out little details in life, as when the policeman’s wife is feeding her grandson: “Mrs. Mortimer [aged 74] was opening and closing her mouth like a bird. This was because she was attempting to feed a two-year-old boy with a spoon, and as he opened his mouth to take each spoonful of soft egg, she involuntarily opened hers. “ Then linked to that her husband talks to the group of friends receiving the calls: “If I had my life over again, I should form a habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.” There is also an interesting juxtaposition between the long stay ward where Jean Taylor; one of the servants now put out to pasture, resides and the rest of the novel; the discussion about whether the faithful family retainer should reside is telling: “Two years ago, when [Jean] first came to the ward, she had longed for the private nursing home in Surrey about which there had been too much talk. Godfrey had made a fuss about the cost, he had expostulated in her presence, and had quoted a number their friends of the progressive set on the subject of the new free hospitals, how superior they were to the private affairs. Alec Warner had pointed out that these were days of transition, that a person of Jean Taylor’s intelligence and habits might perhaps not feel at home among the general aged of a hospital. “If only,” he said, “because she is partly what we have made her, we should look after her.” He had offered to bear half the cost of keeping Jean in Surrey. But Dame Lettie had finally put an end to these arguments by coming to Jean with a challenge, “Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours. You are entitled…” Miss Taylor had replied, “I prefer to go to hospital, certainly.” She had made her own arrangements and had left them with the daily argument still in progress concerning her disposal.” There are plenty of twists and turns in the telling and Mrs. Pettigrew makes an interesting villain. The minor female characters on the long stay ward are excellent and really add to the comic element (and the sinister as well). Spark has great fun bumping the cast off; a lesser author would have focused on who was making the calls and turned it into a crime novel and Spark resists that temptation. Funny, witty and a reminder that we are all mortal.
Disclaimer: It has been quite a while since I've attempted a book review—not that anyone might have noticed—but if you should happen to stumble upon this particular review in the middle of the night or during one of your drunken internet adventures, please know that my critical faculties are rusty and not to be trusted by serious readers—that is to say, those persons who sit down to read books seriously, with stern faces and pious intentions. My reading disposition has changed over the years and may not be in sync with yours. It's nothing to get in a knot about, of course, but I want the conscientious reader to be wary: I am a heathen.
Muriel Spark's Memento Mori was a 'So What?' book for me. (Let me explain what that means before you fly into a rage; you may still wish to fly into a rage later, but you should at least be sure where your rage is directed.) A 'So What?' book is a book that is pleasant enough to read (by which I don't mean that the subject matter is necessarily pleasant, but only that the reading experience is itself pleasant) but whose point somehow eludes me.
I should add here—in this review that's already chockfull of caveats, disclaimers, and asides—that I am not a fan of seeking a 'point' in art, be it painting or music or film or books or whatever. I'm using the word 'point' here as a unfortunately misleading abbreviation for what I actually mean: After I was finished reading Memento Mori, I was left wondering why Muriel Spark had bothered to the tell this story to us (i.e., me). I didn't 'get' anything out of it. It was (approximately) like drinking a very, very, very dry wine: it was enjoyable enough in the moment of consumption, but it didn't leave any taste (or taste memory) with me after it was gone. It was consumed and it disappeared. I suppose the idiom 'water off a duck's back' comes to mind—but that's often used for insults and the like. Spark's book was far from insulting; it was, rather, unaffecting.
Correction: It was unaffecting for me.
Yes, I realize that's implied with any opinion (right?), but I'll add it anyway as a gesture of good will to those who were affected by this novel about a group of elderly friends, relations, and mere acquaintances who begin to receive phone calls warning them to 'remember you will die.' Each of them reacts to the calls differently: some are terrorized by them; some are curious; and other are simply annoyed. None of them seems to take the caller's advice, however. While they do in fact remember that death will inevitably befall them, they are concerned with it more so as a practical matter. Wills must be drafted, and professional care must be sought for the infirm and mentally incapacitated.
But the importance of the calls as an existential reminder is entirely lost on them all, as they carry on with their deceptions, grudge-holding, and overall pettiness. Their agedness and failing health doesn't appear to give their lives any additional weight. (I guess the question we should ask at this point is whether it should. The existentialists would surely say yes, but we are not beholden to their answer. Many people seem to live their lives both practically and superficially, and they don't seem to regret it on the deathbed.)
But to the point: I don't understand what Spark wanted me to get out of this. Am I the reader supposed to be reminded that I will die? If so, this book is preaching to the choir—which doesn't of course mean it's not a viable theme for novel, but only that the way it is expressed left me looking around the room and asking, 'Okay... What's next?' When the last word on the page was gone, the book itself was gone. I had to make an effort to re-think about it for this review because it didn't really leave me with any lasting impressions, feelings, or ideas.
This is Spark on top form. It was published in 1959, two years before the book that made her name - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Although the theme of the book appears quite morbid - an anonymous caller, phoning elderly people to tell them "Remember you must die", there is a great deal of fun, humour and pranks. The dialogue between the elderly patients in the Maud Long Medical ward and the nursing staff is some of the best Spark I have ever read.
She also has a masterful construction in that one of the central characters a Miss Jane Taylor, although confined to her bed in the hospital, is connected to nearly all the other characters through her past and present relationships. She is called upon to offer her advice; thus allowing our author to comment on the behaviour and motivations of the other characters. Miss Taylor is the only one who understands the nature of the phone calls.
The other character who reminds us strongly of Spark herself is Charmian Colston - once a celebrated author. In the current story she is bullied by her husband, who would like her to be in a nursing home, but she quickly regains her wits once she realises that both son and husband would like access to her money. An ever present theme in nearly all of Spark's novels is the one of emotional blackmail - and this ugly topic is explored through several of the characters, most notably a Miss Pettigrew, who feels she has been done out of her rightful stipend, and decides to scheme and manipulate Sir Geoffrey Colston or seduce him if necessary, to get her hands on the money - Charmian's money.
I suppose what is really amusing about the shenanigans of these characters is that they are all in their mid to late 70s or 80s. I like Spark's insistence that old people are not dead - until they are dead!
Try this - it really is one of her best. Witty, funny, light and deadly serious all at the same time. Only Spark can layer her books with this much comment on social and moral values.
I picked this up, maybe a dozen books ago and read the first thirty or forty pages and could not get on with it at all.
This time I read faster, which makes a lot of difference it seems, but I find myself underwhelmed, I enjoyed The Comforters and loved The Ballard of Peckham Rye, this one just seemed ok, I don't find the Spark, maybe not in her or maybe not in me, possibly in neither of us.
Towards the end of the book one character has a conversation with another - an elderly novelist: "'The characters,' said Charmian, 'seemed to take control of my pen after a while. But at first I always got into a tangle. I used to say to myself, Oh what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practise to deceive! Because,' she said, 'the art of fiction is very like the practise of deception.' 'And in life,' he said, 'is the practise of deception in life an art too?' 'In life,' she said, 'everything is different. everything is in the Providence of God...'" (p.192) Firstly I don't believe that any one other than Muriel Spark took control of Muriel Spark's pen, but the importance of deception rings true, or rings with a significant and meaningful tone - 'is the practise of deception in life an art too?' looks like a nod towards her next novel and Dougal Douglas (alias Douglas Dougal) in the Ballard of Peckham Rye. But I am uncertain where the deception is in this book.
We are shown something unusual, a novel that consists almost exclusively of characters in their late sixties and older, a few of them though in their seventies claim firmly to be spring chickens of 67 or 68 in the manner that we usually say of certain persons who claim to be 29 or 39 for five years, the wealthier ones no longer work, the poorer ones labour on in different ways and may be obliged to say that they are younger than they are to be allowed to do so.
Many of the characters receive phone calls from a unknown caller who tells them remember you must die. All the characters deceive themselves by carrying on all the same as though death never comes, just as I suppose we all do.
The phrase Memento Mori puts me in mind of certain Dutch still lives featuring flowers and fruit, or occasionally a skull, there is a way that such pictures are a mirror to life that emphasises vita brevis arts longa. Well ok, but I am still not feeling the Spark.
The short review: A strange, beautiful, eerily elegant book.
The details: The premise is simple. Several elderly British people have been receiving phone calls from someone who says, “Remember you must die.” How each of them responds to this message is the story, which is deeply humorous without being flippant.
I was surprised to see how young Muriel Spark was when she wrote this – she’d just turned 41 when it was published in 1959. I suppose I’m in no position to judge how accurately the characters are drawn, given I’m a mere slip of a 47-year-old thing. But the pains and indignities of old age seem to be brilliantly portrayed.
If this book sounds depressing, I’m telling it wrong.
Okay, it’s definitely a bit dark. One of my favorite characters, Jean Taylor, remarks, “Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.” And as I said, all the main characters are at least that old.
On the other hand, the prose is thickly laced with equally brilliant and far funnier passages, such as:
Mrs. Anthony knew instinctively that Mrs. Pettigrew was a kindly woman. Her instinct was wrong.
Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she still was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy, to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable.
If that paragraph leaves you cold, this book is not for you. If it’s your cup of tea, grab this strange, slim novel. Not only is the prose gorgeous all the way through, but the story is full of surprises. I can’t describe the plot in any detail because I’ll give something away. So I’ll just say that in barely over 200 pages, there were at least five spots where my eyes widened and I thought, “WOW, did I not see that coming.”
To my knowledge Spark was the first writer that radically focussed on the "third age", because the protagonists of this novel all are between 70 and 79. She offers a very humorous and even sarcastic portrait of old farts that are above all occupied with covering up their past, with attempts to bind (younger) people to them through their testament (that they change very often) and with constantly keeping an inquisitive eye on their fellow sufferers. In the end the image of the elderly becomes very wry and pitiful, especially as repeated calls from an anonymous person that whispers "Remember you must die" cause a lot of termoil. Spark describes it all mercilessly, without moralising. To read and to despair of the prospect of old age. In the meantime, I've enjoyed this very much, indeed.
I tried so hard with this, my second voyage into the strange world of Muriel Spark. Try as I might, I cannot get on with her, or her style of writing. There were a small handful of amusing moments, but for the majority of the book I was left wishing it was all over. I won't be reading her again.
Muriel Spark keeps surprising me. This is the third book I've read by her and none of them are like each other. The Driver's Seat was ferocious, deep metafiction, but this is...this is just a bunch of old people acting dotty.
I mean, no, it's about death, I guess that's pretty intense. A memento mori is a reminder of death. You know who gets into this stuff is monks. The idea is that you can't truly appreciate your life unless you've come to terms with oncoming death. This is why the capuchin monks in Florence built a whole chapel out of bones:
I totally visited this place once, it was aight
At least that's why they said they did it. It was probably more that they thought it looked awesome, which it does.
Anyway, memento mori is Latin and it translates as "Remember you must die," which is what a voice on the phone keeps saying to all these dotty old people in Muriel Spark's weird book. They all hear and respond to the voice differently. They're connected to each other in complicated ways. Here, I'll lay it all out. I suppose there are spoilers here, but this isn't really the kind of book where spoilers are a thing.
Spark hurls all this at you in just over 200 pages, and I'm not sure why. For fun? I took notes but I'm not sure it matters. All of these people will face death in various ways.
I was left with the impression that this is more or less a pleasant book about aging, a little like Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. Maybe less serious than that. So, once again, I don't know what Muriel Spark's deal exactly is, although I'm certainly going to keep trying to find out. One thing she doesn't do is write bad books.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>
Spark does a smart thing here, taking what is an often really funny and sometimes quite moving comedy of errors and infusing it with tension in the metronomic form of mysterious, ominous phone calls. When this book works, it sings. The descriptions are wonderful, the characters on point (I think you will particularly love Alec Burns, whose obsession with the old functions as comic relief at the most critical junctures of plot), and the action is often thrilling - I'm particularly thinking of a moment at the end of Chief Mortimer's chapter.
My complaints: the plot is supremely byzantine; Mrs. Pettigrew is just too sinister; so much of the book's action is in the past that the second half turns over to exposition and loses much of the tightness that carried me through the first 100 pages; Eric comes in way too late and is way too nasty; the question of the phone-calls isn't quite handled in the way I would prefer and is made clear too early.
I always think a many-peopled novel should cease to accumulate characters in the final third - you want to crest that mountaintop and cruise downhill to an ending. This one keeps on complicating itself until the end, for better and worse.
It's a breeze though, for all that, and often hilarious. Think Wodehouse mixed with Austen (a heady combo) and you're getting pretty close.
I thoroughly enjoyed my second foray into the startling world of Muriel Spark, having previously read, and liked, 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' a few years back.
Who is the mystery caller, or perhaps callers, plaguing a group of aged people? The message is always the same “Remember you must die”. As the frequency of calls increases, the reader gets more familiar with a group of connected friends, relatives and acquaintances, many of whom protect secrets from their past. The reactions to these calls are varied and interesting, and reveal a range of different character types. However, it is only the more relaxed and playful characters who are able to identify the caller’s identity.
Memento Mori is tremendous fun, and a very unusual, quirky, unsentimental, wise, funny, and enjoyable read. There’s plenty of sly humour, and Muriel Spark is wonderfully unsympathetic towards her motley crew of characters. I am resolved to read more books by Muriel Spark in the near future.
And, whatever you do remember....
"Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid."
Memento mori (Latin: "remember (that) you will die")
Indeed those are the exact words the anonymous caller says to some of the inhabitants of this book, 90% of whom are geriatric in their 70s and 80s. These people we can see are clearly in denial about their physical and mental abilites having reached such a great age. There is dementia and also physical disability. Once again this is not a plot driven novel but character centric and I didn't particularly like any of them This is a story of upper middle-class old people, who for the most part have known each other for over 50 years. There are lots of deaths in this book and some, humorous moments too and of course the mystery surrounding the caller. All in all I didn't like it much, I found it very dated and some yukky bits about one of the old men (87) finding his sexual pleasure looking at the stocking tops of an old lady, but also a young 24 year grand daughter of one of the other characters. I found this creepy. So 2 * and I'm definitely not going to read another book by this author.
Memento Mori - "Remember you must die" is the message that an anonymous caller issues to several elderly people, who all react differently to receiving the nuisance calls.
What follows is a confused look into the lives of the recipients of these calls and into the way that society neglects the elderly.
I don't know what it was about this book, but I rather disliked it. I gather from the reviews of others that there is humorous, yet, macabre writing in this, but I didn't really find much humour in it and found it more sinister and cynical than anything.
“Remember that you must die” potentially reeks of morbidity, so one would assume a novel entitled Memento Mori would be pretty bleak. But one would be mistaken. For in the capable hands of Muriel Spark, this is far from being a macabre or depressing reading experience. Although set in the 1950s and published in 1959, the novel feels fresh in its treatment of an enduring subject—how do we come to terms with our own mortality?
The novel’s lively cast of elderly characters are from the upper echelons of society. With ages ranging from the mid 70s to the late 80s, they are in various stages of physical and mental decline. They are connected to each other either as siblings, through marriage, as previous lovers, or as caregivers. Among them is Dame Lettie, a recipient of the OBE; Charmian, her sister-in-law and famous novelist; Guy Leet, Charmian’s former lover and a literary critic; Godfrey, Charmian’s disgruntled husband and brother to Dame Lettie; and Jean Taylor, Charmian’s friend and previous caregiver who now resides in a home for the elderly.
Unexpectedly, this close-knit coterie finds itself victimized by harassing phone calls. An anonymous caller has the unmitigated gall to remind them of their impending death. The calls are initially dismissed. Dame Lettie, the first victim, is accused of imagining things. But when the culprit broadens his circle and calls all members of the group individually, a police investigation is launched, a detective is consulted. But to no avail. The harassing phone calls continue.
Each character responds to a reminder of the inevitability of death in a manner that conforms with his/her world view. Their coping mechanisms vary. Some are in denial and desperate to catch and silence the culprit who reminds them of their mortality; others take a more philosophical and religious approach. Added to the mix are the elderly women who reside in the Maud Long Medical Ward with Jean Taylor. These women, affectionately referred to as “the Grannies,” act as a chorus of those refusing to go gently into that good night. Depicted as unique, authentic individuals with different interests and temperaments, they are resilient and frequently cantankerous. Their interactions are both comic and poignant.
Using the third person omniscient point of view, Spark turns her astute lens to observe her characters. Their behavior and interactions are rendered realistically, with even minor details revealing a great deal about a character’s disposition. The indignities that come with aging, including the loss of mobility and bodily functions, are presented authentically and, in many cases, with compassionate amusement. The quirky characters with their foibles and humorous interactions serve as potent reminders that the conflicts, deceptions, and intrigues of one’s wild and woolly youth diminish in significance when confronted with the ravages of aging and the inevitability of death.
Highly recommended for its inspired and inspiring treatment of an otherwise bleak subject.
Look at the Latin title. Translated it means 'Remember you must die'. This is the telephone message delivered to a group of elderly upper-class Brits in the 1950s. Dame Lettie Colston was the first to be targeted. Soon many of Lettie's acquaintances had received the same call. The person or persons calling is sometimes said to be young, sometimes old and was identified by one as a woman. "Who is the caller?" is the mystery of the story.
It disappointed me . Somehow the author just hasn't made this alternative credible, and thus the end disappointed me.
The theme of the book is the message stated in the title. More specifically one should 'Remember you must die while you live'. This being the case, I think the novel would have been better had the message been delivered to not just the elderly.
Character portrayal is not the focus of the book. The message is the focus. There are too many characters and their interrelationships become confusing. Most often as one nears the end of a book a few central characters stand out. This doesn't happen here. This is another reason why the ending just sort of fizzled for me. You understand the message long before, and since what happens to each character doesn't matter, because you are not emotionally tied to them, the reader gets bored by the detailed documentation of each character’s fate, i.e. death, with which the book concludes.
What I did like about the book is its humor. Maybe one has to be coming up in years to recognize how we become as we age. The book gives you the opportunity to laugh at yourself. The chilling description of life in elderly homecare facilities gives a sobering balance.
The narration by Eve Karpf was very well done. Easy to follow and read at a perfect speed.
OK, I didn’t absolutely love this, but I do adore Spark’s humor. I appreciate that each one of her books have a different theme, even if most of them do seem to hold a mystery, contain a murder or two and are written with humor. Which of her books will I try next? I am not stopping here.
2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark's birth. It's been wonderful seeing how this event has reinvigorated interest in Spark’s books. Many people and organizations have marked the occasion from Ali of HeavenAli's year-long read-a-long #ReadingMuriel100 to Virago Press publishing a beautiful new edition of “Memento Mori” (that also celebrates this essential publisher's 40th anniversary) to Adam's video commemorating Spark's birthday (his booktube channel is even named after this Spark novel.) My own interest in Spark's fiction unfortunately stopped early on as I've only previously read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, "The Driver's Seat" and “The Finishing School” in 2004, the year it was published. The later turned out to be her final novel and it sadly felt lacklustre and slight to me which is why I didn't pursue reading any more of her earlier books. But now, having read “Memento Mori” I feel doubly inspired to pursue her back catalogue. It's so brilliantly clever and funny with its large cast of idiosyncratic elderly characters who are continuously hounded by a mysterious caller that regularly reminds them “Remember you must die.” The story is perfectly drawn to capture the tragicomic condition of old age as well as the great challenge of facing our own mortality.
The blurb on the back of my paperback copy by Stephen Schiff of the New Yorker calls Memento Mori "A complex, beautiful, and terrifyingly insightful novel about old age." This is spot on!
I was surprised to see that Muriel Spark was only 41 when she penned this because it seems to really get at the heart of being in your seventies and eighties.
The premise is pretty simply, a group of elderly friends start receiving phone calls from an unknown caller that simple says "remember you must die". The complicated web of relationships between the characters and how each responds to the caller are what make up the heart of the novel.
This was my first Muriel Spark novel but it won't be my last. I loved her insightful, funny, and biting prose.
Have read this novel a number of times and as I have just put it onto my ' favourite shelf ' I thought it would be sensible to say why. Then having written that the inspiration falters. I love the book but don't know the reason. Its sinister and funny and bizarre in fairly equal measure...classic Muriel I suppose. Old folk each get a phone call in which a voice, oddly different to each listener, declares ' Memento Mori '- ' Remember you will die'. For some this is a simple confirmation of the obvious, for some a confusion and unnerving experience and for some a wickedly underhand threat. I love the slightly eccentric response of Charmian who simply says ' Thank you Darling' to the caller whom she describes as a 'nice young man'. The questions it raises are all normal human questions which we all have to deal with in our own way. The modern fear of dying, the desperate attempts to put off the inevitable, the hopeless emptiness of the imagined future of some of the dramatis personae, all these things are communicated through witty and pointed dialogue. The whole gamut of human types are here; the foolish, the jealous, the bitter, the unfaithful; the generous, the patient, the noble, the gentle and so many more. Actually, each not a type but a mix of so many. The amazing thing is Muriel Spark wrote this novel about octagenarians and beyond when she was a young woman. I often wonder how she would have written it if this was one of her last novels written when she was a Grande Dame of letters herself.
5. Memento Mor by Muriel Spark reader: Nadia May published: 1959 format: 6:32 audible audiobook loan (228 pages in Paperback) listened: Feb 1-10 rating: 4 genre/style: 20th-century British fiction theme random audio locations: 1950’s London about the author: 1918-2006. Scottish novelist born in Edinburgh.
I'm reading too many books at once, and my focus is all over the place. It's a weird thing where I can skip through a terrific book like this and hardly notice. My comments here are in that state of mind.
When I first read and posted on Spark last year (I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), I got several responses on different sites mentioning this title. It's a free on Audible right now if you're a member, meaning it's an "Included" book (but only through Feb 22). I stumbled across that info without even knowing what Included meant, otherwise I would not choose a 6.5-hour book on audible. I need longer audiobooks or I go through them too fast. Anyway, finding a free book I really wanted to read while searching for an audiobook was nice.
No clue what I was expecting, but I was confused when all the main characters I was meeting were in their 80's and fading. Why that would seem to bother me, or what that says about me isn't clear. But as a kind of unconscious reflex, I adjusted for something less somehow. A forgettable story.
The novel really is all elderly characters, mostly in their 80‘s. They are terrifically difficult and entertaining as they deal with their pasts, personality flaws, waning physical and mental health, and their finances. They study the obituaries, checking on acquaintances, and are consumed with inheritances. We learn one character has 22 different versions of their will. One character, a well-regarded aging author, has dementia. In a recent interview in a paper, the interviewer compliments her for being “abundantly alive”. It's a novel of that kind of humor. It's funny, but also there's a great deal going on.
Memento Mori, a reminder of death. The book opens with a crank call, where the caller says simply, "Remember you must die.", and hangs up. It enough to send the community into a tizzy, contacting the police, and, failing to get any results (with 1950's telephone technology), then contacting a retired investigator. But what makes this novel is how the characters respond to this, and how we watch their different levels of offense, denial, embracement, and amusement. It's a connection we all have with them, as we all are forced to remember this, but it's also a way inside a deeper part of character, in this case, of ones very set in their ways. It helps set what is essentially a plotless character novel.
It's a really a great short novel. I found the characters entertaining and I enjoyed spending time with them.
It is primarily about old people and their obsession with the Death.
Old People = They are the Memento Mori.
What do the old people are obsessed with or afraid of? Death's call. "Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield."
What can be done to avoid such fears at the old age? It is better to develop from the younger days the habit of remembering death. "If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid."
These ideas are narrated in a wonderful story where almost all the characters are above seventy. The story itself is narrated in an excellent manner. It almost runs like a spooky crime thriller. Crime thriller also has many funny and witty moments. I bet anyone would laugh yourself loud reading those passages. The plot of the story also in a way makes clear each ones way of coping with such fear - one takes recourse to faith, one takes refuge in being jovial at all moments even to the limit of being gossipy, one calls for philosophical musings on death, etc....
The plot is based around a group of elderly people in 1950s London, most of whom are avaricious and petty-minded, although those that aren't are important to the story. Each of them starts to receive mysterious phone calls in which an unknown voice says "Remember you must die" before hanging up.
The telephone calls produce varying reactions from the cast. Some react with anger or terror. Four of the characters cope better and of these, two are Roman Catholics whilst another is a sort of late convert to spiritualism. Doubtless these portrayals reflect Muriel Spark's own adherence to Roman Catholicism.
The blurb at the top of the page describes this novel as "wickedly hilarious," whilst that on the back of the edition I read describes the book as a "hilarious farce." Humour is of course a very personal thing, but I didn't find this hilarious. In fact, other than the odd chuckle, I didn't even find it funny. Reading the first half of the book, I was also puzzled as to why the novel is as highly regarded as it is. I would say though, that it all comes together well during the latter stages. I'm not sure I agreed with the underlying message, but this does have the merit of being original, and it has a sharply observed cast of characters.
The sound of ice clinking in a glass. The feel of smooth marble. The clip-clop of heavy shoes in an empty hall. The fuzzy silkiness of a flower’s inner petal. The lingering memory of an intense dream. The grip of an over-zealous hand shaker. Spark too gave me feelings such as these.
I loved the philosophy inserted throughout. Does anyone exist other than you? Do we need to be reminded that we must eventually die? How often or prevalent a reminder is needed? If the fruits of a great labour are destroyed before the one who created them, does that master still indeed exist? Do the sins of the past lose their potency with time and understanding? Can we ever really know another, ourselves?
I’m sorry, I just could not get into this one, quite the weakest Spark I’ve read so far.
A cast of variously self-deluded, conniving, imperious, upper-middle-class geriatrics each receive mysterious repeated phone calls, saying “Remember you must die”. Their reactions vary from horror to amusement, and some even demand police action. There are some other non-U characters – housekeepers, companions and residents of a geriatric hospital who don’t get a call, but in the end they all do die of course.
The story (such as it is, it’s really just a series of interconnected caricatures) has all of Spark’s dry wit and economy of writing but just did not do much for me, despite being appealingly absurdist. It reeked of a fusty bygone era and I was right glad when it was done.