For some inexplicable reason, I had never read Muriel Spark before. A few of her novels were languishing on my shelves, but I never felt compelled to open any of them.
But then, last year was Muriel Spark’s Centenary, and a newly generated interest in her books in the blogging world was just the push I needed to finally give her a go.
Also, although The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the one that seems to have gained the most popularity, it was precisely for that reason I decided to settle for another one.
And because I had the lovely Virago 40th anniversary edition of Memento Mori, it was a good enough reason, I thought, to be my first Spark novel.
In Memento Mori, Spark touches upon the topics of ageing, mortality and relationships between the older generation, in a writing style that is caustic but laced with humour.
When the novel opens, Dame Lettie Colston (one of the main protagonists in the novel) is on the phone with Inspector Mortimer. Dame Lettie is persistently getting phone calls from a mysterious caller who only utters the words, “Remember you must die.” To be sure Dame Lettie is in her eighties and these calls frighten and perplex her. Moreover, she is convinced the police force is useless and not taking her seriously.
In the same chapter, we are also introduced to Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey Colston and his wife Charmian (the other protagonists in the novel). Godfrey and Charmian are aged 87 and 85 years respectively.
Charmian has been a successful novelist with many books under her belt, and in some sense Godfrey has lived under her shadow and has resented it. Charmian has had a stroke, and it immediately becomes apparent that she is having difficulty remembering people and incidents. For instance, she has a maid to look after her Mrs Anthony, but Charmian keeps calling her Jean.
Jean Taylor incidentally had earlier been Charmian’s maid for many years, but is now living the remainder of her life in a home for aged people. This section particularly has its funny moments (especially how the elderly in the ward judge the nurse in charge of them), and shades of poignancy when it comes to Jean Taylor’s plight.
A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally.
Then there is Lisa Brooke, who in some sense is the absent core of the novel. We are first introduced to her at her own funeral, but while she is not a living voice, we learn in a series of flashbacks, the influence she has had on the relationships of other characters, both while she was alive, and even now when she is dead.
Particularly, there is Mrs Pettigrew, who was Lisa Brooke’s maid. She is all set to inherit a substantial bit of her fortune if Brooke’s will is anything to go by but it is hotly contested by Brooke’s family and another dubious character Guy Leet.
As I write this piece, it has suddenly dawned on me of how many people and plot strands Spark has woven into this novel.
But I will focus on the main ones. And that is the relationship between Godfrey Colston and his wife Charmian, which to me was the highlight of the novel.
The first chapter, where we are introduced to them, is a hoot and pretty much set the tone for the rest of the hilarious exchanges between them.
Charmian has always been the successful one among the two giving Godfrey an inferiority complex, and a recent revival in her books only intensifies this feeling in him.
Hence, Charmian’s illness actually bolsters Godfrey’s sense of self allowing him to boss over and as Charmian puts it, ‘taking your revenge’.
Fifteen years ago, in her seventy-first year, when her memory had started slightly to fail, she realized that Godfrey was turning upon her as one who had been awaiting his revenge. She did not think he was himself aware of this. It was an instinctive reaction to the years of being a talented, celebrated woman’s husband, knowing himself to be reaping continually in her a harvest which he had not sown.
Moreover, it hardly comes as a surprise when we learn of Godfrey’s many infidelities – a fact he is desperate to keep secret from Charmian at all cost for fear of being judged by her.
But Mrs Pettigrew, who has recently been installed in the Colston household, now that Lisa Brooke is no more, manages to get wind of Godfrey’s secret and blackmail him.
Charmian, meanwhile, is no saint either and she too has a past which Godfrey is not aware of. In her own way she longs to be independent and free from Godfrey.
There is one particular section where both Mrs Pettigrew and Godfrey are out, and so she has no choice but to make tea all by herself. It’s a wonderful set piece that highlights Charmian’s immense pleasure in performing this task all on her own, giving her a whiff of independence.
When all was set on the tray she was tempted to have her tea in the kitchen there in Mrs Anthony’s chair.
But she thought of her bright fire in the library. She looked at the tray. Plainly she could never carry it. She would take in the tea-things one by one, even if it took half-an-hour.
By the second section of the novel, practically all the characters get these mysterious calls as did Dame Lettie initially; the message is always the same, calling to attention their impending death. But will this mystery get solved and how serious is it really?
There are also class differences that come across in the novel. Jean Taylor, particularly, wishes to go to a private home in Surry, but is thwarted by Dame Lettie.
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.’
Dame Lettie, meanwhile, is a snob in the way she deals with her family, the way she perceives the police, and the way she handles these mysterious calls.
As I wrote earlier, Memento Mori is the first Spark novel I read, and I was floored.
Old age is not a great place to be in particularly if health is not on your side (based on experiences in my family), and a novel where the focal point is old age can get depressing if it’s not well written.
But that was never the case with Memento Mori.
‘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.’
Other than possibly Jean Taylor, all the characters are flawed and none are likeable, which to me actually was a positive. I found them all consistently interesting in their shortcomings and brilliantly etched by Spark’s pen. Her prose is so sharp, deliciously wicked and brimming with wit that I found the novel to be a delightful and addictive black comedy.
A.L. Kennedy, in her introduction, could not have expressed better:
The world according to Muriel Spark is a startling place, constructed with intelligence, relish and extraordinary precision.
Everyone in the novel is well past their prime, with the possibility of death imminent. But it’s a fact nobody wants to accept. Rather than let go gracefully, the vindictiveness and rancor continues as it did in the past when they were young and even in middle age.
Perhaps, they needed to be reminded that they must die? That now is the time to let bygones be bygones and show some compassion?