Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Memento Mori

In my recent break from Muriel Spark, I forgot how much I love her. She's funny and an insightful observer and the characters in her novels are such characters. Memento Mori is full of characters, and almost all of them are elderly, flirting with the line between sanity and lack of it. Plus, they all think that the minds of the others are weakening.

"Remember, you must die" is the anonymous recurring phone call that troubles the elderly characters in the novel. At the beginning, the novel purports to follow the mystery, so you think it's going to be a detective novel. But in the course of the book, you find that the mystery isn't solvable--that in fact it may be death itself that forces the elderly people to remember that it is coming. Different characters respond in different ways to death's promise. For some, it is a threat--they want the perpetrators to be discovered and punished. For others, they accept it as a truth without fear or hesitation. They know that death will come. And it does come--the epilogue recounts the deaths of the main characters.

Memento Mori is grotesque, but not in any of the ways you expect. Spark's humor makes the actual deaths almost lighthearted. On the other hand, Alec Warner's obsession with studying older people is pretty creepy. He studies them scientifically, noting their temperature and pulse as much as he can. And then there's Godfrey, who, at his advanced age, likes women to lift their skirts for him so that he can see where their stockings end. There are old women in a public nursing home who are constantly changing their wills based on whether the nurses are nice to them that day.

I think the way that Spark draws Catholic characters is excellent--they are pretty messed up, like her other characters, but they offer a little religious insight. Charmain, a novelist and Godfrey's wife, is a Catholic convert who has lost a good bit of her mind, but is delightfully sane in the midst of it. Her maid, Taylor, also converted with Charmain and is incredibly loyal to her former employer. Both are peaceful about aging and are oriented to helping others.

(Others: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, A Far Cry from Kensington, The Bachelors, The Finishing School, Curriculum Vitae, The Girls of Slender Means; Also: Memento Mori is the reason that I read Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn, because there was some blurb on the back of the book that compared them.)

1 comment:

hopkins said...

ahhhhh! we have to talk about this!!!! to me it was the funniest of her novels, by a long shot. i just about died laughing.