Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (1959)
This is one of the Spark novels I’ve been meaning to read for years – so it’s great to be able to join in on Phase 1 of Heavenali’s #ReadingMuriel2018 year. An added bonus is being able to read from my late mum’s Penguin first edition paperback, yellowed and bashed as it is – and yes, she’d left me a Post-it on the front to remind me of its first edition status!
At the age of seventy-nine, Dame Lettie Colston has a telephone stalker. A man has rung on nine occasions and given her the same message. Now, a call has come for her at her brother Godfrey’s home where she is having dinner:
Mrs Anthony looked round the door. ‘Someone on the phone for Dame Lettie.’
‘Oh, who is it?’
‘Wouldn’t give a name.’
‘Ask who it is please.’
‘Did ask. Wouldn’t give-‘
‘I’ll go,’ said Godfrey.
Dame Lettie followed him to the telephone and overheard the male voice. ‘Tell Dame Lettie,’ it said, ‘to remember she must die.’
‘Who’s there?’ said Godfrey. But the man had hung up.
‘We must have been followed, ‘said Lettie. ‘I told no one I was coming over here last night.’
She telephoned to report the occurrence to the Assistant Inspector.
Lettie is the first to receive these messages, but as the book goes on, more of these well-off elderly folk also get them. The police seem unable to catch the perpetrator.
Of course, for the elderly protagonists of Sharp’s third novel, mortality is something that is never far from most of their minds – or those that hope to inherit. Ironically, Dame Lettie is, for now, in rude health, even with the anxiety her caller is causing, unlike her ailing sister-in-law Charmian, whom Lettie has little time for and thinks she should move to a home. It is Charmian, an author who is enjoying a resurgence in popularity in her old age, who holds the family fortune these days though. There is no love lost between Lettie and Charmian – Godfrey has the newspaper:
‘Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?’ Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.
‘Well, I should like the war news,’ Charmian said.
‘The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,’ Dame Lettie said. ‘If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean perhaps…?’
I do love Lettie’s bitchiness!
The next chapter is set in the geriatric ward of a local hospital, and the chapters will alternate between there and the outside world. The Maud Long Medical Ward is where Miss Jean Taylor, eighty-two, former companion-maid to Charmian, now resides along with eleven other old ladies, They are known by the nurses as the Grannies – not all of them are happy at this, and keep threatening to remove people from their wills. The Grannies are highly entertaining, one is hilariously addicted to horoscopes for instance, and Granny Taylor is by far the nicest character in the whole book.
Charmian refuses to go into the home, instead taking on a new companion-maid, Mrs Pettigrew. She’d worked for another old friend of the Colston’s and had persuaded the deceased Lisa Brooke to leave everything to her and not Lisa’s family – the will is in dispute – it’s clear that Mrs P is a gold-digger. Add in Godfrey’s clandestine needs for a little stimulation now and then, the Colston’s estranged and broke son, and some decidedly odd other old friends including Alec Warner who keeps notes about the health of everyone, and we have all the ingredients that Spark needs to mix up with real glee for a macabre comedy in which all roads will eventually end in death in one form or another.
There’s nothing like a contested will for winding up families who are already grieving. Spark wickedly throws more family secrets in to stir things up further along with the continued drama of the phone stalker. Thank goodness for the comic relief afforded by the Grannies, although sadly, some of them will too ‘join the choir invisible’ (to quote from Monty Python’s parrot sketch).
As I read Memento Mori, at first I was rather irritated by many of the characters, even if I appreciated the dark comedy. I came to have some sympathy for Lettie, Godfrey and Alec, if not some of the others by time Spark had done with them though. This novel has grown on me in reflection too. Part of this is Spark’s style which even in her earlier work takes no prisoners and wastes few words – requiring a little concentration to keep up with her! At 220 pages, this is one of her longer novels, but there’s also more plot here than in most of the other works by her I’ve read.
Memento Mori is not my favourite Spark, but it shows a writer in her ascendancy with a wicked wit that promises much to come. (8/10)
Source: Own copy! Muriel Spark, Memento Mori (1959)