Momento Mori

“Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war,” remarks Miss Taylor from her bed in the Maud Long Medical Ward, “All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.” Muriel Spark’s Momento Mori reads like a report from the front line: its extensive cast of characters are almost all over seventy, besieged by their failing bodies and fading minds, though often in denial regarding their mortality. Spark described the novel’s origins in ‘How I Became a Novelist’:

“I decided to write a book about old people. It happened that a number of old people I had known as a child in Edinburgh were dying from one cause or another, and on my visits to Edinburgh I sometimes accompanied my mother to see them in hospital… They were paralysed or crippled in body, yet were still exerting characteristic influences on those around them and in the world outside. I saw a tragic side to this situation and a comic side as well.”

The novel’s observation of the tragedy and comedy of old age is punctuated by a series of anonymous phone calls. Dame Lettie is the principal victim: “Just the same words – Remember you must die – nothing more.” “Of course the man’s mad,” she tells the police; “a maniac” according to her brother Godfrey. As the phone calls proliferate, their supernatural origin becomes more likely, particularly as each person hears a different voice, but Miss Taylor is one of only two characters prepared to accept the truth:

“In my belief… the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say… If you don’t remember Death, Death reminds you to do so.”

The other characters continue to fight the battles of life despite the fact that death is all around, from the daily reading of the obituary columns to the nightly dying of the grannies in the geriatric ward. Godfrey bullies his wife Charmian, once a successful novelist: terrified of her superiority he constantly corrects her failing memory. His well-being relies on the deterioration of others:

“He thought in how much better form he was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine.”

When an old acquaintance, Guy Leet, appears at a funeral supported by two sticks, he immediately thinks, “He can’t be more than seventy-five and just see what he’s come to.” Godfrey, we are told, “was obsessed by the question of old people and their faculties.” Lettie, too, dismisses any remark by Miss Taylor she dislikes as “wandering again.” Alec Warner notes the behaviour of his peer group on cards and in a diary which he intends to be destroyed at his death:

“…but his every morning’s work was to analyse and abstract from it the data for his case histories, entering them in the various methodical notebooks.”

The characters are also in in thrall to their own pasts: affairs and infidelities which happened fifty years before still illicit secrecy and resentment. Godfrey finds himself blackmailed by Miss Pettigrew over events which Charmian is well aware of. Even now he cannot escape the lure of sex, paying a young woman to reveal her stocking tops to him. Alec, on meeting Miss Pettigrew, notes “these erotic throes that come like thieves in the night.” Spark’s target is the inability of her characters to age gracefully – the frequent changing of wills is only one example – which she relates directly to their refusal to heed the advice and contemplate death. Reaction to the phone calls acts as a moral barometer for the reader.

As in a number of Spark’s novels, there are playful echoes of the crime genre, with much of the plot characterised as a fruitless investigation into the provenance of the calls. With typical black comedy, when violence does occur its origin lies in the fear occasioned by the mysterious messages, but the danger itself comes from a far more prosaic quarter. Spark also scatters writers throughout the novel – not only Charmian (and her estranged son, Eric), but Alec with his obsessive observations, asking, for example, when he hears that poet Percy Mannering intends to confront Guy Leet over his memoirs, that Guy:

“…assist me by taking the old fellow’s pulse and temperature as soon as it can conveniently be done…”

Equally scathing of both romance and realism, Spark asserts her rejection of both.

Momento Mori is often considered one of Spark’s most successful novels. Alan Bold has thought it as “an artistic advance over her first two novels in that both major and minor characters have depth.” According to Allan Massie it is “a complex, witty, macabre novel where all of Muriel Spark’s gifts seem to come together.” It perfectly captures both the comedy and tragedy of ageing while daring a streak of surrealism which, like death itself, is both improbable and certain.

8 Responses to “Momento Mori”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It *is* a marvellous book – I found it not at all what I expected when I first read it, but her writing and characterisation are just wonderful!!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, for all its gloomy subject matter it is an enjoyable read. I’m hoping to re-read most of Spark’s novels this year (apart from a couple I’ve read very recently) and I’m really looking forward to it.

  2. BookerTalk Says:

    This isn’t going to be one for me I’m sorry. I am just coming to the end of The Comforters, an experience I haven’t enjoyed. Spark is not for me it seems ….

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This is probably the last Spark I intend to try – I find her tone cruel which has rather put me off her as a writer. This though just sounds so original that I figured I’d wrap up with her with this.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Just dropping by to say how much I enjoyed your review of this Spark. It was a lovely reminder of a book that remains my favourite of hers (so far). As you say, there’s a great balance between the comedy and tragedy associated with ageing. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic between Godfrey, Charmian and Dame Lettie – while some of the scenes depicting Jean Taylor were very poignant. Wonderful stuff.

    At the risk of sounding like a cracked record here, can I put in another gentle word for Barbara Pym? I think you’d find her Quartet in Autumn an interesting comparison with MM. It’s probably Pym’s most touching novel – less ‘frivolous’ than her early books and possibly more to your tastes?

    • 1streading Says:

      I think it’s one of my favourite Sparks as well, though as I’m intending to read them all this year I should find out for sure!
      Fully intending to read Barbara Pym this year as well – I’m definitely trying to increase the number of women writers on the blog – in fact I toyed with the idea of only reading women this year but that seemed likely to lead to piles of unread books by men!
      (Also great to have your comments back).

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