Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Remember, You Must Die



It's been so long since I wrote a proper review that I'm wondering whether or not I can still do it... I don't know about other bloggers (I would be interested to know, actually) but it usually takes me an hour or more to write a full-length book review on here. And whilst I love doing it, I do seem to come to my laptop most evenings too tired to do anything that complex! So, if this turns into a series of zzzzzzzz somewhere in the middle, you'll know why. Still, I am always amazed, flattered, and delighted that anybody would want to read my musings on the books I read - so thank you in advance!

In fact, that's as much as I managed to write last week, before getting too sleepy and going to bed. I didn't even get as far as writing the title of the novel - which is Muriel Spark's Memento Mori (1959). Congratulations to Terri for correctly working out the book from my clues.

Giving Muriel Spark a second chance is one of the best results of blog-reading, for me. The enthusiasm of Simon S and Claire led me back to Spark, after finding a couple of her novels a bit underwhelming six or so years ago - and, as regular readers will know, I now adore her. Over the past couple of years I've read The Driver's Seat, Loitering With Intent, and Not to Disturb - and I have plenty on my tbr piles. I fancied seeing what my book group in Oxford would think of Muriel Spark, and so picked one almost at random because I liked the title. Memento Mori it was.

Despite coming quite early in her career, when Spark was only just over 40 years old, the novel concerns almost exclusively old people. Many of these live on a ward, where their different classes and personalities are swept away into being termed 'Granny Duncan', 'Granny Barnacle', 'Granny Trotsky' etc. But others amongst the sizable cast of characters still live in their homes - notably Dame Lettie Colston, her philandering brother Godfrey, and his wife Charmian, once a famed novelist and now suffering Alzheimer's. These three are all heading towards their three-score-and-ten. In the first few pages, Lettie is visiting her sister-in-law, and their choppy dialogue reveals both the extent of Charmian's declining faculties, and the irreverent but grounded approach Spark takes.
"Did you have a nice evening at the pictures, Taylor?" said Charmian.

"I am not Taylor," said Dame Lettie, "and in any case, you always called Taylor Jean during her last twenty or so years in your service."


Mrs. Anthony, their daily housekeeper, brought in the milky coffee and placed it on the breakfast table.

"Did you have a nice evening at the pictures, Taylor?" Charmian asked her.

"Yes, thanks, Mrs. Colston," said the housekeeper.


"Mrs. Anthony is not Taylor," said Lettie. "There is no one by the name of Taylor here. And anyway you used to call her Jean latterly. It was only when you were a girl that you called Taylor Taylor. And, in any event, Mrs. Anthony is not Taylor."


Godfrey came in. He kissed Charmian. She said, "Good morning, Eric."


"He is not Eric," said Dame Lettie.

What makes me love Spark - and, indeed, what made me underestimate her six years ago - is her style. It is understated, so that a fast read through reveals little of its richness - Spark can even feel a bit bland at that pace. But once I'd stopped and begun to appreciate her writing, I realised how brilliant it was. Unsentimental, a little discordant, wry, ironic, and ever so slightly surreal. The first words of chapter five illustrated what I mean: 'Mrs. Anthony knew instinctively that Mrs. Pettigrew was a kindly woman. Her instinct was wrong.' Spark keeps the reader of his/her toes - conventional emotions or responses are dangled before the reader's eyes, then turned on their head. We had an interesting discussion at book group about whether or not Spark's style was funny. I suppose it isn't. Certainly not in the way that Wodehouse is, or Stella Gibbons is, or Austen can be. But it's an experience - a tone which diverts and engages and draws me in.

But I have yet to address the central momentum of the novel. On the opening page, Dame Lettie receives an anonymous phone call; a voice simply saying 'Remember you must die.' In fact, it is the ninth time she has had this call. But she is not the only victim - increasing numbers of people get the same phone call, with the same words (even if they cannot agree on the voice). Everyone from Charmian to the Inspector investigating the case receives the same message - each responding to it in different ways. Some are scared, some indignant. Mrs. Pettigrew (involved in a very Spark-ian blackmail plot) simply wipes it from her mind. Charmian gives the best response: "Oh, as to that, for the past thirty years and more I have thought of it from time to time. My memory is failing in certain respects. I am gone eighty-six. But somehow I do not forget my death, whenever that will be." The response of the anonymous caller? "Delighted to hear it. Goodbye for now."

If this were an Agatha Christie novel, then the Inspector would gradually eliminate characters from suspicion, and we'd witness an elaborate denouement, discovering that the least likely person had actually done it because they were the twin sister of someone who everyone thought had died decades ago, etc. etc. Whilst I love Dame Agatha, I've now enough experience with Dame Muriel to suspect it wouldn't work quite like that. I shan't spoil the surprise, but suffice to say that the outcome is unmistakably Spark-like.

There are any number of subplots in this slim novel, and dozens of characters. Memento Mori, whilst excellent, isn't quite as accomplished as some of the other, later books I've read by Spark - and I agree with the original New York Times reviewer that she could have achieved more had she included less. Occasionally I had to flick through the pages to work out which character was which. But there are a central few (the ones I have already mentioned) who are striking and memorable - with starkly human qualities coming through the veneer of quirkiness.

I don't think I'd recommend Memento Mori as a starting point for somebody wanting to try Spark - it might just be a bit overwhelming. Having said that, several people at my book group were reading Spark for the first time, and wanted to read more. I'd still put Loitering With Intent into the hands of anyone eager to sample Dame Muriel - but Memento Mori, for the Spark fan, is a wonderful slice of the bizarre and acerbic. It is not quite unsettling, but it certainly isn't cosy. There is humour, but mostly there is the delight of being carried along by an author who is entirely in control of her tone, with never a misplaced word or errant sentence. Perhaps, were I fifty years older, I would also embrace Spark's profundity - but, for now, I'm going to place it back on the shelf, anticipating picking it up again in a few decades' time. I rather suspect it will have changed a lot.

Laura, who joined my book group this month, later emailed a link to a really good article by David Lodge on Memento Mori, which I recommend you read - here it is. If I haven't convinced you, then I think Lodge might.

10 comments:

  1. I saw a production of Memento Mori on PBS years ago which I loved, so when I finally came to read the book, it was somewhat disappointing.(I always try to read the book first.) However, Muriel Spark is a favorite author. Certain parts of A Far Cry From Kensington had me laughing out loud. "Really, Mr. ______, I would never have expected this of you!"

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  2. I've read two of her books and found one of them hard going (Robinson). This sounds different though. I hope I get to find a copy of this one.

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  3. I still haven't read anything by Spark yet but have a couple of her novels on my wishlist as so many of you love her!

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  4. Cookie - I've found Memento Mori on youtube, so will be watching that soon... (it's not available on DVD in England, although it is part of the Muriel Spark on the BBC boxset, available only in Region 1). If it's even better than the book, I'll be delighted! A Far Cry from Kensington is one of the Sparks waiting on my shelf.

    Mystica - I've now commented on Robinson on another post - can't say I'm too keen to read it...

    Sakura - do give her a go! But after reading your wonderful Comyns review, I shan't be bullying you for a while ;)

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  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you for finding this on YouTube! I don't believe it's ever been released for home video. I'm going to watch it today. It was filmed in 1992 and it could have been a Mystery or Masterpiece Theatre production on PBS. At the time I had never heard of Muriel Spark but was already an Angliophile and thought this was so delightfully quirky and English.

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  6. By the way, no offense intended by using quirky and English in the same sentence. Not all English are quirky, of course, and not all Americans are deadly dull, but I'll take quirkiness (is there such a word?) wherever I can find it. Love y'all!

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  7. I thought this was a great book, vintage Spark - I see you've avoided the new Virago covers...

    It takes me about 2 hours to do a book blog, less to do a non book one, but inevitably loads longer to do either sort because I'm normally watching television/listening to the radio at the same time and get distracted.

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  8. In answer to your blogging question it generally takes me about 45 mins to write an instant review (I accidentally almost typed insane then) after which I leave th review a while before going back about a week or so later (a few books I can't wait that long so leave it a day) then edit it, chop and change it, subtract and add to it whilst weighing up why I have changed my mind. Sounds a bit bonkers doesn't it! So reviews all in all take me quite a while, from two hours to a week on and off.

    Now onto Spark, I'm thrilled you love her and glad it was in part a nudge from me and Claire. It was Polly who made me read her and bar maybe one glitchy read I have enjoyed all her work to varying degrees! I've been saving this as I know it's one of Pollys favourites. Looks like I have a treat instore.

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  9. I'm a huge Spark fan and this was actually one of the first of her books I read. It certainly worked as a way in for me as I went on and read The Girls of Slender Means, A Far Cry from Kensington and The Driver's Seat, although it was only in the last year I finally got round to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I also picked up a book of her poems in a second hand shop a while ago, but can't say I'm a great fan of her poetry!

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  10. I'm so pleased that Simon and I nudged you into giving Spark another go as she really is deserving of it. Memento Mori was one of three Spark novels I read last year and by far my favourite of the three; I found it deliciously wicked.

    I acquired a copy of The Ballad of Peckham Rye today and excited to discover even more Spark.

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