2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark's birth. It's been wonderful seeing how this event has reinvigorated interest in Spark’s books. Many people and organizations have marked the occasion from Ali of HeavenAli's year-long read-a-long #ReadingMuriel100 to Virago Press publishing a beautiful new edition of “Memento Mori” (that also celebrates this essential publisher's 40th anniversary) to Adam's video commemorating Spark's birthday (his booktube channel is even named after this Spark novel.) My own interest in Spark's fiction unfortunately stopped early on as I've only previously read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, "The Driver's Seat" and “The Finishing School” in 2004, the year it was published. The later turned out to be her final novel and it sadly felt lacklustre and slight to me which is why I didn't pursue reading any more of her earlier books. But now, having read “Memento Mori” I feel doubly inspired to pursue her back catalogue. It's so brilliantly clever and funny with its large cast of idiosyncratic elderly characters who are continuously hounded by a mysterious caller that regularly reminds them “Remember you must die.” The story is perfectly drawn to capture the tragicomic condition of old age as well as the great challenge of facing our own mortality.
Despite the creepy anonymous reminder many characters continue to spend their few remaining years getting into petty arguments, changing their wills out of revenge, desperately trying to hide age-old affairs from their partner, scheming to inherit money, amassing stacks of pointless statistics, routinely reading horoscopes or fighting the care staff that try to assist them. There’s something deliciously pleasurable in reading about characters who have supposedly reached the height of maturity but who act out so petulantly. It’s like a rebellion against the social norms we’re all constricted by, but it also serves as an example of how getting older doesn’t necessarily mean we get any wiser. The magnificent characters in this novel can be as undone by jealousy, pride, greed, lust and gluttony as anyone under seventy.
It’s also an incredible how Spark writes about serious subjects such as the onset of dementia and the fear of poverty in old age, but the story remains light and funny throughout. She writes in a minimalist way which only gives just enough information and the right amount of dialogue to make the reader feel they know the character implicitly without weighing the narrative down in detail. Also, Spark employs repetition with the instincts of a stand-up comedian. The more we get to know the characters and their tiresome tics, the funnier they become because their face-slapping predictability is wickedly humorous. We can almost foresee when Godfrey will comment how someone has lost their faculties or how Alec Warner will insist on gathering pointless data or that Dame Lettie Colston will change her will as a ploy to get what she wants. Although Spark may take the piss out her characters, she also treats them with a lot of care and affection. So when some characters abruptly die the reader feels their loss quite sharply.
The story is also impressively layered. Details of the characters’ complicated pasts and their various entanglements, deceptions and secrets are carefully distributed throughout the narrative to create a larger picture of why they act the way they do in the present. All the while there is the peculiar mystery of the morbid caller who harasses so many of them which in itself becomes quite comical, especially when none of his victims can agree on what his voice sounds like. I was very moved by the way this novel says so much about the human condition while also being fantastically entertaining. It’s impressive that Spark wrote this when she was only forty years old. My experience of the book was also enhanced by reading the entire novel aloud to my boyfriend during a week-long road trip we took around Scotland. It felt appropriate to read this Scottish writer in her native country (even though the novel is actually set in England.) The narrative and dialogue really came to life in reading it this way and gave us plenty of laughs along the way.