Book review: “Memento Mori” by Muriel Spark

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Book review: “Memento Mori” by Muriel Spark

Guy Leet, aged 75, stooped with various ailments, picks up the phone and hears a schoolboy say:

Remember, you must die.

He tells the boy to go to hell.

Some days or weeks later, he is having a bitter literary argument with his irate poet-friend Percy Mannering, aged 74, when the phone rings and the same voice conveys the same message.

“Oh, it’s you…Well, now, sonny, I’m busy at the moment. I have a poet friend here with me and we are just about to have a drink.”

The voice asks if his guest is Mannering. Guy gives the receiver to Percy who hears an identical message. But, for Mannering, the voice isn’t a schoolboy’s.

It sounds like one of the great poets of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats.

spark - memento mori

Muriel Spark’s masterpiece

In Muriel Spark’s 1958 novel Memento Mori, Guy and Percy are among a group of about a dozen elderly mid-century English people who are recipients of this call. Most of them are affluent Londoners and most are related to each other by love, blood, friendship or past romance.

Spark was 40 when she published Memento Mori, her third of what would eventually number 22 novels and her masterpiece. She died nearly half a century later, in 2006, at the age of 88.

How did she come to be thinking so young about death?

Different voices, different reactions

In their investigation of the calls, the police are flummoxed.

Not that the police believed these calls had taken place, every possible means of detection had failed, and they had concluded, with the support of their psychologists, that the old people were suffering from hallucinations.

There were technical reasons for that, such as a total inability to trace any of the calls, including the long distance ones that Guy received at his home in the southeast of England. Even more, though, was the extreme variation in the descriptions of the caller: young, old, refined, uneducated….

Indeed, Henry Mortimer, aged 70, a retired police inspector and an acquaintance of several of those getting the calls, is stymied when he attempts to investigate — not least because he is also a recipient.

The telephone rang. He went out to the hall, answered it. Within a few seconds he put down the receiver. How strange, he thought, that mine is always a woman. Everyone else gets a man on the line to them, but mine is always this woman, gentle-spoken and respectful.

Although some of the elderly people are frightened or discomfited by the calls, most ignore the advice.

Indeed, Mrs. Mabel Pettigrew, aged 73, a shifty, scheming, bullying housekeeper, won’t acknowledge — even to herself — that the caller has included her.

Mrs. Pettigrew, though she had in fact, one quiet afternoon, received the anonymous telephone call, had chosen to forget it. She possessed a strong faculty for simply refusing to admit an unpleasant situation, and to go quite blank where it was concerned.

The feeding of a grandson

The mystery of the calls is unsettling for these women and men. Yet, even without that oddity, their lives are, like anyone’s, prone to change. Friends sicken, some die. Financial circumstances change. Irritations lead to anger. Spouses grow closer and farther apart.

There’s a blackmailer in this novel. And a secret marriage. And a fake death. A car crash. An errant son. Incriminating letters. A gruesome murder. And the feeding of a grandson.

Mrs. Mortimer [aged 74] was opening and closing her mouth like a bird. This was because she was attempting to feed a two-year-old boy with a spoon, and as he opened his mouth to take each spoonful of soft egg, she involuntarily opened hers.

The feeding of the grandson has nothing, really, to do with the story. Emmeline Mortimer, the wife of the retired police inspector, is a minor character.

Yet, those two sentences give an example of Spark’s eye for human detail. Even more, among the many characters moving around in the pages of this novel, Mrs. Mortimer is one of the most admirable in her simplicity. There is a sense that she is taking each day as it is, without undue thought of the past or the future.

That might seem antithetical to the caller’s message:

Remember, you must die.

“The whites of eggs”

Her husband, another very admirable character, calls together the group of those who have gotten the calls, and, as they sit together at a long table, he says:

“If I had my life over again, I should form a habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.”

Despite wishing he had formed the habit earlier, Henry Mortimer, who has a history of heart problems, seems to be living — now, at least — comfortable with the idea of his eventual death. Later, he will die of a heart attack while getting onto his boat for a solo sail.

Emmeline Mortimer, too, seems deeply present in everything she does — as if relishing every moment she is granted.

“The last time”

Someone who, it appears, has learned and accepted the same lesson is Jean Taylor, aged 82, the former companion of one of the women getting the calls and the former lover of one of the men.

She is also most admirable. Crippled with arthritis, she lives in a government nursing home where she routinely gets visits from a woman who, decades earlier, stole away her lover.

Miss Jean Taylor sat in the chair beside her bed. She never knew, when she sat in her chair, if it was the last time she would be able to sit out of bed.

How many of us think of doing something for the last time? This is the last time I will change the diaper on my son. This is the last time I will play softball. This is the last day I will work for pay. In many cases, we have no idea that this is the last time. It’s only later, when we are able to look back, that we realize a chapter ended, a door closed.

By recognizing that there will be a last time for sitting in a chair, Jean is living in the moment. Relishing the moment.

Her life is far from insipid.

Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven

Who is the caller? Henry, Emmeline and Jean each theorize that it’s Death.

Like Spark, Jean is a Catholic convert. Her awareness of her coming death and the way she lives her life are strongly influenced by her belief in God and her Catholicism.

[She is] employing her pain to magnify the Lord, and meditating sometimes confidingly upon Death, the first of the Four Last Things to be remembered.

The others are Judgment, Hell and Heaven.

Are you living in the moment if you are thinking of hell and heaven? Perhaps you are if you realize that, regardless of what comes after, your life on this earth can be a heaven or a hell, depending on how you live it.

Certainly, Jean, Henry and Emmeline seem to live the richest of lives while living in the moment.

A heaven on earth?

Patrick T. Reardon
11.18.2013

1 Comment

  1. […] Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (1958) — Guy Leet, aged 75, stooped with various ailments, picks up the phone and hears a schoolboy say: “Remember, you must die.” […]

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