Throwback Thursday: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark


Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk.  It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago.  If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.

Today I’m reviewing Memento Mori by Muriel Spark, a book from my Classics Club list, first published in 1959. The lovely Ali at Heavenali is running a year long reading event to mark the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth.  You can find out more information here.

Memento MoriAbout the Book

“Remember you must die,” said the voice on the telephone.

Dame Lettie Colson is the first of her circle to receive these anonymous calls, and she does not wish to be reminded.  Nor do her friends and family – though they are constantly looking out for signs of decline in others, and change their wills on a weekly basis.

As the caller’s activities become more widespread, soon a witch-hunt is in full cry, exposing past and present duplicities, self-deception and blackmail.  Nobody is above suspicion.  Only a few, blessed with a sense of humour and the gift of faith, can guess at the caller’s identity.

Format: Paperback (226 pp.)                         Publisher: Virago
Published: 4th February 2010 [1959]           Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

My only previous experience of Muriel Spark’s writing is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  So I was expecting elegant writing, wit and acute observation but what I wasn’t expecting was the dark satire of Memento Mori and its unflinching portrait of old age, petty foibles and self-deception.  And the author isn’t afraid to deliver some quite breathtakingly sudden reverses for some of the characters. As I was reading the book, I wasn’t sure I liked it that much but, having now finished and reflected on it, I feel rather differently and have come to admire it.

Spark is good at identifying the way in which the elderly are regarded and the indignities that often come with old age.  There is a lot of truth in the depiction of the ‘Grannies’ and their loss of identity.  They are not in fact all grandmothers but referred to in that way by the nurses who care for them.  She’s equally good at pointing out traits which we’ve probably noticed in older relatives ourselves.  For example, frequently telling each other (and possibly reminding themselves) of their age and dwelling on their infirmities.  I’m not sure however that people spend quite as much time changing their wills as they do in Memento Mori.

While I didn’t find the humour in the book to be of the laugh out loud variety, I enjoyed some of the acerbic comments on domestic life.  ‘There was altogether too much candour in married life; it was an indelicate modern idea, and frequently led to upsets in a household, if not divorce…’. 

My favourite character was Charmian, a successful novelist in the past, whose books are now being rediscovered by a new generation (and who does that remind you of?).  At the beginning of the book, she appears increasingly absent-minded, if not in the early stages of dementia, but she turns out to be much sharper than people give her credit for. Some of the other characters are downright unlikeable, such as the dreadful and manipulative Mrs Pettigrew, adept at finding out secrets and using that knowledge to her advantage.  However, likeable or not, all the characters come alive on the page.  There’s Alec Warner with his compulsion for collecting facts about ageing and comparing the infirmities he observes in others with his own situation.  Or Charmian’s husband, Godfrey, with his odd peccadilloes and obsession with people’s loss (or otherwise) of their faculties.

Each of the characters who receive the cryptic message from the anonymous caller reacts differently – with outrage, with determination to find out the caller’s identity, with fear, with an academic interest about their own reaction to it, and in some cases, with acceptance.  The latter is the case with retired Chief Inspector Henry Mortimer, who made me think of the Inspector in J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls, as he tries to encourage the other recipients of the message to engage with its meaning, its inevitable truth, rather than focus on a search for the identity of the caller.   He greets the message with equanimity himself: “Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise.  It should be part of the full expectancy of life.  Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.”  I guess that is the real message of the book.

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In three words: Dark, macabre, satirical

Muriel SparkAbout the Author

Dame Muriel Spark, DBE was a prolific Scottish novelist, short story writer, and poet whose darkly comedic voice made her one of the most distinctive writers of the twentieth century. In 2008 The Times newspaper named Spark in its list of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.  Spark grew up in Edinburgh and worked as a department store secretary, writer for trade magazines, and literary editor before publishing her first novel, The Comforters, in 1957. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961, and considered her masterpiece, was made into a stage play, a TV series, and a film.

Spark received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1965 for The Mandelbaum Gate, the Ingersoll Foundation TS Eliot Award in 1992 and the David Cohen Prize in 1997. She became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993, in recognition of her services to literature. She has been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 1969 for The Public Image and in 1981 for Loitering with Intent. In 1998, she was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for “a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature”. In 2010, Spark was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970 for The Driver’s Seat.

Muriel Spark died in 2006.



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