Thursday, April 26, 2012

{review} memento mori

Muriel Spark Momento Mori (1959)

This is a post for Muriel Spark Reading Week, hosted by Simon (stuck in a book) and Harriet (harriet devine), with lovely logo by Thomas (my porch). I have really enjoyed reading everyone's posts and adding lots of titles to my TBR. Thank you Simon and Harriet for hosting! My first review for this week was of Robinson, here.

This is the dustwrapper on my 1980 Macmillan hardback, which I see - based on the number of tickets and receipts which fell out of it when I opened it up - that I bought on a trip to Perth (Western Australia) a few years ago.  

I quite like this cover: the starkness is a good reflection of the book's contents, as is the mock epigraphic typeface suggesting sepulchral inscription. I could even suggest that the Imperial purple nicely plays with the Latin title, and the lilac background is suitably stereotypically old ladyish. I may be getting carried away, of course. 

To business: Memento Mori is hands-down my favourite Muriel Spark book so far. I could not put it down. Its blend of characterisation, drama, pathos, poignancy and wit was spot on. This will be a book that definitely goes on my Books of the Year list.

Someone is ringing a group of senior citizens and leaving the message, "Remember you must die". Is it a mischievous friend or a disgruntled relative? Is it mass hysteria? Perhaps it is Death himself.


People talk about the precision of Spark's writing (especially in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). In Memento Mori this precision is coupled with the most remarkable sense of seriocomic timing: "Mrs. Anthony knew instinctively that Mrs. Pettigrew was a kindly woman. Her instinct was wrong." Memento Mori has some really quite notable instances of this effect (it isn't paraprosdokian but I am sure there's a word for this type of startling effect):
At eleven o'clock next morning Miss Valvona and Miss Taylor were wheeled into the hospital chapel. They were accompanied by three other grannies, not Catholics, from the Maud Long Ward who had been attached to Granny Barnacle in various ways, including those of love, scorn, resentment and pity.
Mabel Pettigrew thought: I can read him like a book. She had not read a book for over forty years, could never concentrate on reading, but this nevertheless was her thought…

Memento Mori is a remarkable book. The subject matter is so terribly sad and poignant: the terrors of senescence; loss of independence; neglect; the failing mind and body; the loss of friends and lovers and memories and fame; the "lacerating familiarity" and depersonalisation and over-scientification of aged-care; the fight to retain one's dignity in the ruins of one's body; living too long; the impossibility of simple tasks; abuse of the elderly; helplessness; poverty; loneliness; the fear of what is to come; the constant presence of death. However, the plot and the delivery border on the carnivalesque. I have no idea why it works so well. 

This is a terribly moving book. I suspect many readers will find it appallingly depressing, despite its tone, for it is indeed a memento mori - a literal reminder that we all must die.
"Granny Green has gone," said Miss Taylor.
"Ah yes, I noticed a stranger occupying her bed. Now what was Granny Green?"
"Arterio-sclerosis. It affected her heart in the end."
"Yes, well, it is said we are all as old as our arteries. Did she make a good death?"
"I don't know."
"You were asleep at the time," he said.
"No, I was awake. There was a certain amount of fuss."
"She didn't have a peaceful end?"
"No, not peaceful for us."
"I always like to know," he said, "whether a death is a good or bad one. Do keep a look-out."
For a moment she utterly hated him. "A good death," she said, "doesn't reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul."
Suddenly he hated her. "Prove it," he said.
"Disprove it," she said wearily.
Rating: 10/10. Fantastic.

If you liked this... another Muriel Spark book I liked almost as much as this was The Girls of Slender Means, which I read ages ago but never managed to review. As a number of people have noted this week, Spark's books can be hard to nail down!


  1. How wonderful that it will probably be one of your Books of the Year!

    When I read it, I also picked out the 'instinct was wrong' bit - for me, it summed up so much I loved about Spark - the dryness; the twists upon normal narrative techniques. Wonderful!

    1. Thanks Simon - I am now thrusting this book on everyone around me with a YOU MUST READ...!

  2. Great post. Thanks for including pix of all the different covers too - it's interesting to see how they change over the years. I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read any Muriel Spark though I have meant to do so for many years...edging that bit closer now...

    1. Well, obviously I recommend this one, Alex! And I love that Penguin cover to bits.

  3. Thanks for the review, I will add this one to the list definitely

    1. Thank you! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. Thanks for your review and the wonderful quotes. Memento mori is patiently waiting in my TBR, and now I am more motivated to read it.

    I've read and enjoyed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Ballard of Peckham Rye in the past, so this should be fun (if that's the word given the subject).

  5. Thank you! You really must read Memento Mori, but do pick your moment. I started The Ballad of Peckham Rye but I couldn't get into it - I suspect one really has to be in a Muriel Spark frame of mind.

  6. Reading your review was a lovely way to reminisce on my own experience with this title. The writing is so fresh and keeps the reader on their toes despite the fatalistic subject matter. Wonderful novel from an outstanding talent, I gave it 4.5 stars. I gave her novel A Far Cry From Kensington 5 stars.

    1. Thanks Jo - I so loved this book, and A Far Cry From Kensington is right up there on my TBR, as everyone seems to love it.


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