Chapter One of Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Zoë Strachan

One of the many delights of a Muriel Spark novel is the way in which the ground shifts so delicately under the reader’s feet. Memento Mori begins as a mystery: who is victimizing elderly people by making anonymous phone calls suggesting that they remember they must die? A detective is consulted, and duly tries to identify the culprit; or culprits, as there is little consensus on precisely what kind of voice is at the end of the line. In a sense the novel fulfils the criteria of a whodunit, but the answer to the mystery of the phone calls turns out to be the most obvious, if least expected one. As another of Spark’s characters, the Abbess of Crewe, states, scenarios “need not be plausible, only hypnotic, like all good art”. Reading the novel, we might think of the memento mori gravestones of the seventeenth century and their elegantly carved reminders that death does not care how rich, celebrated or healthy we are. He – or she – will come for us all one day, and so we ought to recognise that the wormy clay awaits. In an interview to mark the publication of the book in 1959, Spark said: “The prospect of death is what gives life the whole of its piquancy. Life would be so much more pointless if there were no feeling that it must end.”

Her first lesson in mortality came early. When Spark was around nine years old, her grandmother Adelaide came to live in Edinburgh and was installed in Spark’s own bedroom. Adelaide’s past was somewhat mysterious, but she was feisty and fun. A former suffragette and an excellent storyteller, she styled herself as a “Gentile Jewess”, an identity Spark would later claim, as well as using it in the title of one of her most famous short stories. After a couple of years, two strokes and a cerebral haemorrhage, Adelaide required care. The young Muriel helped provide it, realising in the process how vulnerable old people can be, as well as how fascinating she found both Adelaide’s aphasic peregrinations of memory and language and the implication that the Grim Reaper might be just around the corner. In her memoir, Curriculum Vitae, Spark notes that “my experiences in minding and watching my grandmother formed a starting-point for my future novel, Memento Mori, in which the characters are all elderly people”. John Masefield once told her that “all experience is good for an artist”, and she was always refreshingly pragmatic about the matter of life offering up material. Little surprise that readers tend to find particular fictions, “The Gentile Jewesses” amongst them, more amenable to an autobiographical reading than the ostensible autobiography.

A novel peopled by well-to-do elderly folk and set in the 1950s cannot help but have a veneer of cosiness. Many of Spark’s novels written or set in this period do, whether she is writing about girls of slender means, genteel proponents of autobiography, plump publishing assistants, or eccentric old ladies and their one-time companion maids. Veneer it is though, and what lies under the grain in Memento Mori is what matters. Jean Taylor, former maid to the once-famous novelist Charmian Colston (née Piper) and now incarcerated with eleven other “(aged people, female)” in the Maud Long Medical Ward, says to a visitor that “Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.”

Few members of the coterie of characters centring on Jean and eighty-five-year-old Charmian are so clear-sighted. The ability to acknowledge one’s own mortality without dismay is reserved for those who are Catholic; both women are, like Spark herself, converts. When, at the beginning of the novel, Charmian’s eighty-seven-year-old husband Godfrey hears that his sister Lettie has once more been victimised by the anonymous caller exhorting her to “Remember you must die”, he surmises: “He must be a maniac.” Dame Lettie herself considers it “a great pity that flogging has been abolished”. Godfrey is much concerned with “faculties” and their retention, and scornful of his wife’s erratically failing memory. Always “perfectly sensible” when discussing her books, Charmian retains her novelist’s insight. She realises that her dementia has been the excuse Godfrey needed to take his revenge: “It was an instinctive reaction to the years of being a talented, celebrated woman’s husband, knowing himself to be reaping continually in her a harvest which he had not sown.” As interest in her novels revives, Charmian’s brain sharpens and her physical health improves. “Godfrey, after all, was not a clever man,” she muses, while plotting her escape from her husband and his bullying new housekeeper, Mrs Pettigrew, who wish to exert upon her “a firm hand”. Trust and betrayal are key themes here, as they would be in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published just two years later. - Zoe Strachan

Jo Nesbo, who has just revisited Macbeth in his latest book, is now working on his 12th Harry Hole novel. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown, at The Artesian Bar at The Langham, London.

Interview: Jo Nesbo

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Richard Powers  PIC: Joan Maloof

Book review: The Overstory, by Richard Powers

On the front of this book is a red circle with the words of the novelist Margaret Atwood: “It’s not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book”. This is true, to an extent. The book’s ideas are indeed interesting. It’s just that as a book it’s not that good.

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Book review: The Century Girls, by Tessa Dunlop

Phyllis Ramsay held her 100th birthday party at Edinburgh Zoo, where she volunteered before insurance red tape meant it was no longer viable for her to be on the premises. “That’s the secret – forward plan, meet people, do things, don’t just sit at home,” she explains when asked the secret of her long life.

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Book review: Burnout, by Claire MacLeary

Claire MacLeary’s first novel, Cross Purpose – longlisted for the McIlvanney Scottish Crime Book of the Year award in 2017 – introduced us to Maggie Laird and Wilma Harcus with warm humour and sharp writing. As follow-up Burnout begins, the duo have settled into their work as private investigators – but the opening conversation of the novel immediately brings tensions: “I think my husband is trying to kill me,” Sheena Struthers tells Maggie. Maggie feels it’s a case they must take on; Wilma feels it’s a case they shouldn’t go near due to Sheena’s lack of evidence other than “a feeling”.

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Book review: The Dark Stuff, by Donald S Murray

Structure is important in novels, though not always even there, but not necessarily in non-fiction, which may dangle on a single peg, sometimes a shoogly one. The peg here is peat, and the subtitle of this delightful, rambling, reflective, erudite and amusing book is “Stories from the Peatlands”.

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Book review: 1983: The World At The Brink, By Taylor Downing

As well as being the successful author of books on 20th century military history, Taylor Downing is an experienced film-maker, winning the 2008 Grierson Award for Best Historical Documentary for his Flashback Television 90-minute drama-documentary feature 1983 – The Brink of the Apocalypse. Ten years on, the tension, drama and immediacy of the film are bolstered by evidence from newly declassified documents and recent interviews from key players who are only now able to speak and Downing has written a book which is both riveting, and horrifying: make no mistake, in the autumn of 1983, the world really was at the brink.

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Neurologist Jules Montague will appear at the Edinburgh Science Festival tomorrow. In this extract from her new book, Lost and Found: Memory, Identity, and Who We Become When We’re No Longer Ourselves, we meet Anita and Patrick as they receive a painful dementia diganosis

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Book reviews: The best teen fiction for Easter

The world of Wed Wabbit (David Fickling, £6.99) by Lissa Evans is an explosion of colour and chaos. Following a terrible accident in which her little sister is badly hurt, Fidge is flung into the pages of her sister’s favourite picture book: The Land of the Wimbley Woos. Confused and terrified she must solve a series of clues with her rather weird sidekicks and take on a tewwible tywant who has taken over the happy land of Wimbley Woo and is slowly sucking the life out of it.

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Book reviews: The best children’s books for Easter

From simple and charming picture books to more complicated tales, Emma Dunn and Sarah Mallon uncover delightful books for younger readers to enjoy over the Easter break

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Book review: Of Men and Angels by Michael Arditti

Michael Arditti is a novelist who has grown more ambitious, and at the same time become more accomplished. He is a rarity among contemporary novelists, being one who takes religious faith and its contradictions seriously. His characters are regularly torn between the desire for sexual fulfilment and the laws of God as interpreted by churches. Philip Pullman describes him as being a “chronicler of the rewards and pitfalls of present day faith,” and this is a fair judgement, though in this new long novel religious faith and obedience are examined over the centuries, in five distinct episodes (each introduced by the Archangel Gabriel) that extend from the Jews’ exile in Babylon to Hollywood at the tail-end of the second millennium since the birth of Christ.

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Book review: When the Clyde Ran Red, by Maggie Craig

The election of 1922 saw “the Red Clydesiders sweep into Westminster”, seen off at St Enoch’s station by a huge crowd, estimated by some at 100,000. It was a very different Scotland from ours today. A choir sang not only The Red Flag but also Jerusalem and the 124th Psalm, which, oddly, Maggie Craig quotes in the form given in the Authorised Version of the Bible rather than that of the Scottish Metrical Psalter. It was a highly emotional occasion, but “these were no Red revolutionaries or dangerous Bolsheviks. This was all about using democracy and the parliamentary process to get into Westminster and start reforming the system from within.” If there had ever been a moment – Craig doubts if there was – when violent revolution was possible in Scotland, it had already gone.

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The writer who hasn’t told anyone about her published novel

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Books review: Aye Write!

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Muriel Spark in Rome, c 1970 PIC: �Jerry Bauer

Chapter One of The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Andrew O’Hagan

What is shopping, what is a purchase, if not a more or less intense moment of desire settled by a sudden act of volition? The Driver’s Seat opens in a boutique, where our heroine, Lise, is getting into an argument about a dress. The shop assistant, it appears, has had the temerity to offer Lise a dress that won’t stain. “Get this thing off me. Off me, at once,” Lise shouts. And right there, at the top of the novel, a sort of deadly philosophy bleeds out of commercial normalcy. Is Lise so provoked by the idea of a stainless dress because she, herself, is already stained, or is it that she must have a garment that will show blood? Both are possible, and Lise is already arranging her fate. Our heroine leaves the shop and makes her way down the street, “scanning the windows for the dress she needs, the necessary dress.” Eventually, she steps into somewhere else. She finds the outfit. “A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue.” She soon joins with it a summer coat of red and white stripes. Lise is satisfied. She is leaving her office job after sixteen years and is travelling to an unnamed southern city that we might understand to be Rome. We know very quickly, because the narrator tells us, that Lise is on an existential errand, a journey to complete her undoing and have herself killed, and yet the darkness seems lit by a kind of comedy, as if it is the times themselves that are absurd.

A man sitting beside her on the plane moves seats, later saying he was frightened. Everything is thus reversed. When we meet up with him again, he will seem like the coerced one, but isn’t he the murderer? Spark deconstructs the murder mystery novel with The Driver’s Seat, turning everything on its head, not least the easy separation of killer and killed. As very often with Spark, you look from an eccentric character to a knowing author or a plausible god, to say, “Who is in charge here?” Who, indeed, is in the driver’s seat? The novel is a philosophical conundrum drenched in dread, a late twentieth-century masque, “a whydunnit in Q-Sharp Major” as Lise says of the novel she carries onto the plane. And yet there is an inquiring energy in The Driver’s Seat that is spare and Spark-like, moving the characters around, without sentiment, to meet the lineaments of a comfortless world. “What magic you have,” Alfred A Knopf, Spark’s American publisher, wrote to her at the time, “and what a crazy bitch you have created.” But to her author, Lise was more recognisable than that; she was an elaboration of a possible type. “I think there is a kind of truth in the story,” she wrote to her agent on 20 October 1969. “In some of the murders one reads about one senses a sort of collusion and sometimes one begins to wonder which party is the ‘victim.’” Dangerous stuff, but there you have it.

Spark considered Simenon to be “a truly wonderful writer”. In a short piece she wrote on the prolific Belgian thrill-meister, she praises his exactitude and his Dostoevskian way with character, his skill with the type of person who is “known and recognised more and more as our [twentieth] century wears on – the perpetrator of the gratuitous act, the motiveless crime.” In The Driver’s Seat, Spark goes a step further than Simenon, reverses him in fact, and produces a narrative in which all those terms might be questioned. Who perpetrates the murder in The Driver’s Seat? And what is the motive? When people say that Spark is a postmodern novelist, this is probably what they mean: she takes exhausted literary formulae and turns them in on themselves. Is Lise engaged in a semi-comedic attempt at self-slaughter? Does she design her fate? Or is she a little symbol of her times, a cold war heroine, for whom an agreeable affair with an almost random gentleman might take the form of a mutually assured destruction? - Andrew O’Hagan


Book review: Dead Men’s Trousers, by Irvine Welsh

This, apparently, is the last novel Irvine Welsh will write with the cast of his breakout debut Trainspotting. Thank goodness for that, though I doubt it. Welsh has squandered his original vision with a series of increasingly wretched spin-offs – the sequel Porno, the prequel Skagboys, the yet-again-sequel The Blade Artist. Having reached the bottom of the barrel, he now seems intent on tunnelling to Australia.

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Irvine Welsh is back on home territory for his book launch. Pic: Alistair Linford

Interview: Irvine Welsh on his new novel, Trainspotting and Trump

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Book review: Sal, by Mick Kitson

This is a striking and stark debut novel. It is not without its faults, but its virtues redeem it; rather like its titular character. Sal is a 13-year-old girl whose abuse by her alcoholic mother’s boyfriend leads her to plan his execution. Her particular fear is that he will turn his attentions on her younger half-sister, Peppa.

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