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
Memento Mori - Chapter One
The telephone rang. She lifted the receiver. As she had feared, the man spoke before she could say a word. When he had spoken the familiar sentence she said, ‘Who is that speaking, who is it?’
But the voice, as on eight previous occasions, had rung off.
Dame Lettie telephoned to the Assistant Inspector as she had been requested to do. ‘It has occurred again,’ she said.
‘I see. Did you notice the time?’
‘It was only a moment ago.’
‘The same thing?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘the same. Surely you have some means of tracing –’
‘Yes, Dame Lettie, we will get him, of course.’
A few moments later Dame Lettie telephoned to her brother Godfrey.
‘Godfrey, it has happened again.’
‘I’ll come and fetch you, Lettie,’ he said. ‘You must spend the night with us.’
‘Nonsense. There is no danger. It is merely a disturbance.’
‘What did he say?’
‘The same thing. And quite matter-of-fact, not really threatening. Of course the man’s mad. I don’t know what the police are thinking of, they must be sleeping. It’s been going on for six weeks now.’
‘Just those words?’
‘Just the same words – Remember you must die – nothing more.’
‘He must be a maniac,’ said Godfrey.
Godfrey’s wife Charmian sat with her eyes closed, attempting to put her thoughts into alphabetical order which Godfrey had told her was better than no order at all, since she now had grasp of neither logic nor chronology. Charmian was eighty-five. The other day a journalist from a weekly paper had been to see her. Godfrey had subsequently read aloud to her the young man’s article:
… By the fire sat a frail old lady, a lady who once set the whole of the literary world (if not the Thames) on fire …Despite her age, this legendary figure is still abundantly alive …
Charmian felt herself dropping off, and so she said to the maid who was arranging the magazines on the long oak table by the window, ‘Taylor, I am dropping off to sleep for five minutes. Telephone to St Mark’s and say I am coming.’ Just at that moment Godfrey entered the room holding his hat and wearing his outdoor coat. ‘What’s that you say?’ he said.
‘Oh, Godfrey, you made me start.’
‘Taylor …’ he repeated, ‘St Mark’s … Don’t you realise there is no maid in this room, and furthermore, you are not in Venice?’
‘Come and get warm by the fire,’ she said, ‘and take your coat off ’; for she thought he had just come in from the street.
‘I am about to go out,’ he said. ‘I am going to fetch Lettie who is to stop with us tonight. She has been troubled by another of those anonymous calls.’
‘That was a pleasant young man who called the other day,’ said Charmian.
‘Which young man?’
‘From the paper. The one who wrote –’
‘That was five years and two months ago,’ said Godfrey.
‘Why can’t one be kind to her?’ he asked himself as he drove to Lettie’s house in Hampstead. ‘Why can’t one be more gentle?’ He himself was eighty-seven, and in charge of all his faculties. Whenever he considered his own behaviour he thought of himself not as ‘I’ but as ‘one’.
‘One has one’s difficulties with Charmian,’ he told himself.
‘Nonsense,’ said Lettie. ‘I have no enemies.’
‘Think,’ said Godfrey. ‘Think hard.’
‘The red lights,’ said Lettie. ‘And don’t talk to me as if I were Charmian.’
‘Lettie, if you please, I do not need to be told how to drive. I observed the lights.’ He had braked hard, and Dame Lettie was jerked forward.
She gave a meaningful sigh which, when the green lights came on, made him drive all the faster.
‘You know, Godfrey,’ she said, ‘you are wonderful for your age.’
‘So everyone says.’ His driving pace became moderate; her sigh of relief was inaudible, her patting herself on the back, invisible.
‘In your position,’ he said, ‘you must have enemies.’
‘I say yes.’ He accelerated.
‘Well, perhaps you’re right.’ He slowed down again, but Dame Lettie thought, I wish I hadn’t come.
They were at Knightsbridge. It was only a matter of keeping him happy till they reached Kensington Church Street and turned into Vicarage Gardens where Godfrey and Charmian lived.
‘I have written to Eric,’ she said, ‘about his book. Of course, he has something of his mother’s former brilliance, but it did seem to me that the subject-matter lacked the joy and hope which was the mark of a good novel in those days.’
‘I couldn’t read the book,’ said Godfrey. ‘I simply could not go on with it. A motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in a hotel with that communist librarian
… Where does it all lead you?’
Eric was his son. Eric was fifty-six and had recently published his second novel.
‘He’ll never do as well as Charmian did,’ Godfrey said.
‘Try as he may.’
‘Well, I can’t quite agree with that,’ said Lettie, seeing that they had now pulled up in front of the house. ‘Eric has a hard streak of realism which Charmian never –’
Godfrey had got out and slammed the door. Dame Lettie sighed and followed him into the house, wishing she hadn’t come.
‘Did you have a nice evening at the pictures, Taylor?’ said Charmian.
‘I am not Taylor,’ said Dame Lettie, ‘and in any case, you always called Taylor “Jean” during her last twenty or so years in your service.’
Mrs Anthony, their daily housekeeper, brought in the milky coffee and placed it on the breakfast table.
‘Did you have a nice evening at the pictures, Taylor?’ Charmian asked her.
‘Yes, thanks, Mrs Colston,’ said the housekeeper.
‘Mrs Anthony is not Taylor,’ said Lettie. ‘There is no one by name of Taylor here. And anyway you used to call her Jean latterly. It was only when you were a girl that you called Taylor Taylor. And, in any event, Mrs Anthony is not Taylor.’
Godfrey came in. He kissed Charmian. She said, ‘Good morning, Eric.’
‘He is not Eric,’ said Dame Lettie.
Godfrey frowned at his sister. Her resemblance to himself irritated him. He opened The Times.
‘Are there lots of obituaries today?’ said Charmian.
‘Oh, don’t be gruesome,’ said Lettie.
‘Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?’ Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.
‘Well, I should like the war news,’ Charmian said.
‘The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,’ Dame Lettie said. ‘If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean perhaps . . . ?’
‘Lettie, please,’ said Godfrey. He noticed that Lettie’s hand was unsteady as she raised her cup, and the twitch on her large left cheek was pronounced. He thought in how much better form he himself was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine.
Mrs Anthony looked round the door. ‘Someone on the phone for Dame Lettie.’
‘Oh, who is it?’
‘Wouldn’t give a name.’
‘Ask who it is, please.’
‘Did ask. Wouldn’t give –’
‘I’ll go,’ said Godfrey.
Dame Lettie followed him to the telephone and overheard the male voice. ‘Tell Dame Lettie,’ it said, ‘to remember she must die.’
‘Who’s there?’ said Godfrey. But the man had hung up.
‘We must have been followed,’ said Lettie. ‘I told no one I was coming over here last night.’
She telephoned to report the occurrence to the Assistant Inspector.
He said, ‘Sure you didn’t mention to anyone that you intended to stay at your brother’s home?’
‘Of course I’m sure.’
‘Your brother actually heard the voice? Heard it himself?’
‘Yes, as I say, he took the call.’
She told Godfrey, ‘I’m glad you took the call. It corroborates my story. I have just realised that the police have been doubting it.’
‘Doubting your word?’
‘Well, I suppose they thought I might have imagined it. Now, perhaps, they will be more active.’
Charmian said, ‘The police . . . what are you saying about the police? Have we been robbed?’
‘I am being molested,’ said Dame Lettie.
Mrs Anthony came in to clear the table.
‘Ah, Taylor, how old are you?’ said Charmian.
‘Sixty-nine, Mrs Colston,’ said Mrs Anthony.
‘When will you be seventy?’
‘That will be splendid, Taylor. You will then be one of us,’ said Charmian.
*Memento Mori by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Zoë Strachan, Polygon, 222pp, £9.99