Memento Mori
March 30, 2020

Virtually all the characters in Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel, Memento Mori, are over 70. They suffer the physical humiliations of aging and the pains of regret. Unexpectedly, hilariously, they’re as competitive and petty as schoolchildren.

Well into his 80s, Godfrey Colston scorns the crippled critic Guy Leets for the arthritis that forces him to walk with two sticks. Many of the upper-class characters have known each other for decades, and their lives are shadowed by past betrayals and rivalries.

Godfrey’s sister, Dame Lettie Colston, is at the heart of the story. She descends into paranoia when she starts receiving anonymous phone calls from a man who says, “Dame Lettie, remember you must die.” She believers her family is after her money, while the police protect the “hoaxster.”

Dame Lettie’s friends get similar calls. Her brother Godfrey responds with anger, while his wife Charmian, a once-popular novelist whose books are enjoying a surprise revival, thanks the “civil young man” for the reminder of death.

Mrs. Pettigrew, Charmian’s housekeeper, receives a call too, but deliberately forgets it and pretends to think the calls are imaginary. (She’s had plastic surgery, which she also denies.) Mrs. Pettigrew forces Godfrey to write her into his will by threatening to reveal his infidelities to Charmian, who also had an affair, with Guy.

The caller is never identified, but Spark appears to side with retired police inspector Mortimer and Charmian’s former maid Jean Taylor, who are both convinced that the caller is Death himself.

Miss Taylor captures the story’s “moral” with the bit of wisdom she shares with Dame Lettie: “It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.”

It's a fine novel for Lent, especially for the kind of Lent we're currently suffering. It’s not the kind of cheery claptrap that often passes for entertainment. Spark’s novel is itself a memento mori, a sober reminder that the Lord will take each of us in death. It’s simultaneously wickedly funny and as bracing as the prospect of the Lord’s coming.

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