My degree began with Modernist literature, which was both a good and bad thing, and I remember finding E.M. Forster a chore even at the time. He didn’t have the transgressive potential of a Conrad, a Woolf or a Joyce, but he didn’t fit into my sense of the Victorian novel. Whilst his distinction between story and plot in Aspects of the Novel continued to be useful, I had a sense that he couldn’t plot for shit. Too often a key scene was obscure (whatever happened in the cave) or took place between the chapters (the death of Mrs Moore). He fell between two stools.
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori (1959)
So I haven’t read any Muriel Spark, aside from the one with Maggie Smith, or for that matter any Bainbridge or a raft of female British novelists. I decided to out this right when I spotted a shrink wrapped pile of her novels in a The Works type location for £2. This rather invokes my two-pound-rule and so I bought them. I read her debut, The Conformists, but for some reason I didn’t write it up and so I will reread. It is, at least, short.
I’m kind of assuming that at the heart of Spark is our old friend the Caledonian anti-syzygy, the divided consciousness … we see that in Hogg, the justified sinner, in Jekyll/Hyde, in Banks’s Frank/Eric, in Rebus… Somewhere I guess there’s a sense of Calvinism, of the saved and the damned, but I suspect there’s a healthy dose of Catholic guilt.
Memento Mori has a mix of amnesia and liars. David Lodge seems to think it one of the best British novels of the 1950s and a hoot, but warns you the first laugh will only come on page two. It’s a cracker.
The characters are pretty well all pensioners — most over seventy — and they have a tangled history together. There is Godfrey Colston, of the brewers, his sister Charmian a novelist, his sister Lettie a prison reformer and their former housekeeper Jean Taylor. There is a poet and a scheming housekeeper and estranged children, and a sociologist wanting to keep notes on all of them.
The story begins with Lettie getting a series of anonymous phone calls with the message: “Remember you must die.” Memento Mori, if you weren’t paying attention. This could be revenge for past deeds or a sadistic relative — or she may be simply imagining it. The police are unable to track the caller. Meanwhile, the other characters receive the same call, although no one seems to hear the same voice and one of them even has a female caller.
Is this the voice of conscience? They all have long histories, and must have out a foot wrong in those times, with infidelities covered up. Blackmail is always just around the corner.
As indeed is death.
Death, when it comes, is random and unexpected and PROBABLY SPEAKS IN SMALL CAPITALS. A number of characters are in a geriatric wing of a hospital — the step beyond the nursing home Charmian thinks of visiting — and subject to the random sadism of overworked nurses. It is never clear if the deaths there are of natural causes or punishment for complaining. Those outside the home are just as at risk. The humour is clearly of a macabre nature. I can’t say I did a lot of laughing.
In fact I found it annoying — when presumably I should have been taking pleasure in the unreliable narrators (the viewpoint can shift mid paragraph) and the amnesia and the confusion. I just didn’t feel enough to care.