“Who is that speaking, who is it?” the elderly Dame Lettie demands, but the caller, “as on eight previous occasions,” has already hung up.
So who is it that is calling and saying these foreboding words to the cast of geriatrics in Muriel Spark’s darkly comic 1959 novel, Memento Mori?
In one sense, the novel doesn’t tell us. The story ends with the culprit’s identity unrevealed. Mortimer, the retired police inspector who some suspect to be himself the culprit, confides to his wife: “in my opinion the offender is Death himself.” And this, the novelist and critic David Lodge comments, “though literally absurd, is metaphorically as near as we get to a solution to the mystery.”
It is no doubt such absurd ambiguity that helps keep the work of Muriel Spark, a Catholic convert, from being better appreciated among those who should have most affinity for the religious concerns that drive so many of her novels and stories. In the typical list of Best 20th-Century Novels offered by those interested in defending and promoting Christian literature, Spark’s works are rarely, if ever, mentioned. But if we turn, for example, to the editors of the Modern Library’s list of Best 20th-Century English-Language Novels, we find Spark’s best-known work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, listed at number 76. And in Anthony Burgess’s well-known list of the 99 best English-language novels written between 1939-1984, we find Spark’s 1964 novel, The Girls of Slender Means.
Indeed, The Girls of Slender Means might well be the most unheralded Catholic novel of the 20th century. This deeply moving story of a group of young single women living together in London during the final year of World War II contains an anguishing climax that contains the seeds of a dramatic conversion.
And yet, even for many Christian lovers of literature, Spark remains on the margins of their attention. Part of the reason for this seems to be that Spark, like her contemporary Flannery O’Connor, had an eye for the ways in which the supernatural enters our world in strange, oblique and upsetting ways, ways that bring about much quirky incident and black humor that challenges our expectations of what a novel with metaphysical concerns should be like.
As a case in point let us return to Memento Mori. David Lodge describes the novel as having many of the conventions of a 19th-century potboiler mixed with “an element of the uncanny.” But, as Lodge observes, the point of Spark’s use of the mysterious caller is that, through the caller, we can see how “the existence of a transcendent, eternal and immaterial reality impinges on the lives of [Spark’s] aging characters.”
At least one character in the novel is interested in acknowledging that reality. Jean Taylor endures the indignities of her nursing home by turning them into an offering:
“After the first year she resolved to make her suffering a voluntary affair. If this is God’s will then it is mine. She gained from this state of mind a decided and visible dignity, at the same time as she lost her stoical resistance to pain. She complained more, called often for the bed pan, and did not hesitate, on one occasion when the nurse was dilatory, to wet the bed a the other grannies did so frequently.”
About the telephone calls Jean says to her friend, 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.”
But most of the characters in Memento Mori have not formed the habit while young, and–phone calls or no phone calls–they do not show much inclination to develop the habit while old. In this way Memento Mori works as a novel of belief by way of negation. For much of the novel’s comedy is generated by the trivial or malicious ways in which the characters drive out the thought of the Death, “the first of the Four Last Things to be ever remembered.”
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