Date Published: Originally published in 1925
Number of Pages: 228
Print Price: $11.86
eBook Price: $7.99
The title of Muriel Spark’s Momento Mori refers to the Latin phrase for “Remember, you must die,” and it is this phrase which an unknown prank telephone caller repeats to a series of elderly people throughout the novel. The setting is 1950s London replete with bomb sites, and the elderly are all part of a close-knit community of the well-heeled and their servants and ex-servants.
The main characters are Dame Lettie Colston, her brother Godfrey, his wife Charmian, and their former servant (Jean) Taylor. The latter resides in the Maud Long Medical Ward with other elderly inmates called “the grannies.” Other characters include the recently deceased Lisa Brooke, her housekeeper Mrs. Pettigrew, her relations the Sidebottoms, the poet Percy Mannering and his grand-daughter Olive, the disabled Guy Leet and the rather odd Alec Warner who is trying to record the symptoms of geriatric illnesses.
The group are all preoccupied with their own problems: they fret about whom to put in and take out of their wills, contest each other’s wills, keep up appearances to prevent others from seeing their maladies, try to hide or uncover historical infidelities, and organize their care arrangements. Some also have particular problems – Charmian is suffering from dementia, and Taylor is worried about the goings on at Maud Long.
The setting is very much Agatha Christie – post-war instead of pre-war but exclusively concerning the bourgeoisie and the incompetence of the police force. However, the tone of the writing is quite different from Christie’s – with waspish ironical descriptions of the characters predominating. The dialogue consists of a lot of people being nasty to each other but within the confines of the rules of conversation at the time. Some reviewers have found this amusing or comic, but I imagine many would struggle to comprehend such stilted conversations and a social milieu which has changed beyond recognition. Here is a typical passage that illustrates the acrimonious back and forth between the characters:
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 1945,’ 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…?’
This excerpt illustrates the faults of the main characters; Charmian is a self-absorbed dreamer who later miraculously sheds her dementia, while Godfrey is selfish and loveless, and Dame Lettie is supposed to do good works but spends much of her time hectoring others.
The characters in Momento Mori are all well drawn and believable, but there is little by way of plot beyond the cast getting older and their antics continuing in soap opera fashion. The writing is technically very good, but the omniscient viewpoint leaves the reader feeling detached from the characters and the ending is something of a disappointment.
In terms of a Catholic perspective, the novel was Sparks’ third, written in 1959 some two years after her conversion to Catholicism following a period of severe depression. The character of Charmian closely relates to Sparks herself, as the former is also a novelist who had converted to Catholicism though the theme of conversion is not really developed in the novel.
Charmian’s son, Eric, is another unsympathetic character who appears to rely financially on his parents but is very free with his criticism of them. He appears late in the novel when he senses that his inheritance is likely to be stolen by Mrs. Pettigrew and perhaps presages the rather difficult relationship Spark had with her own son who reverted to Judaism. Taylor has also converted to Catholicism ‘really just to please Charmian,’ an explanation which seems more flippant than genuine.
Otherwise there is neither little direct mention of cultural Catholicism nor much sign of any moral themes such as love, hope or forgiveness. The characters are for the most part mean, petty and unforgiving. Godfrey indulges in paying to look at ladies' suspenders, has had countless affairs and messed things up in his work. His weaknesses are ruthlessly exploited by the arch-villain, Mrs. Pettigrew, whom the reader suspects has poisoned her charges in the past to enable her to claim their inheritances. Yet Mrs. Pettigrew is the only character left living at the end of the novel and manages to inherit a fortune and live in a London hotel in luxury.
What remains in the way of themes emerging from the novel is the momento mori of the title. Most of the characters get extremely flustered over the telephone calls (not surprisingly, since most of the characters are in their seventies or eighties), but two do not. Mrs. Pettigrew just ignores it, while Charmian replies in a matter-of-fact voice, "But somehow I do not forget my death, whenever that will be."
However, it is left to Taylor, the sanest member of the cast, to reflect on the lack of police progress with the case. "It is my belief…the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself," Taylor notes.
This comment is not as foolish as it may sound, though, because the caller presents himself differently (in terms of age, accent, way of speaking, etc.) to each target.
Not for Taylor the worries over wills, gossip, blackmail and social status; she states quite simply, "I would be glad to be left to die in peace." Perhaps this is the message of the novel – that even if there is no justice in this world, you should prepare yourself for the next.
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
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