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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Memento Mori

Muriel Spark

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To purchase Memento Mori

Title: Memento Mori
Author: Muriel Spark
Genre: Novel
Written: 1959
Length: 220 pages
Availability: Memento Mori - US
Memento Mori - UK
Memento Mori - Canada
Memento Mori - France
Memento Mori - Deutschland
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from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : fine little entertainment and portrait of old age

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 8/1959 Phoebe Adams
The Guardian . 4/6/2010 David Lodge
The Hudson Review . Fall/1959 Sidney Monas
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/5/1959 Robert Phelps
Sunday Times . 22/3/1959 John Metcalf
Time . 15/6/1959 .
The Times . 26/3/1959 .

  Review Consensus:

  Funny; well-written

  From the Reviews:
  • "Muriel Spark has written a very funny novel indeed about the ancient and enterprising. The plot of the affair, while perfectly serviceable, is nothing much (.....) Much of the fun of Memento Mori lies in Miss Spark's style. She is lavish with unexpected but vivid comparisons. (...) The laughter in Memento Mori is frequently a delicate version of that aroused by a dignified citizen treading on a banana peel, but this is no disparagement, for the scheme is an old and honorable one and its effect is infallibly comic." - Phoebe Adams, The Atlantic

  • "Formally the novel seems as fresh and original today as it did when it was first published, and thematically more relevant to the preoccupations and anxieties of the present century's first decade than to those of the 50s. (...) Memento Mori itself was an utterly different and virtually unprecedented kind of novel. It is a short book, but it has a huge cast of characters, to nearly all of whose minds the reader is given access. (...) Memento Mori is a kind of moral fable, whose ultimate aim is not to create an illusion of life but to defamiliarise it for an instructive purpose. That is not to say, however, that it lacks realism. The plot may be artificially constructed, the manipulative, creative presence of the author may be constantly making itself felt in the stunning economy of the narrative method and pithy aphorisms (...) but the behaviour and interaction of the characters are completely convincing, rendered with acute, subtle observation." - David Lodge, The Guardian

  • "To use a group of old people, all over seventy, as a paradigm for human life is a bold stratagem indeed, and Mrs. Spark is both compassionate and outrageously funny in elaborating it. The vanities and delusions of the shriveled and the spent ar our own, emphasized and exaggerated by the immediate presence of death as on a battlefield. (...) (T)he writing is adroit, unpretentious, and immensely effective. It has the distinction of being charming and appalling at the same time." - Sidney Monas, The Hudson Review

  • "(A) novel about death that ought to tease, entertain, and quietly perturb a wide variety of American readers. (...) In the course of events, Miss Spark's trim, unloitering narrative reveals a fairly complete gamut of human seaminess. (...) As a whole, the book is most engaging (.....) It is also, at times, a daffily hilarious book, even though it is pervasively concerned with the importance of Death and Judgment." - Robert Phelsps, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A)n eccentric and engaging book (.....) In Memento Mori, half Poe, half Powell, Miss Spark has established total rule over her inhabitants. (...) This is a gruesomely graceful performance; real age is an eerie thing to look at: Memento Mori looks it in the eye, makes us feel the creaking joints, the rheumy eyes that we shall be, introduces us to the ghosts that lie ahead of us. It is Miss Spark's best book yet." - John Metcalf, Sunday Times

  • "At their best, which of course is their worst, they behave like characters some how kept alive after the last page of a Waugh novel and unearthed 40 years later. (...) Some readers may object that such mysticism is too woolly, but few of them will complain that Author Spark's funerary satire lacks bite." - Time

  • "It is this voice which makes the novel a cross between a detective story and a Morality, and although the end is somewhat inconclusive, some old skeletons in Kensington cupboards are made to rattle to a lively dance before it. is reached. The eccentricities and humiliations of extreme age would hardly seem promising material for comedy, but Miss Spark's style and wit do something peculiar to the macabre without robbing it of its quality." - The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Memento Mori features a large and almost entirely geriatric cast of characters; if not right at death's door they're certainly in the vicinity; several die over the course of the story, and in its brief concluding section, a what-happened-to summary, there's a whole of inventory of how many of the rest have then also met their maker (most of them ...). Indeed, death is almost constantly in the air in Memento Mori -- and, for those who might forget the inevitable, there's that helpful voice on the telephone, a mysterious caller who regularly rings up practically everyone involved with a simple message. It's first introduced, in the novel's opening, simply as that "familiar sentence" -- as the calls have already been coming for quite a while -- and later, when the press get hold of the story they twist the actual words into the more sensational and threatening warning: "You will die tonight". In fact, what the caller always says is:

     Just the same words -- Remember you must die -- nothing more.
       The character's aren't allowed to forget this basic fact of life -- not that they really could anyway: at their advanced ages its practically impossible for them to overlook their own decline and that of those around them. Nevertheless, they don't like it being rubbed in so insistently, the constant reminder proving very unsettling for many of them. The police are called, but find it impossible to track down the mysterious voice. A retired Chief Inspector, Henry Mortimer, is also consulted, but proves of little help as well. (Indeed, not that he tells the others, but he too gets the mysterious calls -- though the voice he hears, "gentle-spoken and respectful", differs in at least one significant way from how the others describe their messenger.)
       Mortimer isn't the only one who concludes:
     'And considering the evidence,' he said, 'in my opinion the offender is Death himself.'
       Memento Mori isn't a mystery story, with the culprit and his (or her) nefarious motives uncovered at the end; instead, there's only that sense of inevitability; for all (narrative) intents and purposes, it may well be Death that's calling .....
       Grim though all this may sound, Spark's novel is an amusing -- indeed, comic -- one; she has good fun leading her characters down this path that all must go.
       There's quite a bit of bustle to the novel, its large cast of characters connected in various ways. With so many getting on in years, testamentary provisions feature prominently and there's quite a bit of re-writing of wills -- not least: "They found twenty-two different wills amongst Lettie Colson's papers, dated over the past forty years" --; there's also a good dose of blackmail going on. Circumstances shift constantly -- most prominently for Mabel Pettigrew, longtime housekeeper to Lisa Brooke, who looks to inherit the bulk of her employer's estate (Lisa Brooke is one of the novel's early casualties) only to find her claim superseded by Guy Leet, who was secretly married to Lisa Brooke. From there, Mrs. Pettigrew moves on to working as an attendant to the once-famous novelist Charmian Colston -- and blackmailing her husband Godfrey into changing his will, as she knows that Godfrey is guilty of some indiscretions which he desperately wants to keep from his wife, along with a business cover-up a while back. (As it turns out, Charmian has some skeletons in her closet as well, so ultimately it's all a wash; there are few who are anywhere near completely blameless in Memento Mori.)
       Among the cast of characters is also a chronicler, Alec Warner, studying gerontology and meddling where he can -- and requesting that his subjects take the pulse and temperature of those receiving particular bits of news, to get a record of their physical reactions. Completely dedicated to his detailed large-scale study, he too finds his ambitions thwarted -- not by death, but by higher powers nonetheless. (He's one of the few allowed to survive in the final summing-up, too, but only reduced to the condition of some of his earlier subjects.)
       Briefly, the novel looks like it might turn into the mystery that it seemed to tease early on, with death coming to one of the main characters -- effectively sudden and unexpected, at least for the reader -- but it's just another of Spark's feints. It remains a comedy of the confusions -- in its many forms -- of old age, showing again and again how, regardless of their efforts, the characters have little control over shaping their futures; life and death go on as they will.
       It's all quite good fun, with a nice dark edge and old age nicely captured in all its declining variety, but still feels a bit light and slight. Still, it's a fine entertainment, and a good take on aging and old age.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 May 2022

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Memento Mori: Reviews: Muriel Spark: Other books by Muriel Spark under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Muriel Spark lived 1918 to 2006.

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© 2022 the complete review

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