Monday, July 21, 2008

Memento Mori. Muriel Spark. (1)

New York: Time Incorporated
1958 (1964)

Why read it? Novel. If, as a young person, you think old people (over 70) live out their old age serenely, reflecting comfortably on their positive experiences over the years, this novel depicts a very different existence--fretful, self-absorbed, worried about trivial circumstances, hyper-critical of other old people, noting their mental instability, reflecting on affairs and embarrassments during the years, using their wills to retain influence over people looking for their inheritance, problems with their bladders, taking pills, no longer valued for their knowledge and as important individuals, wildly suspicious and swiftly dying off because of medical and other causes, including violence and car collisions. Spark writes with a dead-pan, blank expression as she states matter-of-factly what the characters think, say and do. The result is hilarious--and irreverent--and true to life.

The novel centers around the anonymous caller(s) who phones to say, "Remember that you must die" ("Memento Mori"). The old people who receive these calls describe the caller(s) as of different ages and even sexes. The statement is a matter of fact--you old people must remember that you are going to die. And they do. One after another. The police believe that the calls are the old people's hallucinations. Could it be a case of mass hysteria? Could it be themselves reminding themselves unconsciously that they know they must die? The caller is never identified, but Alec Warner is a suspect because he takes notes on every one of his friends and acquaintances, in the end even wanting to know if the death was a good one or a bad one and even asking them to take pulse and temperature before and after the bad news he has given them.

Two sets of old people in the novel--wealthy aristocrats and old women in a nursing home, the "Grannies." The wealthy have had affairs among themselves that they are trying to keep from being revealed. Then there are relationships with their servants who know all that they did--and Mrs. Pettigrew, the professional maid, who moves from one wealthy family to another and who gradually encourages them to leave their wealth to her And Charmian, successful writer, and her husband, Godfrey, who have both had affairs, thinking that the other did not know. But their servants and most of their acquaintances did.

The "Grannies" battle the nursing staff and themselves. "Sister Bastard." "Sister Lousy." Miss Taylor, former maid to Charmian, seems to be the voice of a clear, objective intelligence and common sense.

Old age, according to this novelist is a fitful, confusing mix of feelings, memories, incapacities and, at last, death. It is not serenity.

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