Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (MacMillan 1959)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
In Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, a cast of quirky, petty, and endearing septuagenarians struggle with aging while death lurks offstage. Rheumatism, hearing loss, dementia, creaky bones, leaky bladders, and missing teeth afflict this alternately lofty and low-class group. These 70-plus-year-olds muse and gossip over long-gone affairs of the heart, assorted past sexual liaisons, and engage in “the Will game,” dangling the promise of inheritance in front of their offspring and former household help. Meanwhile, enduring desires, scads of regrets, and still fuming resentments crowd their thoughts.
Muriel Spark toggles back and forth between the private homes of her well-to-do characters and the state-run nursing facility where many of their former housekeepers now reside. Uptight Dame Lettie Colson, her lackluster, selfish brother Godfrey and his wife, the formerly successful novelist Charmian, live independently but rely on the help of assorted staff. Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey are alive and well in this novel. The smug moneyed people demand service that extends too far, while the house staff carp endlessly to one another about their spoiled, often ridiculous employers.
But class differences evaporate in Memento Mori — making it clear that aging and approaching death are the great equalizers. Spark writes: “Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying on a battlefield.” (31). Spark uses humor and her characters’ pettiness to convey the pathos of encroaching death, which lurks at the heart of these humorous goings-on.
The central drama of Memento Mori swirls around phone calls from a male stranger who declares: “Remember you must die.” Dame Lettie is the first to receive a string of such calls. Understandably terrified, she seeks help from the police, who discount her reports, viewing them as the imaginings of a batty old lady. In contrast, Dame Lettie’s brother and a smattering of friends feel spooked on her behalf.
In time, the unidentifiable caller preys on all main characters: Charmian, her husband, their pseudo-sociologist friend, Alec Warner, and their greedy, scheming housekeeper Mrs. Pettigrew. Even the kindly retired police Inspector Mortimer, who tries to find the mysterious man, is plagued by these telephoned declarations: “Remember You Must Die.” In time, Inspector Mortimer concludes that “the offender is death himself.” (144)
An entire book devoted to people 70 and over was unheard of in 1959 when Memento Mori was published. Even today, it’s hard to conjure a single title with exclusively aged protagonists. Thanks to Spark and her wit, this romp through deteriorating bodies and slipping minds make pleasure out of sorrow while opening fissures of awareness in the minds of younger readers.
Throughout her tale, Spark takes on one of the earmarks of ageism: the invisibility and “othering” of older people. Upon admission, the retired female maids, housekeepers, and clerks in the nursing home learn they will be referred to as granny this or granny that. At first, they protest mightily and threaten to cut the staff from their non-existent wills or report the facility to the authorities. But the outrage quickly dissolves into sad acquiescence.
As a reader, I see myself in these characters, and realize I could be inducted into Spark’s granny group. Not yet in a nursing home, I did turn 70 recently and do feel increasingly invisible. When I walk past groups of high schoolers grasping their Starbucks drinks, no eye contact is exchanged. I am a phantom to them: an old woman with no value, not even a reflection in their eyes.
American culture reveres the shiny hair, slim bodies, high energy, and easy, often mocking, laughter of youth. Rarely do sparks of awareness ignite in younger eyes, showing they know old age is their destiny, too. Instead, older people are perceived as less than human, like stale bread, crumbling and ready to be discarded.
In her book, The Coming of Age, Simone De Beauvoir, the French existential philosopher and feminist, captures how deeply engrained ageism is in our culture. She fought to “shatter the conspiracy of silence” about the treatment of old people as “other, foreign species, outside humanity.” Beauvoir railed against the aversion, a “biological repugnance,” and lack of sympathy toward the aged. Even the translation of her title gives something to consider — forcing us to think of “coming of age” not as the transition into young adulthood but as the perpetual journey toward old age and death.
Like Beauvoir, Spark decries ageism but with a more subtle, less impassioned voice. Not one to be seduced by easy sentimentality, Spark tells her story in spare prose, with a wry and critical eye. She does not “other” her characters. Rather, her refusal to paint her dramatis personae in a rosy, sweet grandmother-like hue works to open our hearts to the fragility, vulnerability, and tenderness of aging. Memento Mori’s timeless wisdom about aging would grace the bookshelves of all current readers.
Memento Mori does not offer elevating messages about a long life’s meaning. No, Spark shows us that the mendacity, small-mindedness, and self-absorption threading through all lives get no respite at the end. Dying and death are not transcendent. Older people remain their younger selves, only housed in aging bodies. Death knocks at every door, or in this case, rings up with regular reminders. Spark, in turn, reminds us that we, too, must die.
Patricia Steckler, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice for over 35 years in suburban New Jersey. In the spring of 2019 she graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a Master’s degree in Science Writing. She is the Past President of the New Jersey Psychological Association and the New Jersey Association of Women Therapists. She loves to write profiles about unsung folks and patients (disguised, of course) with life stories that inspire and elevate the spirit. Read Patricia’s reviews.