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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Memento Mori (1959)

by Muriel Spark

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Title:Memento Mori
Authors:Muriel Spark (Author)
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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (1959)

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A group of septuagenarians in late-1950s Britain are receiving upsetting phone calls: a man keeps harassing them, simply stating, "Remember, you must die." In Spark's hands, what would be a vehicle or device for a crime/thriller in the hands of someone like Agatha Christie instead becomes a tour de force of social commentary.

Like Christie, Spark uses social banter to explore and criticize social issues; in Memento Mori, Spark brings postbellum anxieties about class, gender, and death to bear on relationships between individuals. Unlike Christie, Spark is not concerned with placing the mystery at the center of her novel. Instead, Spark creates an often laugh-out-loud funny—and often bewilderingly and staggeringly cruel—portrait of a close-knit group of people who are actually not all that close-knit at all.

Spark's scope here is phenomenal, as is her mixture of farce, politics, and drawing-room comedy of manners. One is often reminded of writers like James and Elizabeth Bowen when reading Spark: her razor-sharp wit, her combination of high-brow and low-brow comedy, and her ability to expose idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies in social interactions are what make Memento Mori work so well as an attack on a very real fear—the fear of death after having lived through the death of the world, twice over. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
An insidiously nasty, yet very funny, look at the complicatedly interrelated lives of a group of elderly people facing mortality as they hobble as best they can through the declining years of life in post-war Britain (this in the 1950s when people in their 70s and 80s were genuinely old). Schemes, jealousies, resentments, secrets. and loves, sometimes decades old, shape their lives and interactions. One by one they start to get mysterious anonymous phone calls telling them of their approaching death. Each reacts differently, and each dies, sometimes comically, sometimes horrifically. While riding just on the edge of cruelty, Spark's portraits of the foibles and what now be called coping strategies of the aged is simultaneously genuinely moving and genuinely comic. ( )
  sjnorquist | Jun 27, 2014 |
Published in 1959 I can hardly believe this was my first book by Muriel Spark. I was won over entirely. At first I had a little concern because I am not that far from the age of the elderly characters, some quite dotty, and thought this might be just too close to home. This feeling wore off as the story and characters stirred up interest. Spark's writing is so perfectly balanced: a little bit of malice, a touch of compassion rounded off with humour. Wonderful. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Apr 22, 2014 |
While I was not fond of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, several people recommended I read another Murial Spark book and the most recommended was Memento Mori. For which I'm grateful, because I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The story revolves around a group of the elder, each of whom exists in various states of mental and physical health. I think young people (being anyone under 70, I suppose, including myself) can tend to forget that grandparents and elders have lives and dramas, mysteries and betrayals, friendships and affairs. Maybe this is because we are too wrapped up in our own dramas and assume that live gets quieter as one gets older. But this book is certainly a reminder that just because one gets old doesn't mean life gets simpler.

Throughout the book, too, is the interesting mystery of the caller, who rings up various people in the book (if they are over 70) and tells them, "Remember you must die." Eerie and yet poignant, because young or old, we all must die, and each character reacts to this reminder quite differently. As the book went on, I think I was more fond those who were calm about this message than those who attempted to rail against it.

This book looked a quite a lot of fascinating themes and Spark's sparse, abrupt style worked well. While I didn't necessarily love any of the characters, I liked them in general and found them interesting. Overall a quick and enjoyable read, which leaves me wanting to pick up more of Spark's work.

Footnote: After finishing this book, I can't help but think again about how format impacts the reading of a book (at least for me). For example, Miss Jean Brodie was an audio book and Memento Mori was in hardback. It may be that Spark's style works better on the page than when read. I don't know, but I run into this from time to time, and now I'm wondering if I might not have enjoyed Miss Jean Brodie if I had read it in print. ( )
  andreablythe | Sep 12, 2013 |
Life is a series of strange and amusing events and none more so than the whole act of aging as it is presented in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. This was an absolutely delightful read that had me turning the pages eagerly and snickering to myself. Cut through the humor and you are left with a wicked satire on both the aged and their treatment that delivers it’s message in a clear, concise and very original manner. As I got deeper into the book however, I found myself becoming attached to and caring about the fate of these characters very much.

As pretty much every character in the book is age seventy or older, the subject matters of senility, funerals and nursing homes are explored as Ms. Spark’s macabre point of view presents the concerns and actions of the elderly. The plot revolves upon a mystery, as an anonymous phone caller leaves a frightening message of “Remember you must die” to one of the elderly main characters. Soon others are receiving this same message, but all describe a different voice.

This is the first book I have read by Muriel Spark and I admit I was a little concerned as to whether I would enjoy her work, but this story totally enchanted me. Although this subject matter could have been depressing, in this author’s capable hands this unique story of aging eccentrics was both fresh and inventive. ( )
6 vote DeltaQueen50 | Jun 17, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Muriel Sparkprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kennedy, A.L.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mutsaars, AnjoCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vranken, KatjaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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What shall I do with this absurdity -
O heart, O troubled heart - this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail?

W B Yeats, The Tower.

O what Venerable and Reverend Creatures
did the Aged seem! Immortal Cherubims!

Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditation.

Q. What are the four last things to be ever remembered?
A. The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven.

The Penny Catechism.
For TERESA WALSHE with love

First words
Dame Lettie Colston refilled her fountain-pen and continued her letter: One of these days I hope you will write as brilliantly on a happier theme.
Remember you must die.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
'' "Remember you must die," said the voice on the telephone.'

Dame Lettie Colston is the first of her circle to receive these anonymous calls, and she does not wish to be reminded. Nor do her friends and family - though they are constantly looking for signs of decline in others, and change their wills on a weekly basis.

As the caller's activities become more widespread, soon a witch-hunt is in full cry, exposing past and present duplicities, self-deception and blackmail. Nobody is above suspicion. Only a few, blessed with a sense of humour and the gift of faith, can guess at the caller's identity.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811214389, Paperback)

Unforgettably astounding and a joy to read, Memento Mori is considered by many to be the greatest novel by the wizardly Dame Muriel Spark.

In late 1950s London, something uncanny besets a group of elderly friends: an insinuating voice on the telephone informs each, "Remember you must die." Their geriatric feathers are soon thoroughly ruffled by these seemingly supernatural phone calls, and in the resulting flurry many old secrets are dusted off. Beneath the once decorous surface of their lives, unsavories like blackmail and adultery are now to be glimpsed. As spooky as it is witty, poignant and wickedly hilarious, Memento Mori may ostensibly concern death, but it is a book which leaves one relishing life all the more.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:31 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Each of a group of elderly friends receivea a phone call with the message, "Remember you must die." This brings many old secrets to light, including blackmail and adultery.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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