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Muriel Spark: Memento Mori

A wickedly funny novel that pokes fun at life but, more particularly, at death. The story revolves around a group of upper-class English people who are snobs and, in most cases, have erotic fantasies, even if they can’t do much about these fantasies. Dame Lettie Colston, sister of Geoffrey Colston, heir to the Colston Brewery fortune, gets phone calls telling her Remember, you must die. She attributes these to her nephew Eric, ne’er-do-well son of Geoffrey and his wife, the famous but now unfashionable author, Charmian, and then to the retired police office, Henry Mortimer, and then to all and sundry. Yes, Dame Lettie is slightly batty but then they all are as Spark deliciously mocks them. Charmian has incipient Alzheimer’s but can be lucid when she wants, particularly regarding her ex-lovers. Geoffrey really only wants to look at women’s stocking tops (this was in the days when women wore suspenders), while Alec Warner is keeping meticulous notes on all of them, to no apparent purpose. Guy Leet, secretly married to the now dead Lisa Brooke, gets her money – at least for a while. Percy Mannering just wants people to listen to his awful poetry and his views of literature – he is a great fan of the now forgotten poet, Ernest Dowson.

But it all comes undone. The telephone calls are made to others but no-one (least of all the police) finds out who is making the calls and why. Dame Lettie is brutally murdered in her bed while trying to overprotect herself. Leet doesn’t get his money and most of the others die. Spark does not forget the domestics, as Miss Taylor, Charmian’s former domestic, sits in a geriatric ward watching the other old ladies die, while her successor, Mrs. Pettigrew, does, then does not and then does inherit Lisa Brooke’s fortune. It’s all very funny and very cruel but that is what makes Muriel Spark so enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by Macmillan