Sunday, October 28, 2018

Muriel Spark – ‘Memento Mori’

My second Muriel Spark novel, after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and, as in that book, much of the story happens elsewhen. The peer group skewered here (‘friends’ would be wrong) are all in their seventies and eighties, and have started to receive anonymous telephone calls which tell them ‘remember you must die’. A history of infidelities going back half a century binds the group together: there is blackmail, and the frequent changing of wills as new facts emerge or are imagined. It’s all about the money. Mrs Pettigrew, the blackmailer, selects a convenient enough version of reality for herself: she has a facelift, and within a few years is convinced that she hasn’t had one. She also denies that she has received an anonymous phone call, and believes that too. The facelift is presumably what allows her to pass for a relative youngster, and in addition to seriously depleting the capital of her employer Godfrey Colston by threatening to tell his wife about his decades of infidelity, she makes a little ready money by allowing him an occasional titillating glimpse of suspender.

As the novel begins, Dame Lettie Colston, Godfrey’s sister and an overweight philanthropist, has been receiving the calls for about six weeks. She reports them to the police, and also to a retired policeman of her acquaintance, Henry Mortimer, whom she then begins to suspect of making the calls himself. Mortimer summons the targeted group to his house for afternoon tea and a denouement in which the evidence diverges in as many directions as there are witnesses: the caller is a middle-aged man, a young Teddy-boy; his voice is ‘cracked and rather shaky’, ‘strong and sinister’ (p. 146); he is foreign, or not; he has a lisp, or not; he is, in Mortimer’s case only, a she. After the guests have left, his wife reflects:
        ‘How I wish,’ said Emmeline, ‘you could have told them outright, “Death is the culprit.” And I should like to have seen their faces.’
        ‘It’s a personal opinion. One can’t make up one’s mind for others.’ (p. 151)
Mortimer is one of only three sympathetic characters in the novel, two of whom are relatively minor. The third is Godfrey’s wife, Charmian Piper, a famous novelist in her day, whose books are coming back into fashion and being reprinted, which arrests and to some extent reverses the dementia to which she is prey in the early part of the book. Amongst her confusion about who is who (she tends to think everyone is her estranged son, Eric), there is still a sharpness of perception. Talking to Godfrey:
        ‘Ah,’ said Charmian, ‘you are taking your revenge, Eric.’
        ‘I am not Eric,’ he said.
        ‘But you are taking your revenge.’ (p. 73)
He is, indeed. After many years of resentment about not being the breadwinner in the marriage, he finally seems to be gaining the upper hand with Charmian’s worsening memory: ‘he could never feel really well unless she were ill’ (p. 153). Initially, he wants to send her to a nursing home, then loses so much money through blackmail that he thinks they can’t afford it. Given a new lease of life (and money) by her re-printed novels, Charmian eventually leaves on her own terms. Her recovery is heartening, given that she is the moral core of the book, but it is kept below the level of miraculous. In one scene, when Godfrey and Mrs Pettigrew are both out (she following, wanting to control him), she prepares her own afternoon tea in an agonising scene which makes it clear how dangerous this is, at the limit of her physical capacity. Carrying the tray is beyond her, so she makes many trips between kitchen and living room, taking the items one by one.

Charmian’s former maid, Jean Taylor, is the third sympathetic character (it is interesting that two of them are working class, in a story mostly about the rich), and her bed in an NHS geriatric ward contrasts with the private room her former employer has at the nursing home. She is visited by Lettie, and by Alec Warner, a tragi-comic presence, a Casaubon, who is collecting behavioural evidence for the long-term study of the elderly which he intends to be his life’s work and legacy: several times he sends letters to characters making shocking, gossipy revelations and asking them to take their pulse and report back. Miss Taylor sees exactly how ridiculous he is:
She had discerned, after many years, that his whole approach to the female mind, his only way of coping with it, was to seem to derive amusement from it. When Miss Taylor had made this discovery she was glad they had never been married. He was too much masked, behind his mocking, paternal attitude – now become a habit – for any proper relationship with a grown woman. (p. 62)
It’s possible that his research could reveal scientific truths about ageing, but in observing, he has quit the field of human interaction (she might advise him, ‘remember you must live’). Charmian is quitting it slowly, as her memory goes. Godfrey was never much interested in it, he just wants sex and power. Mrs Pettigrew just wants money. Miss Taylor finds herself in posh isolation, a servant with a fine critical mind after years of sharing her employer’s intellectual life. No one is comfortable, no one has reached contentment by virtue of having lived a long time: the squabbles of a lifetime continue to the end.

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