Reading 1959: Memento Mori

Cover of Memento Mori

Confession: this is the first Muriel Spark I’ve ever read, and I don’t know anything about her except what I gleaned from the brief bio in the back of the book, and a vague sense that she’s Important.

Memento Mori tells the story of an interconnected group of Londoners, most in their seventies and eighties – novelists, poets, theatrical types, academics, and their resentful servants and children.

The twin engines of the plot are, first, a series of anonymous phone calls in which, one after another, the characters are told, “Remember you must die”; and, secondly, a dark tale of wills, infidelity and blackmail.

At times, there are echoes of Agatha Christie, but without the familiar structure, and of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson, both specialists in drawing suspense from fibs, foibles and fading sanity.

My favourite characters are Godfrey, a selfish octogenarian whose failure in life is masked by upper class entitlement, and Mrs Pettigrew, the sinister 73-year-old housekeeper who exploits him. Within hours of arriving to takeover the running of the home Godfrey shares with his senile wife, Charmian, Mrs Pettigrew is showing her stocking-tops to Godfrey in exchange for pound notes. Soon after, creeping around the house making copies of keys, she has ferreted out his every secret and is pressuring him to change his will in her favour.

As someone who spent 30+ years immersed in crime fiction and thrillers, I’ll admit to feeling a prickle of irritation that the loose-end of the phone calls isn’t wrapped up. But once I’d accepted the most likely answer – the voice on the line, which sounds different to each recipient, might be the Grim Reaper himself – I started to file this alongside Robert Aickman, and felt happier.

Does it say much about 1959? I don’t think so. Class structures aside, the reflections on growing old and the weird mutations of very long relationships, seem utterly timeless.

But, still, it’s a funny, emotionally truthful, acidic little book that I’m delighted to have been pushed towards by this project of mine.