FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
For those of us who grew up in what subsequently came to be classified as “The Baby Boom Generation,” (and I suspect a large contingent of Goodreads regulars did so) the primary contact and introduction to the work of Scottish writer Muriel Spark came from her most famous novel, which was popularized as a play and movie “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ the tale of an unconventional teacher at girl’s school in Edinburgh in the 1930’s who “in her prime” seeks through her strong personality to mould the lives of a select and chosen group of her students in unexpected directions, including love affairs. For the Children of the 60’s, especially young women, the book was something of a coming of age rite of passage into that more liberated time.
Memento Mori, another of her works, may again serve as a form of rite of passage to this same “Boomer” generation fifty years on in an additional respect: their entry into old age and the looming proximity of the inevitability of death. The title, for those who share with Shakespeare but “little Latin,” means a reminder of death. Our generation has been blessed with something unique in human history, namely our marvellously long and continuous lives unmarred by mass deaths in world wars, depressions, plagues and revolutions, and extended further and further by the miracles of modern medical science. Yet for all that, as Muriel Spark would remind us, death is as inexorably present and inevitable as ever, and even its very extended deferrment reveals a second inevitable alteration of condition, old age.
Thus, for those of you who came of age in the presence of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” I further recommend and invite you to take a second helping of Muriel Spark in the “second half” of your lives by looking into her Memento Mori. It is a rich resource for understanding and coming to grips with the dilemmas, contradictions, frailties and unexpectedly discovered resources of old age amoung highly intelligent yet declining people—–people like us, shall we say?
Memento Mori is characteristically set and takes place as in many of Spark’s books, within a a self-enclosed community (of writers, schoolgirls, nuns, rich people, etc.) that is full of incestuous liaisons and fraternal intrigue; into this close setting is thrown a bombshell (like murder, suicide or betrayal) that will ricochet dangerously around this little world; into the mix is added some allusions to the supernatural to ground these melodramatics in an old-fashioned context of good and evil, then it is stylistically served-up with crisp, ironic verging on comic prose and a wry sense of the arbitrary twists of a destiny guided by a hand higher beyond our comprehension, often disposing of its creatures with a light and heartless hand. Unlike the self-enclosed world of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” the coming of age passage of a generation of teens through a girl’s school, the unique community described by Memento Mori is a caste of septuagenarian writers, artists, wealthy families and attached servants who have lived often self-indulgent or unconventional lives of which the end is soon approaching.
The novel opens in the manner of a “whodunnit” mystery as Dame Lettie Colston, a sometimes woman writer and patroness of the arts in London begins to receive a series of a species of “obscene phonecalls,” not sexual in nature, but rather announcing to her in an ominous mysterious voice, “Remember you must die.” The harassing calls later extend to her brother Godfrey and his wife, a lifetime intimate friend of Lettie’s and internationally famous woman novelist Charmian who has suffered from a mild recent stroke. From that point we are taken on a tour of Dame Lettie’s and Charmian’s relationships, past history, family and writer-artist friends stretching over fifty-years in an attempt to discover who the “harasser” might be, revealing hidden sexual relationships and affairs, family and conjugul feuds, parent-child hatreds, lovers histories, blackmail, testamentary bullying, professional writers’ animosities and other possible keys to the mystery.
One of Dame Lettie’s intimates we are drawn into contact with is a well-known writer, ex-lover and social scientist, Alec Warner, who in compiling an exhaustive study of the lives of his own septuagenarian generation for his final scholarly opus magnus, keeps a meticulous record of their personal lives, physical and psychological conditions as they approach the “endgame” of their lives. It is partially this focus which makes the book Memento Mori particularly valuable for the “Boomer Generation” as it courses through its sixties and into its seventies as the novel becomes a veritable handbook of old age amoung an unconventional and privileged set determined to live life fully, meticulously compiled,and intelligently communicated as they face the daily toll recorded in the obituary columns, the strokes, senility and diseases of dementia and gradual decline towards death of their acquaintances, and the dilemmas of committal to nursing homes or struggling to remain independent outside. It follows also the lives of their former servants and companions whose financial resources come to an end and find themselves institutionalized in state facilities.
One of the keys to the understanding of Muriel Sparks, as with other prominent writers of her generation such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Green, was her conversion to Catholicism. Whether one shares her sectarian orientation or not, Memento Mori presents us with a valuable object lesson in our final decades, that in whatever way we find or choose, the looming presence of death must force us to look to our souls and reperspective all we have undertaken in our lives in the context of the reality and unavoidability of death. For those of you who have not read this book I will not spoil its ending by relating the shocking and unexpected manner of Dame Lettie’s death, but suffice it to say, it does come, but not without her achievement of some element of grace. Hemingway famously defined “grace under pressure” as a measure of manhood, though he chose to end his life with a shot to the head. Old age in the face of death is a pressure all of us must face, and some of us will find some measure of grace, forgiveness and spiritual equanimity in doing so, others failing.
Spark’s work is a valuable invocation to us all to search for the roots of such grace, even in its warning each of us: “Remember that you must die,” yet also reminding us that we must equally remember also to live, and to fully live in the realization of that fact.
Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved