Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (1959), 228 pages
The phrase memento mori translates to “Remember you must die.” When Dame Lettie starts getting phone calls, in which the anonymous caller repeats that exact phrase, questions abound. Then other people begin getting the mysterious calls too.
Hearers’ reactions differ. Some panic, some fear, some become angry. Some convince themselves it didn’t actually happen. The police think the old people are losing their minds.
I read this because it’s on the Image Journal list (one of my personal perpetual challenges) and also because it’s the pick for the first quarter Faith and Fiction Roundtable discussion of 2012, hosted by My Friend Amy.
Memento Mori was a relatively fast read for me, at least compared to what I’ve come to expect from books on the list. That’s probably partly because of its briefness, though, too. It didn’t measure up, depth-wise, with my expectations, though. (Unless you all can enlighten me?) It felt less nuanced, almost blatant, in comparison.
That said, it did succeed at holding my attention.
What seemed its big theme, its major emphasis, it handled well.
“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”—Psalm 103:15-16
And using that theme, Memento Mori draws a pretty clear picture of human nature. So maybe I shouldn’t call it a failure — or even one-noted — at all.
It seems like we as humans should become more accepting of our mortality as we age. But the characters in this book, for the most part, treat these reminders as more threat than truth. And maybe that says something about the human condition. As much as we know we won’t live forever (in these bodies, at least), we’re not very good at dealing with that information. We’d rather place blame and seek answers than live like these days matter, because they’re numbered.
The way characters’ lives are interwoven, filled with intrigue and secrets at various levels, is fascinating. As the message becomes an obsession for the characters, their flaws and virtues bubble to the surface.
Rating: 4 stars
About the author
Muriel Spark (1918-2006) was an award-winning Scottish novelist. In reading about her life, it seems at least parts of Memento Mori may be autobiographical.
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