Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Memento Mori

If you are a Latin teacher, perhaps you teach the expression memento mori to your students. This reminder of mortality means nothing to most of them. Indeed, laughter sounded through the classroom as I translated the Latin tag, "Remember you must die." We don't think a lot about death, and as I absent-mindedly looked at the Latin, I realized that the gray-haired would ignore it, the dyed would deny it, and those with natural hair color would believe it never could happen to them. 
Muriel Spark, a Catholic writer, knew death would come. In her brilliant novel, Memento Mori, she eerily links a group of elderly recipients of anonymous phone calls which remind them they must die. Dame Lettie Colston, the first to receive the call, is outraged. She notifies the police and, when her brother, Godfrey, asks what the caller said, she replies, 
"The same thing. And quite matter-of-fact, not threatening. Of course the man's mad.... It's been going on for six weeks now."

"Just those words?" 
"Just the same words--Remember you must die--nothing more."

Eventually, all of the elderly characters in this black comedy receive the memento mori phone call. Although Godfrey, an intolerant octogenarian who despises his sweetly senile wife, Charmian, once a famous writer, does not like to think about death, he attends many funerals. And at the funeral of his former mistress, Lisa Brooke, he becomes determined to hire Lisa's attractive housekeeper, Mrs. Pettigrew, as a caretaker for Charmian. This is one of many false steps that leads to his downfall: confusing Mrs. Pettigrew's face-lifted tautness with beauty and her cruelty with pragmatism, Godfrey becomes vulnerable to blackmail.  And when he receives the phone call, Mrs. Pettigrew pretends to believe he is senile.  She, on the other hand, denies she received one:  she doesn't want anyone to know her age.   But the calmness of Godfrey's wife, Charmian--she is polite to Death on the phone--and the similar tranquility of Taylor, her former maid, now in a nursing home, reflect a kind of wisdom that is wrought of everyday realism and Catholic faith.  
Spark's glittering, terse prose is reminiscent of Ivy Compton-Burnett crossed with Patrick Hamilton.  There are no awkward words, there is no sentimentality, and  the precisely chiseled characters are completely realistic.


Anonymous said...

Memento mori sounds devastatingly gothic.

I'm sorry to hear your students laughed. Well someday they will die and they won't be laughing then.


Frisbee said...

I loved this novel and now want to read Spark. I have read most of her books at one time or another, but can't remember exactly which ones.

I suppose Memento mori is a funny kind of saying, but it's definitely the shock that gets them. Who but the Romans would say this? :)