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Memento Mori is brilliantly sharp, but it is it too cruel?

In the aftermath of a military triumph, victorious generals of the Roman republic would celebrate in style. Heading a parade of his army, a train of captives and accumulated booty, the general wore a crown of laurel and a gold-embroidered toga, an outfit to show his regal, near-divine status. But even in this moment of near-apotheosis, the general was repeatedly brought back down to earth, for travelling beside him in the chariot was a companion whose job was to whisper at regular intervals: “Remember, you must die.”

In Memento Mori, Muriel Spark imagines a crueller version of this possibly apocryphal bit of history: a series of anonymous phone calls to variously decrepit and decaying characters, reminding them they are going to die. The narrative follows them as they try to find out who is making the calls – even employing a detective, then someone to watch him, too.

A few characters suggest that it is Death itself making the calls, and there’s certainly a hint at the numinous since different characters hear the voice in different ways – sometimes rude, sometimes polite, sometimes male, sometimes female. But they, and the reader, are left in the dark. Spark delights in confusing us and victimising her creations.

Reading the book, it’s hard not to feel that Spark herself was being cruel. She invites little sympathy and a great deal of scorn for her rogues’ gallery of mean old cads, selfish dowagers, ridiculous lady novelists, bitter cuckolded husbands, wizened lotharios and corrupt servants. The kinds of readers who demand sympathetic characters won’t get much change out of anyone in Memento Mori – which makes for bracing reading.

There are some wonderfully cutting phrases and observations. We learn volumes about the snobbish, preposterous Dame Lettie when she talks about a hospital visit to a former family servant called Taylor: “These people are so fortunate these days. Central heating, everything they want, plenty of company.” These people! (Worse still, she later tries to persuade Taylor to remain in her crowded, noisy ward rather than a private hospital room because “after all you are the public. The hospitals are yours”.) Similarly, we learn all about the silliness of Lettie’s brother Godfrey taking absurd (and mildly inebriated) “satisfaction” in carefully splitting individual matches with a razor blade “so that from one box of matches he could eventually make two boxfuls.” Then there is Alec, bound up in his obsessive and useless studies of his friends’ stages of decrepitude and analysing facts down to their “last stubborn elements”.

It’s a cliche to talk about Spark cutting into her characters with a gleaming scalpel – but it’s easy to see why critics so often reach for metaphors of sharpness and medical precision.

Spark was 41 when she wrote Memento Mori, and it’s tempting to ascribe to her a fear and loathing of ageing. She laughs at her characters’ infirmities, dwells long on their wrinkles and delights in their decay. The book has been labelled “gerontophobic satire” and this is most apparent when a group of “geriatrics” are wheeled into Taylor’s ward, “making more noise and dribbling from the mouth more than usual”. One of the nameless patients is described as “a frail, wizened, but rather pretty little woman, who was trying to climb over the side of her cot … The patient set up an infant-like wail, yet not entirely that of a child – it was more like that of an old woman copying the cry of an infant.”

Is Spark needlessly cruel? Or do you believe, as she once told the BBC World Service, that “ridicule is the only honourable weapon we’ve got left”? Is she creating prejudice, or just revealing something to us about our own assumptions and fears? Are these geriatrics the ultimate memento mori?

These are tricky questions and make for an unsettling book. But here’s the other thing: it’s fun. Her torturing of her characters is frequently hilarious. I couldn’t help but enjoy it, albeit with a few sharp intakes of breath. Ultimately, I decided that the book is cruel, and it has a right to be so. Novels aren’t just there to make us feel better about ourselves.

I’m keen to read more by Spark. I’m looking forward to reading A Far Cry From Kensington and think we should get straight to that next week, by way of comparison. In that novel, she takes her scalpel to publishers – surely that will be less objectionable?

This article titled "Memento Mori is brilliantly sharp, but it is it too cruel?" was written by Sam Jordison, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 13 February 2018 09.43am

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