Jun 062014
 

Desktop1

Muriel Spark possessed a talent for prose like almost no author before or since. Line for line, her writing—the quirks of diction, the bolts of wry wit—holds its own against the best the twentieth-century had to offer. The reader can put absolute faith in her sense of style. With every word she wrote, Spark knew exactly what she was doing. And that’s the highest compliment that can be paid any writer. —John Stout

Capture

Memento Mori
Muriel Spark
New Directions
224 pages, $15.95
ISBN: 9780811223041

 

I say, Grandpa, did you ever read any books by Charmian Piper?”

“Oh rather, we knew all her books. She was a fine-looking woman. You should have heard her read poetry from a platform in the days of Poetry. Harold Munro always said–“

“Her son, Eric, has told me there’s talk of her novels being reprinted. There’s a revival of interest in her novels. There’s been an article written, Eric says. But he says the novels all consist of people saying ‘touché’ to each other, and it’s all an affectation, the revival of interest, just because his mother is so old and still alive and was famous once.”

“She’s still famous. Always has been. Your trouble is, you know nothing, Olive. Everyone knows Charmian Piper.”

“Oh no they don’t. No one’s heard of her except a few old people, but there’s going to be a revival. I say there’s been an article–“

“You know nothing about literature.”

“Touché” she snapped…

—from Memento Mori

New Directions is just now reissuing several of Muriel Spark’s novels as well as a new collection of her essays, The Informed Air. It’s been only eight years since Spark’s death, and only ten years since her last novel (The Finishing School, 2004), but the revival feels necessary.  While it would be a mistake to call Spark “forgotten,” she is certainly, and quite unjustly, under-read.  I can still usually find a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) in most larger bookstores, but if I’m looking for anything else by Spark, I have to visit the library. The inherent promise of reintroducing Spark to the public consciousness is that some of her lesser-known novels will now enjoy a renewed appraisal, as well as a fresh chance of making an impression upon readers perhaps only vaguely familiar with her formidable body of work.

Although The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie may be Spark’s most widely admired novel (and, by consensus, her masterpiece), the novels being reissued by New Directions each exhibit the authorial qualities that made Spark such a fascinating writer: the confident distance of her prose; the simultaneous ruthlessness and wit with which she directed her creations, exposing human nature with a documentarian’s eye while reveling in artifice of fiction as only a novelist of her caliber can. It’s all there in Spark’s novels.

And it was all there from the very beginning of her career. Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957 to critical acclaim. Inspired in part by the amphetamine-induced paranoia she experienced after taking diet pills to cut down on food costs (money was especially tight for her in those days), the novel centers around a woman who becomes aware of her own status as a character in a novel, and who, try as she might, cannot escape the fate the god-like author has in store for her. Spark brought the same intense authority to each of her successive novels, which rank among the greatest of the twentieth-century—classics like The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Driver’s Seat (1970—and nominated, forty years later, for the “Lost Booker Prize” of that year).

Memento Mori is another one of Spark’s greatest hits. First published in 1959, it can be roughly described as revolving around a set of senior citizens engaged against each other in blackmail, extortion, and secrecy—all while a mysterious caller informs nearly all of them: “Remember you must die.”

Dame Lettie Colston is the first to receive the anonymous calls. The police seem unable (or unwilling) to help her. Her brother, Godfrey, has problems of his own seeing to the care of his demented wife, the once-popular novelist, Charmian. Charmian’s caretaker, Mrs. Anthony, will soon be seventy. Godfrey and Dame Lettie want to find someone younger to look after Charmian, and when Lisa Brooke, a mutual friend (and former lover of Godfrey’s), dies, they poach her now-free housekeeper, Mrs. Pettigrew (who, it turns out, is really seventy-three).

But there’s something off about Mrs. Pettigrew. Her late employer’s family wants to know why she was named heir apparent to the deceased’s entire fortune. Their suspicions, however, don’t stop Godfrey and Dame Lettie from hiring Mrs. Pettigrew on to take care of Charmian while Lisa’s will is being sorted out. Guy Leet, another member of the Colston’s circle (and, Godfrey suspects, Charmian’s would-be lover), has reappeared, presenting himself as Lisa’s (last, living) husband and heir by law.

Once installed in the Colston household, Mrs. Pettigrew sets herself to work on Godfrey, breaking into his papers and tailing him on his regular visits to Chelsea, trying to uncover something she can use to blackmail him. Godfrey has a standing appointment going on three years with Olive Mannering, the granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering (another of Godfrey’s acquaintances, and another of Lisa Brooke’s lovers), for tea and to let Godfrey ogle her stockings and garter (for a fee). Afterward, Olive always reports on her interactions with Godfrey to Alec Warner, an elderly sociologist (once engaged to Dame Lettie) who has dedicated is remaining years to studying gerontology, using his friends and acquaintances as subjects.

The phone calls continue, no longer targeting Dame Lettie alone, but each member of the aged group. Secrets are revealed. There is a murder. It’s all good fun.

But the mystery surrounding the phone calls isn’t central to the novel. Indeed, the novel contains no straightforward resolution to the puzzle of the caller’s identity. The ultimate source and meaning of the message—“Remember you must die”—should, however, be clear by the end. Late in the novel, the group calls upon a retired Chief Inspector to investigate the calls. He muses:

If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practise which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.

The main appeal of Memento Mori lies in Spark’s deft handling of character. There’s another plotline in the novel, involving Charmian’s former caretaker, Jean Taylor, who resides in a public nursing home. Relatively untouched by the drama of the outside world, the residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward have their own crises to deal with. Here, no one’s menaced by a mysterious caller, but by an overworked ward sister. Death isn’t a vague threat or an obituary in the newspaper, it’s happening in a bed a few feet away. The “will-games,” affairs, and intrigue of the upper class elderly seem like amusements compared to the stark reality of life in the Maud Long Ward, where the patients live in fear of being thrown out into the streets when winter comes. Although it would be a stretch to call Spark a novelist of social realism, the juxtaposition between the two plotlines presents an astute commentary on class tension. For example:

Two years ago, when [Jean] first came to the ward, she had longed for the private nursing home in Surrey about which there had been too much talk. Godfrey had made a fuss about the cost, he had expostulated in her presence, and had quoted a number their friends of the progressive set on the subject of the new free hospitals, how superior they were to the private affairs. Alec Warner had pointed out that these were days of transition, that a person of Jean Taylor’s intelligence and habits might perhaps not feel at home among the general aged of a hospital.

“If only,” he said, “because she is partly what we have made her, we should look after her.”

He had offered to bear half the cost of keeping Jean in Surrey. But Dame Lettie had finally put an end to these arguments by coming to Jean with a challenge, “Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours. You are entitled…” Miss Taylor had replied, “I prefer to go to hospital, certainly.” She had made her own arrangements and had left them with the daily argument still in progress concerning her disposal.

Social division does manage to creep into the novel’s primary storyline at times, particularly in the character of Mrs. Pettigrew. Take, for instance, this passage, which follows an eventful morning in the Colston house:

Mrs. Pettigrew went in search of Godfrey who was, however, out. She went by way of the front door round to the french windows, and through them. She saw that the doctor had left and Charmian was reading a book. She was filled with a furious envy at the thought that, if she herself were to take the vapours, there would not be any expensive doctor to come and give her a kind talk and an injection no doubt, and calm her down so that she could sit and read a book after turning the household upside down.

Yet, despite the book’s dark undercurrent of social unrest, there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in Spark’s prose. For a novel steeped in desperation, dementia, and death, Memento Mori is frequently funny. For example:

Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year, after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she still was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable.

It did not occur to Godfrey as he marched into a pew in the crematorium chapel that anyone else had been Lisa’s lover except himself. It did not even come to mind that he had been Lisa’s lover, for he had never been her lover in any part of England, only Spain and Belgium…”

Here’s another:

Sometimes, on first being received into her bed, the patient would be shocked and feel rather let down by being called Granny. Miss or Mrs. Reewes-Duncan threatened for a whole week to report anyone who called her Granny Duncan. She threatened to cut them out of her will and to write to her M.P. The nurses provided writing-paper and a pencil at her urgent request. However, she changed her mind about informing her M.P. when they promised not to call her Granny any more. “But,” she said, “you shall never go back into my will.”

“In the name of God that’s real awful of you,” said the ward sister as she bustled about. “I thought you was going to leave us all a packet.”

“Not now,” said Granny Duncan. “Not now, I won’t. You don’t catch me for a fool.”

Tough Granny Barnacle, she who had sold the evening paper for forty-eight years at Holborn Circus, and who always said “Actions speak louder than words, would send out to Woolworth’s for a will-form about once a week; this would occupy her for two or three days. She would ask the nurse how to spell words like “hundred” and “ermine.”

Here’s one more, from a conversation between Olive Mannering and her grandfather, Percy:

“I say Granpa, did you ever read any books by Charmian Piper?”

“Oh rather, we knew all her books. She was a fine-looking woman. You should have heard her read poetry from a platform in the days of Poetry. Harold Munro always said—”

“Her son, Eric, has told me there’s talk of her novels being reprinted. There’s a revival of interest in her novels. There’s been an article written, Eric says. But he says the novels all consist of people saying ‘touché’ to each other, and it’s all an affectation, the revival of interest, just because his mother is so old and still alive and was famous once.”

“She’s still famous. Always has been. Your trouble is, you know nothing, Olive. Everyone knows Charmian Piper.”

“Oh no they don’t. No ones heard of her except a few old people, but there’s going to be a revival. I say there’s been an article—”

“You know nothing about literature.”

“Touché” she snapped, for Percy himself was always pretending that nobody had forgotten his poetry, really. Then she gave him three pounds to make up for her cruelty, which in fact he had not noticed; he simply did not acknowledge the idea of revival in any case, since he did not recognise the interim death.

The renewed interest in Charmian’s novels is a relatively minor aspect of the novel, only referred to in a handful of scenes, but it’s a striking coincidence to read a reissued novel that addresses, if briefly, the literary revival of one of its characters. To be sure, Spark’s literary reputation is far more secure than Charmian’s (though Eric’s criticism may be influenced by jealousy—his own novel, concerning, in Godfrey’s summation, “a motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in a hotel with [a] communist librarian,” has failed to match the success Charmian’s work enjoyed). Indeed, at first it seems like Spark is setting Charmian up as a figure of fun, a stand-in for “popular” novelists.

Readers of literary fiction will find themselves laughing at Spark’s description of Charmian’s novel, The Seventh Child, a melodrama that Guy Leet recalls fondly to its author in a conversation toward the end of Memento Mori (“I love particularly that scene at the end with Edna in her mackintosh standing at the cliff’s edge on that Hebridean coast being drenched by the spray, and her hair blown about her face. And then turning to find Karl by her side. One thing about your lovers, Charmian, they never required any preliminary discussions. They simply looked at each other and knew.”). And Charmian notes that, when writing her novels, “the characters… seemed to take control of [the] pen after a while”—a sentiment it’s hard to imagine Spark would endorse.

But there is one important similarity between Charmian and her creator, and that’s a willingness to entertain the reader. After all, the plot of Memento Mori, with its mystery and intrigue, doesn’t sound too different from the sort of novel Charmian would have written. There’s a reason for this—one that, for Spark, exceeded literary preference.

In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, Alice Munro hit upon a succinct explanation for Spark’s willingness for her fiction to be so playful, so fun:

I’ve been reading Muriel Spark’s autobiography. She thinks, because she is a Christian, a Catholic, that God is the real author. And it behooves us not to try to take over that authority, not to try to write fiction that is about the meaning of life, that tries to grasp what only God can grasp. So one writes entertainments.

Now compare that with what Charmian says about her writing process during her conversation with Guy Leet:

“I used to say to myself, ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practise to deceive!’  because,” she said, “the art of fiction is very like the practise of deception.”

“And in life,” he said, “is the practise of deception in life an art too?”

“In life,” she said, “everything is different. Everything is in the Providence of God.”

And within the pages of a novel as good as Memento Mori, the reader is in the Providence of Spark—a figure perhaps slightly less divine, though worthy of veneration in her own right. With this latest effort by New Directions, she just may get it.

Muriel Spark possessed a talent for prose like almost no author before or since. Line for line, her writing—the quirks of diction, the bolts of wry wit—holds its own against the best the twentieth-century had to offer. The reader can put absolute faith in her sense of style. With every word she wrote, Spark knew exactly what she was doing. And that’s the highest compliment that can be paid any writer.

—John Stout

#

John Stout

John Stout received his MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

 

Leave a Reply