Rereading: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
'Memento Mori remains one of the great novels of the 1950s," Martin Stannard says in his excellent biography, Muriel Spark (2009), and indeed it does. But it was not a typical 50s novel, and it has not dated. Perhaps the only period-specific detail that would require annotation for younger readers is that cars parked in the streets at night in those days were obliged to have side and rear lights switched on. Formally the novel seems as fresh and original today as it did when it was first published, and thematically more relevant to the preoccupations and anxieties of the present century's first decade than to those of the 50s.
The novel is about death – in itself a timeless subject – but specifically about death as variously perceived, feared, denied, and anticipated by the elderly. As medical treatment and technology continue to improve, especially in affluent developed countries, death is postponed longer and longer for more and more people, but this is a mixed blessing. We have to live longer with all the indignities and afflictions of old age, from incontinence to Alzheimer's, while we await the inevitable end, about which our secular materialistic society has nothing comforting to say. It is not surprising that a considerable number of novels and plays in the last decade or so have dealt with this subject matter – I have written one myself – but in the 50s it was an unusual choice for a youngish novelist at the beginning of her career.
I say "youngish" because Spark was 41 when Memento Mori was published in 1959. She was a relatively late starter as a writer of fiction, having pursued a little-noticed career as poet, critic and editor before she wrote her first novel The Comforters (1957), after experiencing a nervous breakdown and conversion to the Roman Catholic church. The four novels that followed in quick succession, Robinson (1958), Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), and The Bachelors (1960) established her as a distinctive new voice in contemporary fiction. The next one, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1962), made her a star in the literary firmament, but Memento Mori was her first masterpiece.