Henry Mortimer said: "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. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs."
Memento Mori, if it had not been for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, would probably be now remembered as Muriel Spark's most significant novel. It continues to make itself available to contrarians who would call it, contra Brodie, her masterpiece, and indeed it possesses a kind of fullness, or richness, that her non-Brodie books often seem to lack.
The cast is unwieldy, a panoply of eldlerly figures coming to terms with the end of their lives. All are curmudgeonly, and some downright senile:
"I have quite decided to be cremated when my time comes," said Godfrey. "It is the cleanest way. The cemeteries only pollute our water supplies. Cremation is best."
"I do so agree with you," said Charmian sleepily.
"No, you do not agree with me," he said. "R.C.'s are not allowed to be cremated."
"I mean, I'm sure you are right, Eric dear."
"I am not Eric," said Godfrey.
One by one, each of them begin to receive anonymous phone calls that tell them, "Remember that you must die." This is the memento mori of the title--an allusion to the lone figure that, when a Roman emperor or general would receive a triumph, or victory parade, through the heart of the city, would lag behind him whispering a humbling reminder of his mortality. In Rome it was a check against the ambitions of the powerful, but these characters have only delusions of power, and age and death--by means of spurious wills--threaten to bring masters on equal footing with their servants. No emperors can be found here.
Instead, these phone calls ought to be a warning against pettiness and unscrupulousness: Your last days are a time to make things right. But the old folks of Memento Mori are obstinate, and cling to old jealousies, ancient affairs, bizarre sexual perversions, and insidious blackmail. They obsess over the identity of the caller--who, it is suggested, may have supernatural origins--but only rarely do they ever stop and consider the implications of the caller's message.
Spark was 41 when she wrote Memento Mori, which you might call novelist-young. She persisted, according to Stannard's biography, quite crankily into her late eighties. One wonders, when faced especially with the character of Eric--the spoiled, untrustworthy son of Charmian, a once-successful novelist--whether the novel is something of a vision of Spark's own convalescence. As it is, Spark never mended her own broken relationship with her son Robin, and in the late stage of her life they came very much to resemble Eric and Charmian.
Is the title of the book, in Spark's case, advice unheeded? The characters that deal most positively with the anonymous calls are the ones who are most religious (like Charmian, when her senility wanes), and as such Memento Mori is presented as a defense of Spark's mid-life conversion. But if we can grant Spark some measure of clairvoyance--or perhaps, acknowledging her persistent obsession with control both in life and literature, a considerable measure of self-determinism--it comes also to a recognition of the difficulty of truly setting one's mind on last things.