|Scottish born writer Muriel Spark|
Memento Mori (1959)
by Muriel Spark
If nothing else, the 1001 Books project keeps me humble about my level of cultural knowledge and sophistication. Muriel Spark was a Scottish novelist, active in the 50s and beyond, who obtained a great deal of critical and commercial success in her lifetime, though falling short of winning either a Nobel Prize for Literature or a Booker Prize. Like The Prime of Miss Brodie, another novel she wrote that made it to the 1001 Books project uses the formal techniques of modernists to tell a bright and engaging story with a tightly wound plot mechanism.
Here, it is an anonymous caller who starts making calls to a circle of wealthy, older friends saying, "Remember you must die." Spark creates the expectation that the reader has begun a "who dun it" novel of suspense, but subverts that expectation while maintaining a level of tautness equivalent to that generated by the original expectation of the reader (that one is reading a mystery novel.) In fact, Memento Mori is a chance to revisit the familiar characters from English novels of the 30s and 40s in their dotage, like a Waugh novel or Mitford story with everyone is a resting home.
The anonymous caller triggers the story, but the reader is drawn into the lives of the elderly circle of friends and their various flaws and betrayals. In America, the most recent edition is a New Directions paperback, a sure sign that Memento Mori has a less than canonical status in the United States. In England, on the other hand, it is sometimes included on "top novels of the 20th century" type lists.
Memento Mori hasn't aged a bit, but for the odd reference here or there, it could have been written last year.