Memento Mori by Muriel Spark



I’ll always be grateful to Simon and Harriet for proposing and promoting Muriel Spark Reading Week. Because of the event I got the chance to read a fantastic, funny and invigorating novel. So, thanks, guys!

Memento Mori is set in London in the ’50’s and the plot centers around a group of elderly friends and rivals. They’re all in varying states of mental and physical health. Shortly after one of their group dies Dame Lettie begins to receive phone calls from a mysterious man who tells her ” Remember you must die”. Incensed and shocked at these morbid messages, she contacts the police and demands an investigation. Meanwhile, her brother Godfrey and his wife Charmian and being swindled out of their money by an unscrupulous housekeeper and Charmian’s ex-companion, Jean Taylor, valiantly suffers in a nursing home. Soon, most of the members reveal that they’ve received the same phone call that has so upset Dame Lettie. However, they can’t agree on just who is making the calls. For some it is a young man, others think it is a woman, some get calls from older people, some insist it is a child. Their reactions to this caller are also varied. Dame Lettie becomes obsessed, Godfrey becomes agitated, Charmian quietly ignores it, but it is Jean Taylor (who strangely doesn’t receive the calls) who really knows what is going on.

I love Spark because she makes fun of things that we’re not supposed to make fun of. In this novel it is death and mortality. The serious subject of this book would never lead you to believe that it is hilariously funny. Spark’s subtle, sneaky, deadly humor is a wicked treat. It is not the kind of humor that had me howling, but I did smirk and snort quite a few times.

Spark’s characters, though nearing the end of their earthly lives, like to think about death about as much as the rest of us do. Their lives continue just as they always have with their petty jealousies, bitter rivalries, romantic entanglements, money foibles and family clashes. They let past transgressions and feuds cloud the last years of their lives. One of the group, Alec Warner, even records his observations and opinions on the behavior of his ‘elderly’ colleagues, intensely interested in the way they react and behave almost as a way of warding off his own aged status.  When the mysterious phone calls invade the routine of their lives the characters simply refuse to believe it is a serious message, though deep down it unsettles them. Is Spark saying that we should live to the fullest without giving heed to thoughts of death or that we should always keep in mind that we will someday die? I think the answer falls somewhere in the middle – live it up while you can, but know that it won’t last forever. What do you think?

I was really impressed by this refreshingly mischievous novel and I am now a big fan of Muriel Spark. Are all of her novels this funny? If so, I will definitely be reading more. If you haven’t ever read Spark I highly recommend her writing. She is extraordinarily clever.


15 thoughts on “Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed it but I can’t say it’s my favourite. So far I’ve enjoyed reading The Girls of Slender Means the most. You never know what you’re going to get with Muriel Spark but I suppose that’s to be expected as her writing career was almost 50 years long. Of course – she was Scottish!


    1. I’m not surprised she was Scottish, Katrina – such a clever mind and unique sense of humor!
      I’d like to try The Girls of Slender Means and Loitering with Intent since I’ve heard mostly good things about both those titles.


  2. I’ve never read Muriel Spark, though she’s been on my “someday” list. It’s really interesting to see posts about so many books – each one sounds unique. And this one sounds really intriguing!


  3. This sounds very intriguing. I’ll have to check it out soon. I don’t know that we can live life to the fullest without first contemplating death, contradictory as that may seem!


  4. So glad you enjoyed your first experience with Spark! This is definitely a darkly amusing one – some are more intense or strange than funny, but I found Loitering With Intent (my favourite) very amusing – as well as bizarre!


  5. You will love “Loitering with Intent” as it is very funny. Thank you so much for this review of “Monento Mori.” I will definitely add this to my reading list. I enjoyed participating in the Muriel Spark reading week.


  6. I don’t think all her books can be this funny, because I read Robinson after Memento Mori, and it was a very different kind of book. I agree though that this one is delightful. And the phonecalls – there is a passage in the book where Henry Mortimer suggests that remembrance of death intensifies life, and that is how I read the message being delivered, as a reminder that life is temporary and therefore people should focus on what is important and forget the trivial. Her characters don’t seem to heed the advice though.


    1. No, they didn’t heed the advice at all! They were all so silly – great candidates for the phone calls.
      I think I’d be willing to try some of her novels that aren’t funny. I like her writing enough to read almost anything by her.


  7. Somehow I missed this post last week! I’m with you and will definitely be reading more of Spark’s work in the future. Memento Mori is one of the books included in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. Its description there never really appealed to me but your review makes it sound well worth a read. I’ll definitely be adding it to my To Read list.


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