Tag Archives: Muriel Spark

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

So how would you respond to being told to remember that you must die? With anger, acceptance, agreement, curiosity about the speaker, avoidance, denial? The characters in Memento Mori by Muriel Spark react in ways that illuminate their lives and characters. They each receive a phone call. A voice merely says

Remember you must die.

With her sharp wit, sparkling style and genial good humour Muriel Spark leads us through the final months of her many characters, drawing less attention to the mystery of who makes the calls and becoming more concerned with their reactions to the calls.

This is my first contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. I look forward to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s in and around London, the story concerns a connected group of older people. Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, says the caller must be a maniac. He is fairly detached about it until he receives his own call. His wife Charmian, a novelist, accepts the reminder. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas and inheritances, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now a resident of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as Grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifesdtations of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going.

The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen … (185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do. We are reminded of this in the final pages, which list the fate of them all.

Muriel Spark

This was Muriel Spark’s third novel of the 22 she wrote. Her novels are very readable, mostly fairly short and written in a sharp style, but with depth. The focus of this novel could not be clearer, yet it is not preachy. We must acknowledge that we will die, not live as we did in our youth, when we could afford to image an endless future. Or go on holiday.

In a recent essay on her work in the Guardian Review Ali Smith quotes Muriel Spark and explains her wide reach and appeal.

Above all: “It is my first aim always to give pleasure.” This is how she described her raison d’etre as a writer, and to me she is one of the 20th-century writers most vitally, joyfully, seriously philosophically, aesthetically and politically engaged with the living materials of history, and with her own time, in a way that gives back to our time, and that will always give to readers no matter what time they’re embroiled in, whenever they read her.

Ali Smith also quotes her poem Author’s Ghosts, in which the ghosts creep back to update their texts. This is to notice that some books remain relevant. And Muriel Spark’s books have something important to say in our time, even if written more than 50 years ago, as Memento Mori. While we may live longer, on the whole, we see less of death in everyday life and we should all remember we will die.

I recently was given a copy of Jacob’s Room is full of Books by Susan Hill. She too admired Muriel Spark and makes several references to her style. Here’s an example of her wit, observation and lightness of touch from this novel. She is reporting the conversation of the Grannies in Miss Taylor’s ward and inserts this little grenade.

Mrs Reewes-Duncan, who claimed to have lived in a bungalow in former days, addressed Miss Valvona. (36)

I notice that both Ali Smith and Susan Hill are rereaders and this was my second reading of Memento Mori. I have mostly avoided rereading on the grounds that there is so much new to fill my reading hours, and I didn’t want to miss it. But now I am thinking that I don’t want to miss the pleasures that come with rereading. Expect more.

#ReadingMuriel2018

For March/April in this readalong I can choose between The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate. I have copies of both. One would be a reread the other a first look. Now which to choose?

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I reread the Virago version. 226pp

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Photo Credit: Muriel Spark: thomas ford memorial library on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

 

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Bookword’s top ten stories of women’s old age

When Paul Bailey, novelist, compiled his list of Top Ten Stories of Old Age for the Guardian in February 2011 he mentioned only two by women writers: ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ a short story by Alice Munro and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – at 3rd and 4th place respectively. Where were the women writing about older women? There is an irony in this list, which I will reveal later.

Bookword’s top ten stories

There are plenty of strong, bold, feisty and resolute older women in fiction, mostly created by women writers. Some of these older women hate the idea of dying, some live as they always have, some take on new challenges, some are brilliant and some are ill or suffer with dementia. Here’s Bookword’s list of top ten stories of older women, (with links) in an order that reflects reading of the blog series (see below). It includes one male author.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity.25 Stone Angel
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a Canadian novelist, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her.
  3. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. On her death bed, Claudia Hampton resists the infantalising aspects of hospital care and reveals that she has always been a feisty woman. As an old woman she is all the women she has ever been.117 All passion cover
  4. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West tells the story of Lady Slane released into widowhood after many years of being married to a great man. She blossoms with new friendships and independent decision-making.
  5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, this novel is about a grandmother and granddaughter and it reveals another strong older woman, with the full range of emotions and much wisdom. She is the kind of grandmother who has wisdom without being a Mrs Pepperpot.

    Dorothy Whipple

    Dorothy Whipple

  6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple is another grandmother/ granddaughter story, set in a northern town in the early 20th century. The novel reveals the strength of the old woman in family relationships.
  7. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.164 cover S Riding
  8. South Riding by Winifred Holtby features several strong characters, including Mrs Beadows, an alderwoman, who provides compassionate service on the council to her impoverished inter-war Yorkshire community.
  9. A Reckoning by May Sarton focuses on Laura Spelman’s attempts to meet death on her own terms. Strictly speaking the heroine did not meet my criteria, being only 60, but the story is an interesting one, and the main character faces the end of her life with determination to do it her way.
  10. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. 151 E missiing cover 3

Fiction about older women

I strongly believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people. Fiction allows us to enter other worlds and lives which we might not otherwise experience.

The series reviewing older women in fiction on this blog began after I attended a course about growing older. All the examples from literature we were given related to men: Odysseus, King Lear, Prospero, some poetry including, of course, Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle. Where, I wondered, were the older women? I began seeking out and reviewing fiction about older women for Bookword. To date there have been 16 reviews and there is a fine list of nearly 50 titles of fiction relating to older women compiled with the help of readers. Add to the list!

A note of an irony

The irony of Paul Bailey’s article is this. In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor Mrs Palfrey makes friends with a young novelist, Ludo, who undertakes to act the part of her nephew in the Claremont Hotel. In his introduction to this novel Paul Bailey reveals that Elizabeth Taylor met him and based some of Ludo’s circumstances on his life.

Which book would you have placed in the top ten stories of women ageing? Is it even included in the Bookword list? Please add your comments.

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Rereading books

Do you reread books? My lovely friend Eileen suggested this topic was a good one for Bookword blog. I thought she was right and with a little arm-twisting she agreed to contribute this post. We benefit from her research skills and her colourful use of pseudonyms. And she has referred to lots of great books – read or reread them!

Eileen writes about rereading books

Ladder of Years, by my favourite author Anne Tyler, was serialized on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and I thought ‘I must reread that’. I have read all her books, some more than once, and The Accidental Tourist many times. Do you have a favourite author or book that you come back to again and again? I wondered if other people are similarly addicted so I asked Caroline if she would write a blog about it. She replied ‘Why don’t you!’ (Note to self: Be careful what you ask for.)

177 Therese R coverThe book I read compulsively is Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. I first read it when I was 20, found myself reading it again at 30, and then kept going. You probably know the story – two lovers plagued by guilt – gripping stuff!

My next most often reread book is To kill a Mockingbird – such fantastic story telling and powerful themes. I’m not keen on stories from a child’s perspective but this one’s amazing. Have you seen the film adaptation staring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? Fabulous.

177 Atticus FinchI also admit to rereading: Madame Bovary, Cold Comfort Farm, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd – well anything by Hardy. And I’m planning to read H is for Hawk again soon. It’s such an exquisitely written book. Do read it if you haven’t.

In order to understand my predilection for rereading I asked 12 of my friends to consider the novels they have reread, why they do it and what they gain. I loved their enthusiastic responses and reminders of some excellent stuff.

You might want to consider your own responses before reading on? If so, Dear Reader, look away now!

The Survey results

It turns out that none of my friends reread books as often as me. Indigo was a bit indignant: ‘I have never reread a book. I don’t have the time and there are so many other books I want to read’. Would that be your reaction? About six of my 12 buddies agreed to some extent including Marigold: ‘I always feel I don’t read enough and feel like I’m wasting time if each read isn’t new’. But she often rereads poetry and short stories such as those by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark and Ali Smith. And she added: ‘I have reread The Summer Book a good few times – I find it subtle, delightful and fresh each time’.116ToveJanssonSignature

Violet told me she has only ever reread one book. If you were going to pick just one which one would it be? For Violet it was Pride and Prejudice, which she would happily read again:

I read it once at school as a set text with no appreciation, watched the various films and then reread it a couple of years ago. That brought both enjoyment and a deeper appreciation of Jane Austen’s craft. The opening sentence is a total triumph and she manages to maintain her skill throughout the book.

She surprised me by saying that when she has greatly enjoyed a book she rarely reads a second one by the same author: ‘… that may seem odd. Perhaps I feel it sets the bar too high’.

The prospect of disappointment was also on Carmine’s mind: ‘If I really enjoyed something, I don’t want to read it again in case I don’t enjoy it as much’. Magenta agrees especially after her experience of rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet:

I picked up the first book, Justine, and it seemed so dated.  I am definitely not the 18 year old that read it in the 1960s. It just didn’t speak to me as it had done. I did not finish the first volume never mind the four. I would rather leave the good memories.

People of a certain age, like me and my mates, like to reread to gain new perspectives on books read in their youth. Carmine spoke about this in her reply saying there was bound to be things she’d missed in the first reading. The example she gave was I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. Yes, I agree. That is worth another look.

Ebony loved reading the following eclectic mix in her teens: Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in Venice and On the Road. These had made a real impression and she wondered if they still would.

Rereading them reminded me of ways of thinking and of expressing ideas that struck a chord. These books shaped my thinking and I was curious to see if I still thought they were relevant and inspiring. They were, which was reassuring.

Blanche reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for a similar reason. When she first read it in 1978 she found there was much that related to her feelings: ‘Rereading was a different experience as I was not identifying with the character and so appreciated it in a new way’. Sapphire mentioned the need to reread a book straight away in order to grasp its meaning: ‘As soon as I finished The Sound and the Fury I reread it. I understood it the second time!’

Exploring far off countries and cultures was important. Jade had reread three particular books that gave her insights into places she liked or wanted to visit – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Cache Lake Country by John Rowlands and Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Ruby spoke about her passion for Barbara Kingsolver’s books, rereading to psych herself up for travelling. I savoured her reply:177 poisonwood B

I bought and read The Poisonwood Bible voraciously when it was first published in Blog.doc paperback in 1999, because I’m a big fan and am always impatient for her next book. I reread it before my trip to Mali in 2007, to get me in the mood for Africa. (OK, so Mali is in West Africa and The Congo is in Central Africa, but there are commonalities: we’d be travelling by pinasse on the Niger River, the women wear similar combinations of brightly coloured cottons as body and head wraps, carry their babies on their backs, sell similar goods in the markets, etc. Both countries struggle with poverty and instability.) More recently, I read it for the third time just prior to seeing Barbara Kingsolver discussing the book with John Mullan, and I now have my copy signed! It’s not an enjoyable reread but I valued and savoured it more.

And for those who write themselves there is another purpose for rereading. I was intrigued by Marigold’s comments about The Accidental Tourist. She saw somewhere that it’s the perfect structure for a novel: ‘I started reading it with an eye on the structure and just ended up enjoying the minutiae’. Caroline’s research for her blog inspires her to reread. Her recent posts include: What Katy Did, Brighton Rock, A Passage to India and Love, Again. Another writer, Sapphire, says she studies high quality novels in great detail, reexamining each paragraph and sentence to appreciate good construction.

177 I capturedLoving the style, or the lifestyle depicted in particular books came up. Scarlet said she had reread Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Memoirs of a Geisha. She likes both because they’re visceral and experiential and she becomes completely immersed. And Jade said she had reread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith as she loved the lifestyle portrayed.

If you belong to a book club you might reread novels to prepare for the discussion as Caroline, Blanche and Magenta do. Caroline has recently reread The Awakening by Kate Chopin because someone mentioned it in a book group and so she wanted to look closely at that again. She returns to a book in order to read more carefully rather than relying on memory. She reads so much and so quickly that she doesn’t keep the story in her head for long. Blanche enjoys being a member of a book club to get her rereading. She still sees novels as a holiday luxury, despite retirement, filling her life with ‘doing’ things. Recognise that pattern? I do.

And, of course, new technology has an influence. Magenta says she now mainly reads on a Kindle and has a tendency to read quickly, almost skimming the book:

I don’t take it in fully on the first reading, so I often read a second time and then get a lot more out of it. I do that particularly with books that we are going to discuss in our book group. So that is a very pragmatic use of rereading that is done immediately rather than after a long gap.

Comfort reading – ah yes! Carmine said: ‘Another reason is to be taken to a place I know is OK and comfortable, when I don’t want to be challenged, like reading Alexander McCall’s books when I want something interesting but light’. And ‘for therapy’ Caroline reads Pride and Prejudice and Catch-22.

Last was rereading by mistake – starting a novel and then remembering it had been read before.

So, do you ever reread books?

  • to be intellectually stimulated – to gain new perspectives or insights or shape your thinking
  • for emotional reasons – to immerse yourself in the warmth of the familiar, the joy of meeting old friends or the feeling a character, style or place can inspire
  • to develop your own creative skills – to study the beauty of the language, structure and plot for ideas for your own writing …
  • … or do you think rereading is a complete waste of time. Do let us know.

 

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Memento Mori and Night Waking: two short reviews

Who would have thought that moving house, specifically unpacking cardboard boxes, could consume so much time? It is time I would rather have spent on writing, including writing for the blog. Today I am posting two short reviews. They are not connected, except in being books I have read recently, although both treat quite dark themes with a strong leavening of humour. The first can be linked to my theme of novels with strong older women characters. The older male characters are strongly drawn as well.

52 Mem Mori

Muriel Spark Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre, but is quite redeemed by its comedy. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s, the story concerns a connected group of older people.

Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, (owner of the Colston works) is concerned for her, until he receives his own calls and then his concern is all for himself. His wife Charmian, a novelist, quite accepts the reminder when she receives it. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now an inhabitant of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (p179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Everyone is at the mercy of the physical expressions of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going. ‘The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen …’ (p185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do.

Lively, merry, harsh. Look on death or it will visit you. Or go away for a holiday.

David Lodge (no relation) reviewed Memento Mori recently in the Guardian. He said, ‘it is a wonderfully funny and exhilarating read’.

52 Night W

Sarah Moss Night Waking

The second novel was published in 2011 and recommended to me by my friend Marianne. As the title suggests the tensions in it come from the lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Those who care for young children will know of their deadening demand for repetition. In this novel it is The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson’s wonderful tale of a clever mouse’s adventures. Sarah Moss manages to convey the tedium of repetition without spoiling the original.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads Anna to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman in Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

By the end of the novel Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. She has helped a family who have come as trial guests to the holiday home on the island and decided that her older son needs a little help with his rather bizarre fixation on death and catastrophe.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. Nicely observed and with an interesting setting and good bit of historical research wound in.

The Guardian Review of this book can be found here.

Both were very good reads.

The next post will be the Readalong: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen.

 

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What shall I do with the drunken story?

My short story is drunk and I don’t know what to do with it. Back when I merely dabbled in writing, I believed that my first version was it – a polished version straight off. Nowadays I have moved far, far away from this. I find it hard to stop editing. I usually tell myself to stop when I find myself checking the commas. But between the first version and that final comma, that’s where my problems lie.

It’s in its first draft this story. It is a kind of drunken version of what I imagined. Sober characters lurch about in the 2000 words, horizons shift with each paragraph, and people in the background are too loud.

I have five weeks to fix it. To start with, I could put it in the drawer with my novel (see previous post). Just for a week. But if I do that I think my novel would be so disgusted it would climb out and I wouldn’t see it again. I think I need to have a go at the draft and sort it out.

Can I get it to stand upright, or in other words, is there a story here?

There is a good strong idea, which also happens to have a good image at the core of the story. I have a narrative, but it feels choppy. So I need to check this: narrative + good idea = story?

To fix the narrative I could apply the famous eight point story arc. But I’d get squiffy thinking about stasis, trigger, quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal and resolution. In fact I could use many of the 2000 words just arcing the thing.

I prefer to use the fairy story spine. You know, once upon a time there was a young woman called Tilly, who had lived with her aunt and uncle since her mother was killed in the Blitz. One day Tilly meets Henry and falls in love … So far so good. Because of that … Something a little bad needs to happen. It does. Then something really bad happens. It does. Until finally … And then Tilly finds she has obtained more than she expected but not what she originally wanted and she’s the better for it. They all live happily ever after (except Henry). I found the story spine idea in Jurgen Wolff’s useful book Your Writing Coach on p95.

I need to know Tilly a little better. It’s her story. I like to use character questionnaires to find out all those things that help imagine the character: big things like how old she is, the colour of her eyes, and little things like, what does she always have with her? And what gesture does she use? It helps that I like Tilly. I could use Jenny Alexander’s five points suggested on her blog Writing in the House of Dreams: name, appearance, something they love, and hate, a special object. What does this character keep in their pocket, a suggestion in a comment.

And I need to do the same with Henry. I’m not so keen on Henry. But he deserves to be authentic and full-bodied, all the same.

And I need to do a little more research on that period immediately after World War II. That wont be a hardship as I love researching, and that period is of great interest to me. I’ve just reread The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark, and noticed that she locates her short novel very precisely between VE and VJ Days. I need bomb damage and shortages and – you’ve heard this word recently – austerity. I must check out the details.

camay

And then I can start on the adverbs, adjectives, nouns and verbs, in a close edit. I found the ideas of Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages, very helpful in this respect. After all, a short story is the first five pages.

OK, the story feels a little less drunk. Now what next?

Well, of course, I could go and pour myself a drink and get going.

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