Saturday, March 31, 2012

Faith and Fiction Round Table Discussion of Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase which means "remember your mortality" or "remember you must die" It would seem that a group of characters in their seventies and eighties would be the most likely to remember this, but as a series of phone calls starts making their away around a group of acquaintances, it strikes fear and dread in their hearts.

Memento Mori is a kind of strange little book in that it does revolve around a group of older characters and how their lives intertwine and how much their past affects where they are now and how they are all facing death. When they receive these phone calls, the caller says nothing but "Remember you must die" but each recipient hears the voice differently. Some hear a sinister voice, while others hear a pleasant voice, or the voice of a poet. It can be assumed, I guess then, that the voice they hear reflects on how they see death--as something awful, or something of dignity, or something that will at least free them.

Dame Lettie's bore out in the most obvious way throughout the book. She was the first to receive the phone calls and she heard the voice as very sinister. She enlisted the help of the police, and then a private investigator but when they failed to come up with any answers about who was making the calls, she grew more and more frightened and paranoid. She cut off her phone service. She would hear voices in the night and go investigate. All of these things left her very vulnerable to death itself and it came in the form of an armed robbery and brutal murder. It's easy to see what Sparks was doing here...her fear of death and avoidance of the reality of it made it's arrival harsh and frightening.

I have to admit in some ways the topic of death is uncomfortable for me. I sometimes wonder if it's not a result of my evangelical upbringing where we are taught that once we've accepted Jesus we have nothing to fear from death, but that doesn't actually erase the reality of death it just becomes...less talked about? But also I think it's just that it's death and you don't know when it will happen or how only that it will. It's the biggest unknown of all life's unknowns.

As a group they go to Inspector Mortimer and he tells them, "Now, one factor is constant in all your reports. The words, 'Remember you must die.' It is you know, an excellent thing to remember this, for it is nothing more than the truth. To remember one's death, is in short, a way of life." This is perhaps the wisest thing anyone says in the book and there are characters that reassure the caller they have not forgotten their deaths.

But even at this late stage of life, life isn't over for these characters. They still make new friends and have wells of deep compassion within them. They are forced at times to deal with lifelong issues they've had as secrets are uncovered. They are still alive, evolving, loving, changing. Even as the body ages, it's kind of easy to understand why one doesn't want to think of death when you are still alive.

I want to mention just a few more things about this book. I was surprised by how charming it was, how witty and engaging. I really liked the character of Charmian and how the minute she knew she was being bullied she fought back and it improved her mental health. (and how Dame Lettie knew this would happen!) but also how as a novelist she'd spin deeper meaning out of the facts of people's lives than they would themselves. I also enjoyed Alec Warner's character and how he recorded and observed everything as if that gave his life meaning, but I really liked how he's tell his interviewees, I may know this person, but not the way you know them, because it's true we all hold different parts of each other. I just found the book to be unexpectedly delightful.

Which makes it, as a book about death, a success I suppose.

Questions for you!

1) What did you think of the various different ways the characters heard the voice on the other end of the line?
2) What did you make of Olive and their attachment to her?
3) How do you feel about the topic of death and remembering you must die?

Please share your thoughts and if you blogged about the book as well, drop your link in comments!


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