Archive for October, 2010

Muriel Spark (1959) – Memento Mori

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Of the three epigraphs at the head of Muriel Spark’s (1959) Memento Mori, the first two provide alternative views of old age: “this caricature, Decrepit age”  and “venerable and reverend.”[1]  The third, listing the four last things, death, judgment, hell, and heaven, is echoed in the final sentence of the book telling us that Jean Taylor “lingered for a time … meditating sometimes … upon Death, the first of the Four Last Things.”  Interestingly, when I was six years old and memorizing the catechism, the order of the final two was reversed: heaven was named before hell.  I’m sure there are theologians who dispute the correct order, but since heaven and hell are alternatives rather than sequential, I don’t see that the order of naming amounts to anything.

Memento Mori is itself a meditation on the first two of the Four Last Things, an exploration of how an imagined collection of characters deal with them.  The remembrance of Death is the call to action.  When your time is running short, if you are going to do something, you had better do it now because there may not be a later.  The remembrance of Judgment suggests the goal that should inform the action.  One must put one’s house in order.  The final two represent the denouement: the carrot and the stick (or is it the stick and the carrot?).

Principal among the activities of the characters are avoidance, guilt, and the making of wills.  Spark initially tells us, with gentle humor, of the “Grannies” in the “Maud Long Medical Ward (aged people, female),” their will-making and remaking, and the reactions of the ward staff.  Granny Duncan, annoyed at being called Granny threatens to write to her M.P., but changes her mind when they promise to stop calling her Granny.

“But,” she said, “you shall never go back in my will.”

“In the name of God that’s real awful of you,” said the ward sister as she bustled about, “I thought you was going to leave us all a packet.” (p.16)

 And Granny Barnacle

would send out to Woolworth’s for a will-from about once a week; this would occupy her for two or three days.  She would ask the nurse how to spell words like “hundred” and “ermine.” (p.16)

But it is not just the patients in the public ward who are busily writing people into and out of their wills.  We learn that Lisa Brooke, who dies before we get to meet her, had changed her will a year earlier.  “It was a mere sheet of paper, witnessed by the charwoman and her daughter”, cutting out all of her relatives and bequeathing all of her fortune “to my husband if he survives me, and thereafter to my housekeeper, Mabel Pettigrew.” (p.34)  And tubby Dame Lettie has made twenty-two different wills over the past forty years.  Maybe there is a Fifth Last Thing, which is the Kvetching of the Disinherited, the prospect of which is a strong motivator to people whose ability to affect the course of events has been reduced to will-making.

Spark has a novel take on guilt.  The reader first encounters it when Mrs. Pettigrew—who tries to keep herself from mixing it up with those whom she regards as inferiors, but never succeeds—is “overwhelmed … with that sense of having done a foolish thing against one’s interests, which in some people stands for guilt.”  My first thought was that this is a truly odd concept of guilt, but on further reading, other characters seem to share it.  I think of guilt pretty much as it is defined by The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48: “A feeling of regret or remorse for having committed some improper act; a recognition of one’s own responsibility for doing something wrong.”  What is missing among Spark’s characters is the sense of having done something wrong.  Regret and remorse we see, but I wouldn’t call it guilt.

Charmian frets about her husband Godfrey.  Her friend and former lover Guy Leet observes

“I perceive you have a slight sense of guilt concerning [Godfrey].”

“Guilt?  Oh, no, Guy.  As I was saying, I feel unusually innocent in this place.”

“Sometimes… a sense of guilt takes a self-righteous turn.  I see no cause for you to feel either in the right or in the wrong where Godfrey’s concerned.”

Still, the feeling gives rise to a desire and often an action to remedy the consequences of the original behavior, so the absence of a sense of having done wrong doesn’t actually seem necessary to achieve the ends, vis-à-vis others, that guilt is supposed to accomplish. 

Mrs. Pettigrew is a satisfying villain whose malicious reach often exceeds her grasp and Spark has a lot of fun with her.  Precisely because Mrs. Pettigrew has a reputation for being bossy and manipulative, she is hired to look after Charmian in a sort of passive-aggressive conspiracy between Dame Lettie and her brother, Charmian’s husband, Godfrey.  When Mrs. Pettigrew arrives at the Colstons’, Spark tells us, “Mrs. Anthony [the current cook and caregiver] knew instinctively that Mrs. Pettigrew was a kindly woman.  Her instinct was wrong.” (p.54)  

After a minor contretemps between Charmian and Mrs. Petigrew over whether Charmian has taken her pills, the doctor calms Charmian, saying that it won’t do any harm to miss a dose or to take an extra dose.  Afterwards, Mrs. Pettigrew, “was filled with a furious envy at the thought that, if she herself were to take the vapours, there would not be any expensive doctor to come and give her a kind talk and injection no doubt, and calm her down so that she could sit and read a book after turning the household upside down.”

Mrs. Pettigrew, having had keys made for the various locked drawers in the Colson household, comes into possession of evidence of Godfrey’s infidelities to Charmian and sets in motion a plan to blackmail Godfrey to write Mrs. Pettigrew into his will.  “Mabel Pettigrew thought: I can read him like a book.  She had not read a book for over forty years, could never concentrate on reading, but this nevertheless was her thought.” (p.159)

Jean Taylor, learning from Alec Warner of Mrs. Pettigrew’s machinations, decides to intervene.  Reasoning that Godfrey is open to blackmail because he fears the humiliation it will cause him if Charmian learns of his affairs—as Taylor puts it, Godfrey is “morally afraid of Charmian” (p.175)—Taylor instructs Alec to tell Godfrey about Charmian’s affairs over the years 1902-1907.  Alec objects that Jean will be betraying Charmian.

 “Charmian will be shocked.  She trusts you.” …

“There is a time for loyalty and a time when loyalty comes to an end.  Charmian should know that by now….  Tell [Godfrey] from me he has nothing to fear from Mrs. Pettigrew.  Poor old man.”  (pp.176-7)

That is, adherence to the letter of the principle on principle is not enough; one must look at the bigger picture. Jean is the moral center of the book.  Consigned to the Maud Long Medical Ward, suffering intense arthritic pain, she maintains a balanced and compassionate outlook throughout and manages as best she can to intervene as her conscience directs.

Eric Colston, Charmian and Godfrey’s son, learns that Mrs. Pettigrew is blackmailing his father and rushes to join forces with her.  Eric does not have a large role in the novel, but what he has is “cherce” (as Ralph Kramden would say).  Eric is resentful of his mother’s literary success and has managed to estrange himself from both his father and his mother.  Nevertheless, Charmian has been sending him money all along.

“I do not like to say these things, and of course Eric was a disappointment, but I can’t help feeling that Godfrey’s attitude—“

“Eric,” said Guy, “is a man of fifty-five.”

“Fifty-seven,” said Charmian….

“Fifty-seven,” said Guy.  “And he has had time to acquire a sense of responsibility.” (p.189)


“Eric has no charity,” she said.

“well, perhaps it is just that he is middle-aged.  The really young are so much pleasanter,” said Guy.  (p.190)

By way of explanation of Eric’s character, Spark tells us that when he was young his family attributed his (apparently obvious) faults to an upbringing that was generally agreed to be too lenient and at the same time generally agreed to be too strict.  The real key to understanding Eric is that

Eric was amazed when his elders eventually stopped blaming themselves for his condition.  He thought them hypocritical and callous to go back on their words.  He longed for them to start discussing him again in the old vein; but by the time he was thirty-seven they had said quite bitter things to him. (p.201)

Eric can’t do anything to his own satisfaction (although he has managed to publish a novel), and his combination with Mrs. Pettigrew fares no better when Taylor’s anti-blackmail information reaches Godfrey, who tells both of them in no uncertain terms to get out of the house.

Mrs. Pettigrew’s ambitions and dreams are dashed when it turns out that the husband named in Lisa Brooke’s will, whom nobody had ever heard of, turns out to be alive albeit in a mental institution.  So Mrs. Pettigrew gets nothing.  Ironic justice.  The husband dies shortly thereafter and Mrs. Pettigrew inherits after all.  Ironic injustice.  Mrs. Pettigrew has a stroke and goes to live in a hotel at South Kensington, “where she can still be seen in the evening jostling for a place by the door of the hotel lounge before the dinner gong sounds.”  Reading between the lines, one would say she worries lest she be seated at a table whose location proclaims a social status below that which she obsessively arrogates to herself.  Villainy reduced to banality by irony.

As Jean Taylor is the moral center of Memento Mori, Death is its motivating core.  It is a wonderful conceit.  Death takes advantage of technology to convey his message.  In an updated version, Death would send text messages.  Death is always him, notwithstanding that his calls to Inspector Mortimer are always from “this woman, gentle-spoken and respectful” (p.156)

For more than half of the text, the only calls we know of are those made to Dame Lettie Colston, but then Godfrey gets a call (p.121).  Seven pages later, Charmian gets a call to which she replies

“My memory is failing in certain respects.  I am gone eighty-six.  But somehow I do not forget my death, whenever that may be.”

“Delighted to hear it,” he said.  Goodbye for now.” (p.128)

Ten pages later, Alec gets a call.  And by the time the investigation brings the people complaining about the calls together at Inspector Mortimer’s, everyone over the age of seventy has received a call (although Mrs. Pettigrew on principle—what the principle would be, she would be unable to articulate—does not acknowledge that she has been called.).  Inspector Mortimer opines that “the offender is Death himself.” (p.144)  Later, Jean Taylor, unaware of Mortimer’s suggestion, says, “In my belief, the author of the anonymous calls is Death himself, as you might say.” (p.179)  By this time, the reader is willing to accept this as fact.

Guy Leet, asked if the calls worry him, replies, “Me?  No.  I don’t mind a bit of fun….  Personally, I tell the young fellow to go to hell.”  So, different folks have different reactions, which is, of course Spark’s point.



There are eighteen characters (aside from the minor Grannies) it is informative to list them, their ages, and their status at the end of the book.

Matt O’Brien ? Deceased
Alec Warner 79 Alive
Mabel Pettigrew 73 Alive
Mrs. Anthony 70 Alive
Lisa Brooke 73 Deceased
Jean Taylor 82 Deceased
Eric Colston 56 Alive
Charmian Colston 87 Deceased
Godfrey Colston 87 Deceased
Dame Lettie Colston 81 Deceased
Guy Leet 78 Deceased
Tempest Sidebottome ? Deceased
Janet Sidebottome 77 Deceased
Ronald Sidebottome 79 Deceased
Percy Mannering 80 Alive
Olive Mannering 24 Alive
Inspector Mortimer 73 Deceased
Emmeline Mortimer 74 Alive

[1] The book has “reverent” in place of “reverend.”  From everything I can find, it is the book that is incorrect.

On Literature, Baba Segi, and Major Pettigrew

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010


Book group leader Jacqueline sent me the tail end of an email exchange she was having with another book group member about Jonathan Franzen’s recent book Freedom.  Jacqueline was less than enthusiastic.  I had heard the buzz about Freedom but I didn’t know anything about it.  Still don’t.  I looked at David Brooks’ 20 Sep 2010 op-ed piece and, setting aside whether anything he said about the book is accurate (which, I took from Jacqueline’s reaction and his adduced support of B. R. Meyers’ October 2010 Atlantic article, it is), I find myself in agreement that an important, larger issue is whether institutionalized pessimism is now a sine qua non of literary lionization.  Too often, it seems, if it ain’t empty or depressing, it ain’t literature.  Tolstoy’s oft-cited declaration that “Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is rhetorically satisfying, but one must not confuse rhetorical felicity with truth.

Even if Tolstoy were right, is Schadenfreude really the best and highest purpose of art and literature?  Is the purpose of literature to encourage the reader in the attitude of Luke’s (18:11) Pharisee who thanked God he was not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like the unhappy family in Anna Karenina or the disaffected characters in Freedom?  I think not.  Art at its best allows us to glimpse, through the eyes of the artist, that which is good in human nature—in ourselves and in others.  Not that authors should aspire to be Pollyannas or Panglosses.  On the contrary.  Sometimes a gem is best appreciated in its contrast to a bleak, black background.

I think, for example, of the two noir-ish mystery series I have recently read–Sieg Larsson’s The Girl with / who … trilogy and John Burdett’s Bangkok books.  Both propose a world that is corrupt and threatening, yes; but they offer the serious consolation that there can be–no, there are–good people to be found; that decency exists; that friendship (and even love) are safe havens that we can and must fight to protect and expand.  This is more than a formulaic Misery with a Happy Ending plot.

Notice that Hollywood is of two minds on this issue.  Sometimes a film is re-shot or re-cut when audience reactions in preview showings suggest that a bleak and hopeless ending may encourage audiences to stay away in droves.  When this happens, there is often juicy byplay about how soulless Hollywood moguls are destroying the artistic integrity of the director.  But tacking an upbeat ending onto an essentially downer plot is a desperation move, not a serious response when the question the rest of the work poses is “Why go on living at all?”

Tragedy as a form seems to work (when it succeeds) because the audience understands the wrong-headedness of the hero and understands that although it is unavoidable for the hero, it is not unavoidable for everyone. So, there is a difference between hopelessness, anomie, and disaffection on the one hand and tragedy on the other.   In essence, tragedy is didactic.  The audience is brought to learn or recognize something positive. 

Traditionally, an artist suffers for his art, but I wonder if that is not just an excuse for artists who want their art to make us suffer as they have or imagine they have.  (Take that, you coddled reader, you!)  A generation of authors acquired the sobriquet “Angry Young Men” (not that it doesn’t occur with women) and took it as a badge of honor, but I was never convinced that anger for the sake of anger is salutary for the artist or the reader.  Sometimes it just makes me tired.

I have just finished two books that satisfied in the way I have proposed: Lola Shoneyin’s (2010) The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Helen Simonson’s (2010) Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.  Neither insists on the purposelessness of existence, the impossibility of integrity, or the frustrations of inchoate morality; yet neither is blind to the vicissitudes of daily life–the one in a polygamous Nigerian family, the other in an uptight English Major (retired) living is a small town in Sussex.  Both deal intelligently with social issues both large and small; both recognize that not everyone is a Good Guy, but they find enough wiggle room in individual interactions to enable some good things to be realized.

Shoneyin’s book is a bit more sociological in its approach–or perhaps it feels that way because I was totally ignorant of even the most general facts of Nigerian society.  The author provides enough context for one to infer the forces and pressures of life in Ibadan and thus understand the motivations of her characters; but the exposition never feels forced or condescending.  I suppose the same is true of Simonson’s book, too.  The mores of rural England are taken for granted and addressed in the text only as they interact with the characters.  If I were unfamiliar with English village life, I think I would still be able to understand and appreciate the story Simonson tells. 

Henry James asked, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? “  He was writing of the human (or anthropomorphic) actors in a tale, but in both Baba Segi and Major Pettigrew the prevailing mores are characters in their own right: the character of the society determining the incidents of the plot; and the incidents of the plot illustrating the character of the society.