Memento Mori

This week we read Muriel Spark's Memento Mori for book club. Response was surprising: of 6, 2 adored it, 4 found it depressing, sad, difficult reading.

What??? Were we reading the same book? For me (amongst the minority) this is a joyous book about a group of octogenarians who have not grown past the jealousies and loves and self-pity and machiavellian machinations of their much younger years. Nearer and nearer to death they march, with no diminution of their attachments to the past and memory as well as to life.

The leitmotif of the novel is the phone call that each character receives. A voice - which is heard, variously by different characters, as a young man, a woman, an old man, even someone insistent on leaving a message when he does not reach the intended recipient - tells the caller, "Remember you must die." And how each character responds is a look into how we respond to the ultimate, unavoidable conclusion to a life. Clearly, we each must die.

Those who are most calm, even welcoming to the caller, exhibit a life well led. Given Sparks' Catholicism, it is not surprising that Miss Taylor and Charmain, two such characters have a strong faith, a commitment to the church. But a third character, Inspector Mortimer (often cited as the example of paganism, but I think that goes too far) has a Horatian mindfulness: the capacity to appreciate. He loves his wife. He loves his grand-children. And he loves his garden. Scenes of Mortimer at home repeatedly show him in the garden, or contain descriptions of his house and his garden - reminding the reader of an earthly alternative to religion: the appreciation of beauty in the shape of a tree, or the affection of a loved one.

As I hiked with the dog through the woods today - and saw three female deer, so silent, almost invisible in the foliage that has not yet begun to leaf out and turn green - I pondered Mortimer's centrality to the novel. He appears very little, but like another character,Lisa, who is the deus ex machina, he is spoken of quite often. Kept in front of our readerly attention, he reminds me of the importance of noticing the little things that aggregate into the quiet splendor of a day. The thing about Mortimer is that he notices. And he acts. There is this lovely simplicity and clarity, so it makes sense that he is the first to ascertain that the mysterious caller is Death. Still undisturbed, Mortimer explains to his wife the importance of keeping Death always in one's awareness; it enriches life, bringing it to a more lively pitch.

Of course, it was to be expected that today, when I went hunting for something completely unrelated on the Internet, that I would come across a post about this very subject. From a yoga teacher. Who quotes a poem about death. Which mentions King Lear, which is my favorite play and the one I tried to talk the book group into reading. Here's the post.