Virago as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before are a publisher I hold dear to my heart, a green spine in a second hand shop will call out to me from twenty feet away (the blonde is my witness) and that tempting apple is the first thing I look for in a bookshop. I don’t buy or beg every one that comes my way – though maybe I should because more than any other publisher it’s Virago who have inspired my reading life...
Muriel Spark is an example of this – I’d heard of her before Virago, I’d read her before Virago but only ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, the thing is before Virago that was the only Spark to be picked up in my local bookshop and I remained oblivious to the rest of her canon for far too long. Since Virago’s reissues I’ve done a lot more exploring – this is what I love so much about them; it’s not just the books they do publish, it’s the writers I find that way, and the whole wide world of excitement that opens up for me.
But what I meant to talk about was ‘Memento Mori’ a strange and wonderful book that could only have been written by Spark – I can’t imagine anyone else writing it anyway. An anonymous caller is phoning a group of elderly people with the message ‘Remember you must die’, as the hunt for the callers identity gets underway things become more mysterious, at the same time the past lives of the protagonists are slowly unveiled revealing a web of indiscretion and blackmail. Gripping stuff, but that’s not all, it’s also a very acute, and mostly sympathetic observation of encroaching mortality.
To live well, as a reminder to behave well, to not have many regrets it seems to me to be a good thing to remember that you must die, but I think Spark means much more than that. If you have faith you need to spend time preparing for what comes next (I don’t have faith in an afterlife so I’m guessing a little bit that this is what she’s telling me). The only really likable characters are those who do remember they must die, and they’re not particularly spending their time making peace with the living, yet they are the more truly compassionate – the better people. Not because they’ve lived markedly better lives but because they seem to be at peace with the lives they have lead.
Much as I like to contemplate the meaning of mortality and what comes next over my lunch a bit of humour doesn’t go amiss with it, and there is a wonderful streak of typically black Spark humour running through this book. It’s also a very moving, and quietly thought provoking account of old age, something that’s generally rare, although Spark does quite a line in old ladies (and is, I’m beginning to think, slightly obsessed with incontinence – it’s something that’s turned up in a few of her books). I think this is a magnificent as well as slightly macabre book, I struggle to pin point exactly what makes it so special (that’s surely a part of what makes Spark so good – perfect balance) but I read it two weeks ago and have been thinking about it on and off ever since. A book that gets under your skin like that is always a winner.