1p Review: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

It took Nige years to find this brilliant novel in a secondhand bookshop. If only he’d known you can buy it for a penny online

The novels of Muriel Spark that most frequently turn up in charity shops are The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, A Far Cry from Kensington and Territorial Rights.

This anyway is my conclusion after years spent scanning the shelves on the lookout for one I hadn’t read and which I knew by repute as an early masterpiece and perhaps her best novel, Memento Mori (1959). Finally, in a Kensington charity shop last year, I found it (in a recent Penguin paperback which appears to be a fascimile of the 1961 Penguin in a new jacket), and was able to confirm for myself that it is indeed an early m and perhaps too her best n.

It is an extraordinary book, entirely about death and yet utterly exhilarating and extremely funny (Chapter Three’s account of the funeral of Lisa Brooke had me all but rolling on the floor).

In the compass of a short novel, Spark assembles a large cast of characters – some vile, others delightful, each of them deftly individuated and entirely convincing – and sets spinning an elaborately complex plot composed of mysterious phone calls, long concealed secrets, old enmities and grudges, blackmail, intrigue and even murder, the whole thing perfectly organised and held together by an impersonal but omniscient narrator.

It’s at once defiantly old-fashioned and unmistakably modern, even postmodern – and all brilliantly, effortlessly done, with not a word wasted. And of course everybody dies…

Would you like recommend a book that can be bought for a penny online? (There are thousands). Email your nomination and review – it can be in-depth or in brief  – to editorial@thedabbler.co.uk


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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

6 thoughts on “1p Review: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

  1. jonhotten@aol.com'
    December 20, 2011 at 21:00

    Lovely review – and probably a lost art filling a short novel with lots of characters and plot. But Nige, did you promise yourself you’d only read it if you found it in a bookshop, rather than buy it online? That would be a post in itself…

  2. rosie@rosiebell.co.uk'
    December 20, 2011 at 23:32

    I read Memento Mori quite recently. I can see it’s brilliant – economical, vivid scenes got in a page (eg the geriatric ward), characters shaped in a few lines of dialogue and description – but I cannot like Muriel Spark’s novels. I find them cold. I can’t get interested in the characters, however deftly drawn. I can’t engage with them or want to follow their fortunes. They always seem a little at a distance. She writes like a zoologist observing the behaviour of animals (an old fashioned zoologist, not Jane Goodall), not a human being writing about other human beings. What I get from her is an air of very faint, cool disdain.

    • Gaw
      December 21, 2011 at 06:38

      That view certainly fits with the photo above. What an expression!

  3. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    December 21, 2011 at 10:26

    Oh yes – most definitely not a nice person! More than a chip of ice in her soul…
    I think she gets away with having so many unsympathetic characters by doing so much with them – sheer dazzle – and by paring everything down and down. Mind you, compared to Ivy Compton Burnett, Spark has a heart of gold!

  4. becandben@gmail.com'
    December 21, 2011 at 10:32

    Our big second-hand bookshop here in Brisbane always seems to be well stocked with Muriel Spark and there’s a weighty biography on the shelves of my local library. Perhaps there’s a specific geographically-based attraction. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is also a good one, and its cover is excellent.

  5. rosie@rosiebell.co.uk'
    December 21, 2011 at 21:45

    True about Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose characters live in hell, without any chance of redemption.

    Compared to those two women Martin Amis’s attempts at creating evil characters and hells on earth are a lot of huff and puff and noise.

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