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Monday, February 24, 2014

Spark, Memento Mori

Another excellent Muriel Spark book, gifted to me by Cheryl, that I will review for you long after Emily Hale already has, and so long after it was written as to be wholly redundant. Memento Mori is about old age, which is a very foreign country to Miss Self-Important, so it lacked the same charms of immediate recognition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but it was still wickedly funny and Catholicly critical of all non-Catholic efforts to make sense of human life.

In all three of the Spark novels I've read so far (the other was The Girls of Slender Means, which I didn't like as much), only the Catholic vantage offers the possibility of un-deceiving yourself about other people, so that only the Catholic characters really understand human motivation because, in part, only they can bring themselves to forgive its sinfulness. This was the case with Sandy in Miss Jean Brodie, but it is more the case here with Charmian and Jean Taylor. Taylor, like Sandy, is the heroine of the novel insofar as it has one, and is, also like Sandy, a kind of nun - never-married, living in the confinement of a nursing home which she refuses to leave even when offered the opportunity because she views her residence there as the will of God so that she may be a kind of witness to human suffering - "employing her pain to magnify the Lord," as Spark says with surprising bluntness on the last page. (I think Spark generally tries to conceal the Catholicism underlying her novels so that it emerges quietly at the end as the only remaining reasonable way to live, given the failures and derangements of the alternatives that she depicts.) Because the Catholic characters are able to clearly detect and forgive the other characters' failings, they attain sufficient magnanimity (something more than "resignation," a secular platitude that Spark dismisses) to accept death.

The other characters, a set of petty and vindictive high society geezers, are all variously and comically deluded about themselves and especially about the nearness of their deaths. They deflect their fears into a competition to out-live one another, gloating about their own (very relative) fitness whenever they discover some new frailty in one of their friends, not realizing how rapidly - within the year, for most of them - death is going to overtake them, and how insignificant a victory it is to abjure a hearing aid or retain most of one's "faculties" in light of that. (None of them seem to possess very many faculties in the first place, but they all assume that faculties are solely a function of age rather than underlying sense.) They also constantly amend their wills to write one another out of them, and go to great lengths to wrest bits of money away from each other, believing money to be the due "reward," as they repeatedly describe bequests, for all the sacrifices and sufferings of their earlier lives. The test of character (and most of the humor) in the novel is how each of them reacts to receiving mysterious phone calls instructing them to, "Remember that you must die." Some of them find this to be a friendly or at least helpful reminder - merely a statement of the truth - and others become outraged and paranoid and try to hunt down and punish the caller. The latter die venal and gruesome deaths, but with their revered "faculties" intact. ("A good death doesn't reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul," says Taylor, the would-be nun.)

The other route, besides Catholicism, to a reasonable acceptance of death seems to be to have a large family and nurture it - many children, then many grandchildren - as the wife of the retired Chief Inspector does, since childhood is close to old age in its frequent reminders of human weakness. Thus, when the troop of vicious geezers visits to confer with her husband about the mysterious phone calls, she is "troubled, in the first place, by the sight of all these infirm and agitated people arriving with such difficulty at her door. Where are their children? she had thought, or their nieces and nephews? Why are they left to their own resources like this?" But her own calm and contentedness is not really intentional; it's just an unforeseen byproduct of having children and nieces and nephews to support and occupy her old age.The retired Chief Inspector himself is also relatively sanguine about death and proportionally less vile than the other characters, apparently as a result of "philosophizing" about it (tellingly, he is described as giving "philosophical sermons"). But you will quickly realize how closely parallel to Catholicism these approaches - family and philosophy - are and, since they fall short of full self-understanding for both characters, how both are completed by faith.

Maybe after Miss Jean Brodie and Brideshead Revisited and Memento Mori - all these modern Catholic converts heaping their criticism and disdain on our post-Protestant self-satisfaction - Miss Self-Important should start a series devoted tracing the irritatingly persistent and persuasive shadow-life of Catholicism in Anglo-American thought, like my equally implausible series on the ancient Greek influence on country music. Fortunately, I think this will not happen.

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