Memento Mori Summary
by Muriel Spark

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Memento Mori Summary

Muriel Spark’s novel centers on aging and death among a circle of relatives, lovers, friends, and acquaintances. One unifying factor is that many characters receive mysterious phone calls that are thinly disguised death threats, with the caller stating “Remember, you must die.” The book is not, however, a conventional mystery story: while every person who receives the calls does die during the course of the novel, the identity of the caller is never revealed.

Lettie Colston is among the first to receive such a call. She and her brother, Godfrey, share a house with Godfrey’s wife, Charmian, who is recovering from a stroke that has affected her mentally and physically. Lettie reports the call to the police; at first it does not bother her, but she gradually becomes obsessed. Godfrey, although concerned with Charmian’s care, is often lost in sexual fantasies and fetishes.

His former lover, Lisa Brooke, has recently died, and several characters attend her funeral. These include her ostensible husband, Guy Leet, who is Charmian’s former lover; later he learns that Lisa had a previous marriage, so theirs was not legal. Lettie convinces Godfrey to hire Lisa’s former housekeeper to assist with Charmian’s care. This proves a bad move, as Mrs. Pettigrew transfers her blackmailing schemes from Lisa, with whom she had some success, to Godfrey. The Colstons ignore the warnings of Jean Taylor, Charmian’s former companion, who lives in a nursing home.

Alec Warner, Jean’s one-time lover, also receives a “remember” call, and soon Godfrey and Charmian receive them as well. Retired police inspector Mortimer, to whom they have reported them, becomes concerned. He invites them all to his home to discuss the situation but offers little practical advice. He does not reveal that he receives the calls as well and attributes them to Death itself.

Jean and Alec communicate the secrets about the long-ago affairs to the people involved so that Mrs. Pettigrew cannot blackmail Godfrey. A burglar surprises and kills Lettie in her home; the investigation of the murder helps reveal Lisa’s former marriage. Her real husband, an institutionalized mentally ill man, later dies, leaving Mrs. Pettigrew her beneficiary. As Charmian recovers her mental faculties, she opts to leave Godfrey and live in a long-term care facility.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

With Memento Mori, her third novel, Spark abandoned the experimentation of her first two works and began to write with the sureness of one accomplished at her craft. Now, too, her efforts were being rewarded financially; it was this novel that established her as a full-time writer. The popularity of Memento Mori is not surprising. While, like The Comforters, this novel has eccentric characters, complex relationships, and puckish wit, both its subject and the direction of its plot are made clear from the very first chapter.

The subject of Memento Mori is death. Its characters are elderly people, who, in the course of the novel, must deal with their friends’ deaths and with their own. Their attitudes are revealed by a unifying plot device: A number of them receive telephone calls from someone who says simply, “Remember you must die.” What is peculiar is that none of them can agree as to the quality of the caller’s voice. Ironically, at the end of the novel, although the characters who have been receiving the calls have all died, the caller has never been identified.

At the beginning of the book, Dame Lettie Colston receives one of the mysterious calls and discusses it with her brother, Godfrey Colston. Dame Lettie is not unduly bothered by the call; she has reported it to the police, and she regards it as more a nuisance than anything else, something to be put out of one’s mind. As for Godfrey, he is too busy with old age to think about death. He is always irritated with his wife, Charmian Colston, a successful writer, who is intermittently confused. He is also preoccupied with his sexual needs, which are fulfilled when he...

(The entire section is 1,958 words.)