Reading Note:
Battleaxes
Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori

At Crawford Doyle last Friday, I bought two novels, even though I have a rule against buying novels and, worse, despite the fact that I had been in the store on Wednesday, and not only bought several books but ordered — two novels. I had not planned to visit the bookshop quite so soon, but Ms NOLA had been at the Museum, so there we were. Crossing Fifth Avenue, I headed along the south side of 82nd Street, but it was Ms NOLA who voiced the suggestion — no doubt regarding it as foregone. Stepping into the cool, dusky air, I felt almost criminal, as though I were about to buy a large ice cream after a heavy dinner, complete with dessert. The idea of leaving the store without buying something was unthinkable; I’d have felt that I’d insulted the staff and presumed upon the air conditioning. Very silly compunction. The upshot was that I walked out with those two novels. But neither of them was new, and I could imagine devouring one of them on the spot.

That would be Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, which I hadn’t read. I had just read a review of the recent life, and mention had been made of Ivy Compton-Burnett. It seems that Spark actually acknowledged the influence of Compton-Burnett, which of course made it official, and I was curious to test the connection. The review also mentioned that caring for her ancient grandmother gave Spark the familiarity with the elderly that is manifest in Memento Mori. So that seemed to be the book to read, and there it was, at Crawford Doyle. In case you’ve never read Ivy Compton-Burnett — well, I don’t really know what to say. I’ve got a book somewhere that hails her as a camp classicist, and there is about her style a self-conscious intensity that seems now and then to wink at the reader. Compton-Burnett wrote about ghastly old Victorians, patriarchs and matriarchs who, wholly wrapped up in themselves, tyrannized the the young people who had the misfortune to be nearby. They’re not quite human, too; they glitter and gleam like birds of prey, determined but brainless. If you are writing anything serious at the moment, stay away from Ivy Compton-Burnett, because her manner is dreadfully catching; you’ll find yourself imitating her, horrified but fascinated, unable to stop.

When did I last read a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett? Decades ago, I think. I read a batch of them, and then I couldn’t read another. The last one that I read was published by Virago, I think, and it had a dyspeptic Picasso on the cover. Ah yes, here it is: Two Worlds and Their Ways. I don’t remember much about it, except that the atmosphere was oppressive, and that there weren’t any attractive characters. Maybe there was an attractive character or two, but they didn’t stick in the mind. The horrid old people stuck in the mind. Well, their horridness sticks in the mind. Imagine a life of heaping but flavorless food, served up in overheated rooms at punctual hours, silent but for the sounds of genteel people eating and digesting. Eventually, you conclude, “I can’t read this sort of thing anymore,” but it sticks with you, and, when you read Memento Mori, it all comes back.

Rather, it does not come back but it lingers in your peripheral vision. You know that it’s there and you sense it compulsively, but you cannot look at it. Spark’s characters are not so awful, possibly because they’re the children of the Victorian horrors in Compton-Burnett. But now it’s their turn to be old, and most of them are cross about it. There is the feeling, strong in Compton-Burnett, that age distills the vices of the mind, so that even if some old fool is physically incapable of doing much of anything, he can still splash around in a sulfuric puddle of universal loathing. There is also a return to childishness, to sudden hatreds and silly requests; an unwillingness to take very seriously what might make another person happy. A brusque self-pitying rudeness takes the place of politeness.

“You might have opened the door for me,” she said.

Godfrey did not at first understand what she meant, for he had long since started to use his advanced years as an excuse to omit the mannerly conformities of his younger days, and was now automatically rude in his gestures, as if by long-earned right. He sensed some new frightful upheaval of his habits behind her words, as he drove off fitfully towards Sloane Square.

As in Compton-Burnett (but also as in Spark’s other novels), the plot is buried in the busyness of a dozen microscopic campaigns. Godfrey Colston feels so embattled by his wife, by his wife’s former lover, and by his housekeeper, that he no longer has the faintest idea what he wants; he is simply at war, albeit on subdued terms, with the entire world. He lunges at imagined encroachments without much conviction in the effectiveness of either his bark or his bite. There is an inheritance, but Spark couldn’t be more desultory about its settlement, and when it ends up in the hands of the woman who was counting upon it all along, the chanciness of this outcome is so comic that one almost fancies it as a pie in her face. There is a notional mystery: the gang of old people who constitute the cast of Memento Mori have all been pestered by anonymous telephone callers who simply remind them, before hanging up, to “remember that you must die.” I put “callers” in the plural because the old folks can’t agree on what sort of voice makes these announcements, young, old, distinguished or common. Dame Lettie Colston, a do-goodering battleaxe, is so outraged by the calls that she wants the matter raised in Parliament. In contrast, Charmian Piper, a once-famous novelist who begins to recover from incipient dementia when her books are reissued and made a cult of by young readers, believes that the proper response to the phone calls is to take them at their word: it can’t hurt to remember that you must die. Dame Lettie considers the warning impertinent at best and menacing at worst, and indeed she comes to a corresponding end, while Charmian dies “one morning in the following spring,” in manifestly uneventful circumstances.

Almost everybody dies, but that’s what the title promised, no? One survivor, Alec Warner, is an unwitting mischief-maker whose amassed observations of old people, researched for some Casaubon-like book, are consumed in a fire; he suffers a stroke and goes to live in a nursing home “and frequently searched through his mind, as through a card catalogue, for the case-histories of his friends, both dead and dying.” Another is the awful Mrs Pettigrew, the officious housekeeper schemes to benefit from her employers’ wills. Mrs Pettigrew has lived among the gentry long enough to pass for one of them, but she knows her place, and one of the most astute passages in Memento Mori ties together her ersatz morality with her caste uncertainty.

Mrs Pettigrew went upstairs to look round the bedrooms, to see if they were all right and tidy, and in reality to simmer down and look round. She was annoyed with herself for letting go at Mrs Anthony. She should have kept aloof. But it had always been the same — even when she was with Lisa Brooke — when she had to deal with lower domestics she became too much one of them. It was kindness of heart, but it was weak. She reflected that she had really started off on the wrong foot with Mrs Anthony; that, when she had first arrived, she should have kept her distance with the woman and refrained from confidences. And now she had lowered herself to an argument with Mrs Anthony. These thoughts overwhelmed Mrs Pettigrew with that sense of having done a foolish thing against one’s interests, which in some people stands for guilt. And in this frame of heart she repented, and decided, as she stood by Charmian’s neatly-made bed, to establish her position more solidly in the household, and from now on to treat Mrs Anthony with remoteness.

Fat chance of that.