Book reviews

Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (Modern Library, 1959)

1959 novel worth reading in the twenty-first century to counter the euthanasia lobby’s efforts to kill the elderly.

Muriel Spark probably had no idea that her novel built on the Latin phrase “Remember death” would help fight against killing the elderly in 2020.  Granted, most readers would treat this novel as one of those grand and fun British mysteries, with the notable exception that the antagonist in this whodunit (the “person” who calls the elderly to remind them that they will die) is Death itself.

However, reading this 1959 novel from a right-to-life literary perspective rejuvenated its 220 pages for me, now, in 2020.  While one can definitely work this review into a larger essay for a scholarly conference, in brief, the five questions of right-to-life literary theory reveal aspects which are relevant for contemporary culture.

First, does the literary work support the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless?

The answer to this question is resoundingly yes, not only from the elderly persons who enjoy life despite their senility, aches, pains, loss of faculties, etc., but also from the characters who demean other characters for the “crime” of getting old.  One thinks immediately of Godfrey Colston, who despises the senility of his own wife, Charmian.

Second, does the literary work respect the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life?

Again, yes, and again affirmed from both categories of characters: those who take advancing age in stride and those who cannot accept their humanity.  It is especially telling that Granny Barnacle, one of the old women who reside in “hospital” (what we would call a nursing home) is either paranoid or keenly aware that some attending nurses would rather have the elderly die from pneumonia.

Third, if the literary work covers the actions of a family, does it do so respecting heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family?

Since this novel concerns the elderly, euthanasia may be a more important surface issue to handle.  However, virtually all characters seem bereft of a stable heterosexual family life.  Even with the numerous adulterous affairs which these elderly people had in their youth, some have achieved stability in marriage, whether sacramental or merely convenient.

Fourth, does the literary work comport with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist?

Respect for the elderly abounds throughout the novel, with only a couple of hints that some characters think that the elderly do not possess life worth living.  Reading this novel, therefore, is a pleasant journey to a time (a mere fifty years ago!) when most people would never have entertained the idea of killing the elderly or denying food and water rights to the medically vulnerable.

Finally, when they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective?

It would be a fascinating study for a high school or college student to write specifically about how the elderly people react to the reminders that they will die.  The reactions range from the seemingly annoyed response of a non-religious or perfunctory Protestant character like Godfrey to the acceptance of death by religious characters such as the Catholics Charmian or Jean Taylor.

Want a delightful few nights’ reading, away from posting or tweeting political material on services like Facebook or Twitter which are biased against conservatives, pro-lifers, and President Trump?  Read Spark’s novel, if only to remind yourself that, since we’re all going to die anyway, we must make our time on this planet worth it.

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