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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mortality and art

One of the better elements in Murial Spark's Memento Mori is the group of scenes in the hospital ward for elderly women - at the time (1959) considered a progressive step in health care, better, I suppose, than leaving the working-class elderly to die alone w/ no medical care, but today obviously there are many more options and much more, if not perfect, equity. But I saw potential in these scenes for a whole novel about the inter-relations of the women on the ward, their battles with the nurses, their conflicting personalities, their differing backgrounds, their relationships with the few relatives (and former employers) who visit, or don't, and of course the ever-present reminders of death. I wish I could say the same for the rest of this novel, most of which focuses on a few wealthy elderly Londoners and their rivalries and petty quarrels and deceptions. At the heart of it, Godfrey, heir to a brewing-industry fortune, is ashamed of various affairs and business practices in his past and is subject to blackmail by his wife's attendant because he dreads his wife's learning of these event; we learn, however, that the wife, Charmian, a successful novelist in her youth and now having a re-discovery, has always known about her husband's past and doesn't care. (Nor do I.) The driving force of the novel is the mystery as to who's making hang-up calls, initially to Dame Lettie (Charmian's sister; we learn in passing that she was well-known advocate for penal reform) telling her to remember that she will die - gradually, the caller, or group of callers, is phoning many people in Lettie's "set." I dread where Spark is going with this, but fear that it will be some kind of narrative nonsense such as "death itself" is making these calls. In a sense, every work of art is a memento mori, the artist's grasping for "eternal life" or at least life beyond his or her death, and a reminder to us the readers, of the temporality and mortality of existence: Had we world enough and time, most art would not exist.

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