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

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Friday, February 26, 2016

The difficulty of modernism and the novel - Memento Mori

Started next book-group selection, Muriel Spark's Memento Mori (1959), a few years before her more famous (and maybe deservedly so?) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (I'd forgotten she was the author of PMJB, about which I've blogged, when we selected MM) - funny to see in this very different novel, btw, characters talking to one another about being in their prime or past their prime, a Spark obsession? In any event, MM is potentially a good novel in the very English tradition (even though she's Scottish) of both substance and modernist style: a lot of characters spending a lot of time talking, over tea, in sick rooms, in salons, over the funeral baked meats (yes, the Hamlet reference occurs in the novel, too, without annotation - lots of literary "winks" are also an English tradition), and in the modern sense, like Woolf and maybe Ford Madox Ford, too, of a limited third-person narrator - we see and hear what the narrator sees and hears, but the narrator is stingy - we get almost no back story unless the characters discuss their lives, histories, inter-relationships. This style makes the first 50 pages or so very tough going - we have no idea at first which of the many characters is central, which peripheral, we learn about their backgrounds, professions, earlier complex relationships in pieces - the modernist style not only in fiction but also in art and maybe music - think of Picasso or Manet perhaps. There's a tension right at the start that may make you think you're involved in a murder mystery: one character, Dame Lettie, in her 80s or so, is receiving hang-up calls saying, Remember, you're going to die (cf the title - is it a philosophical observation of fact, or a threat?). But Spark doesn't do much w/ this bone-in-throat opener - as Lettie doesn't care particularly who's making the calls so why should we? Gradually we see that Lettie (we know little about her life, but there is a hint that maybe she's a writer - a mystery writer, a v of Dame Agatha?) and her brother, Godfrey are key characters; G's wife, Charmiade  (sp? - it's a name from A&C I think), was a writer, now in a state of near-dementia. We also meet their former housemaid or servant, Mrs. Taylor (?), in a ward for elderly women - apparently she had a relationship long back w/ Godfrey, and she still is quite sharp and maybe attractive - a gerontologist doctor friend visits her to discuss various things and perhaps to test her wits and reactions. A parallel plot involves the death of one of their wealthy friends, a patroness of the arts, who dies leaving her fortune not to her long-serving housemaid who'd hoped to get it but to a dissipated artist who, it turns out, secretly married her years ago. Lots of story lines, not a lot of hooks though.

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