Wednesday, 21 July 2010
The novels of Muriel Spark that most frequently turn up in charity shops are The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, A Far Cry from Kensington and Territorial Rights. This anyway is my conclusion after years spent scanning the shelves on the lookout for one I hadn't read and which I knew by repute as an early masterpiece and perhaps her best novel, Memento Mori (1959). Finally, in a Kensington charity shop a couple of weeks ago, I found it (in a recent Penguin paperback which appears to be a fascimile of the 1961 Penguin in a new jacket), and was able to confirm for myself that it is indeed an early m and perhaps too her best n. It is an extraordinary book, entirely about death and yet utterly exhilarating and extremely funny (Chapter Three's account of the funeral of Lisa Brooke had me all but rolling on the floor). In the compass of a short novel, Spark assembles a large cast of characters - some vile, others delightful, each of them deftly individuated and entirely convincing - and sets spinning an elaborately complex plot composed of mysterious phone calls, long concealed secrets, old enmities and grudges, blackmail, intrigue and even murder, the whole thing perfectly organised and held together by an impersonal but omniscient narrator. It's at once defiantly old-fashioned and unmistakably modern, even postmodern - and all brilliantly, effortlessly done, with not a word wasted. And of course everybody dies... I'm glad I found it at last.