Muriel Sparks's third novel, the macabre but sharply witty Memento Mori (1959), has three epigraphs; the first two by Yeats and Traherne are about old age, while the third from The Penny Catechism is as follows:
Q. What are the four last things to be ever remembered?
A. The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.
Sparks, who was 39 before she published any fiction, had converted to Roman Catholicism five years before, calling the church "something to measure from" rather than a direct source of inspiration. But the "four last things" are not listed as such in Scripture, as eschatology had been developed by that very church out of Jesus' references to apocalypse (largely in Matthew 24-25), bits of Isaiah and Daniel, and especially the Book of Revelation.
Sparks might well have added an epigraph from the psychology of C. G. Jung, for in this novel all her characters are not merely old, but some are senile; and Jung held the view that anyone in old age who did not focus on the goal of death was probably neurotic. By Jung's definition, most of Sparks's characters are.
This aging circle of old friends and rivals lives in the quarrelsome past; they prolong old literary arguments and jealousies, jockey to inherit wealth, snipe at society and one another, employ silly substitutes for former sexual vitality, collect encyclopedic but insignificant research on the process of aging, and when blackmailed, either keep or reveal secrets the reader judges to be trivial. In short, these elders meditate on everything except their own imminent deaths.
Besides this cluster of superficial friends and kin in the 75 to 85 age bracket, 12 old ladies (called by nurses "the Grannies") survive but wet their beds ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more