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Muriel Spark and Jane Gardam
Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives
Muriel Spark and Jane Gardam:
merciless madams of deathly dark comedy.
The theme of old
age and death becomes compelling to read about, when Muriel Spark and Jane
Gardam apply their merciless black mirth to the topic.
'Memento Mori' (1959)
I think it was a most remarkable achievement by Muriel Spark to write 'Memento
Mori', her mischievous dark comedy of a novel, when she was aged only 41.
At that comparatively early stage of her life, how on earth had she gained such
an astonishingly accurate grasp of the way that old people think and behave
when the jaws of death draw fearfully close?
All of the main characters in 'Memento Mori' are aged in their eighties. Their
lifestyles are significantly impaired by failing health: a regime of doctors
and pills; erratic memory; disgusting personal hygiene; doddery legs; shaky
hands that spill the contents of a teapot on to the tablecloth during a
And as regards selfishness and bad behaviour in old age, 'Memento Mori' paints
a truly "warts and all" picture of the protagonists who engage in
petty literary feuds or seek to diddle their relations out of family
Perhaps a Health Warning notice should be printed on the front cover of 'Memento
Mori'? I don't mean that reading the book will damage your health! But I do
mean that Ms Spark imparts to readers an unsparingly bleak prospect of the
failing health that inevitably awaits us in old age. In the hospital ward her
bedridden old women suffer the indignity of having the generic name
"Granny" bestowed upon them all; a dragon of a ward sister rules
their roost; the old ladies wail and scheme and bluster, but are helpless
Muriel Spark explained that she first had conceived the idea of writing the
story when she was a teenager, helping to mind her grandmother who had suffered
a stroke. "Her new problems, created by her disabilities, made me acutely
aware of old age."
What a triumph of Muriel Spark's aptitude and imagination as a writer, that she
duly gifted us the marvellous 'Memento Mori'. It was her third published novel,
and the first to earn her fame. Deservedly so, for in 'Memento Mori' she is as
comic-tragic as a Shakespeare and as deft as an Agatha Christie in providing a
surprise but satisfactory denouement to a tale that is, in Ms Spark's typically
oddball style, a detective story at root.
'Old Filth' (2004)
'The Man in the Wooden Hat' (2009)
'Last Friends' (2013)
Jane Gardam's greatest literary triumph, her much-acclaimed 'Old Filth' trilogy
of novels, has come to her long after she has reached her pensionable age.
She is aged in her mid-eighties now. So (how can I put this nicely?) she most
likely has first-hand experience of the frustrations and longings of old age
that she conveys so feelingly in her trilogy of stories.
We first meet her principal characters Sir Edward Feathers and Sir Terence
Veneering when they are in advanced old age. Bitter rivals in their former
profession of the law, they cannot stand the sight of each other. So imagine
how mortified they are to find that in retirement they live next door to each
other, in the same quiet village!
That touch of black comic irony from Jane Gardam could surely have occurred in
a typical Muriel Spark story, too.
It is not the only example of Ms Gardam and Ms Spark sharing the same type of
ingenuity and wit. Quite a harsh wit, too. Neither author makes apology for the
frequency of characters being suddenly swiped out of her narrative, with the
merest of throwaway brief mentions that a violent death has come to them.
Indeed, the respective Edward Feathers and Terence Veneering both pass away
during the trilogy. Much of what we learn about them is conveyed in flashbacks,
or in the reminisces of other characters. Foremost amongst these is the
free-spirited Betty: husband to one of them and mistress manqué to the other.
And in keeping with Muriel Spark there is no sugary gloss from Jane Gardam on
the horror of being old. There are near-death situations when her hapless
pensioners carelessly become stranded in freezing winter weather. And the carer
for two overweight and mostly housebound old ladies with leg ulcers should
probably be labelled a not-carer: an impatient young girl of eastern European
origin, a chain-smoker seen always with her mobile phone glued to her ear, she
drives an expensive car and is too preoccupied to bother much with the ailments
and discomforts of her patients.
Hard-edged though both authors are, I'd say that Jane Gardam refracts old age
through a softer lens, ultimately, than the relentless Muriel Spark. For there
is a poignancy in the elements of late-flowering love, new-found respect, and
roadway to redemption that Ms Gardam allows her characters to find as they move
closer to Heaven's gate.
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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