New York: Time Incorporated. 1958 (1964)
Why read it? If, as a young person, you think old people (over 70) live out their old age serenely, reflecting comfortably on their positive experiences over the years, this novel depicts a very different existence—fretful, self-absorbed, worried about trivial circumstances, hyper-critical of other old people, noting their mental instability, reflecting on affairs and embarrassments during the younger years, using their wills to retain influence over people looking for their inheritance, problems with their bladders, taking pills, no longer valued for their knowledge and as important individuals, wildly suspicions and swiftly dying off because of medical and other causes, including violence and car collisions.
Spark writes with a dead-pan, blank expression as she states matter-of-factly what the characters think, say and do. The result is hilarious—and irreverent—and true to life.
The novel centers around the anonymous caller(s) who phones to say, “Remember that you must die.” (“Memento Mori.”) The old people who receive these calls describe the caller(s) as of different ages and even sexes. The statement is a matter of fact—you old people must remember that you are going to die. And they do. One after another.
The police believe that the calls are the old people’s hallucinations. Could it be a case of mass hysteria? Could it be themselves reminding themselves unconsciously that they know they must die? The caller is never identified, but Alec Warner is a suspect because he takes notes on every one of his friends and acquaintances, in the end even wanting to know if the death was a good one or a bad one and even asking them to take pulse and temperature before and after the bad news he has given them.
Two sets of old people in the novel—wealthy aristocrats and old women in a nursing home, the “Grannies.”
The wealthy have had affairs among themselves that they are trying to keep from being revealed. Then there are relationships with their servants who know all that they did—and Mrs. Pettigrew, the professional maid, who moves from one wealthy family to another and who gradually encourages them to leave their wealth to her. And Charmian, successful writer, and her husband, Godfrey, who have both had affairs, thinking that the other did not know. But their servants and most of their acquaintances did.
The “Grannies” battle the nursing staff and themselves. "Sister Bastard." "Sister Lousy." Miss Taylor, former maid to Charmian, seems to be the voice of a clear, objective intelligence and common sense.
Old age, according to this novelist, is a fitful confusing mix of feelings, memories, incapacities and, at last, death. It is not serenity.
Sample Ideas from the Novel:
“I’ve quite decided to be cremated when my time comes. Cleanest way. Dead bodies under the ground only contaminate our water supplies.” ………. “The priest behind the screen would be committing Granny Barnacle to the sweet Lord; he would be anointing Granny Barnacle’s eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet, asking pardon for the sins she had committed by sight, by hearing, smell, taste and speech, by the touch of her hands and by her very footsteps.” ………. “The chaplain was shaking doleful hands with everyone at the door.”
“The ward sister called them the Baker’s Dozen, not knowing that this is thirteen, but having only heard the phrase; and thus it is that a good many old sayings lose their force.” ………. “Guy had always used to call sisters and brothers sinisters and bothers.” ………. “There is a time for loyalty and a time when loyalty comes to an end.” ………. “If you look for one thing…you frequently find another.” ………. “He [Godfrey] was all the more disturbed by Charmian’s increasing composure. It was not that he wished his wife any harm, but his spirits always seemed to wither in proportion as hers bloomed.” ………. Godfrey: “…having made the mistake of regarding Charmian’s every success as his failure.”
“The ward lay till morning, still and soundless, breathing like one body instead of eleven.” ………. “I would be glad to be let die in peace. But the doctors would be horrified to hear me say it. They are so proud of their new drugs and new methods of treatment—there is always something new. I sometimes fear, at the present rate of discovery, I shall never die.” ………. “One reason writers avoid the subject of old age is that it makes them and their readers uncomfortable.” ………. “As we get older these affairs of the bladder and kidneys do become so important to us.” ………. “Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.”
Quote: “And if the book does nothing else, it demonstrates how hard it is to approach tranquility at the end of a long life marked by the deceits, subterfuges and willful departures from ordinary decency that plague all men at all times.”