“Remember you must die.” The voice speaks the same words in a manner that is quite matter-of-fact, not really threatening, common with a lisp, sinister, cultivated. The caller is a barrow boy, a middle-aged man, a jokester, an enemy, a friend, a figment of the imagination and Death himself as speculated by various septuagenarian members of a British social set who find themselves recipients of the mysterious calls.
Such is the conceit of Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Momento Mori, a plot device which could not have survived caller i.d. Nevertheless, in the late 1950s, without the ability to track and due to the police’s failure to trace the caller, Spark’s contingent of deliciously-named characters are by turn traumatized, outraged, frightened, delighted and reassured to receive the timely reminder that death is inevitable.
Legend has it that the phrase in Spark’s title originated in ancient Rome where a victorious general required a slave to follow him through the victory parade whispering repeatedly “memento mori.” Amidst the celebration and victory, do not forget that at your peak or trough, death could come at any moment.
Dame Lettie Colston, Godfrey and Charmain Colston, Guy Leet, Ronald Sidebottom, Inspector Mortimer, Mrs. Pettigrew and company inhabit a vivid, familiar yet expired world where some would rather not suffer such a reminder. As the novel progresses, the reader may find herself greatly anticipating the call to certain less-pleasant characters. It’s stunning to remember that in 50 years or so, the world has changed to such an extent that the naiveté and trust present throughout Momento Mori exist nowhere in our current culture.
Nevertheless, much like Dame Lettie and company, we feel immortal. We feel that time has no limit. That there is no urgency. That tomorrow is another day and everything will work out in the end. We will be able to plan that trip, or say I love you, or write that novel, apologize, express gratitude, get a new job, learn a lesson, or one of any zillions of things because our world will continue. Our electronics will stay plugged in. The world will keep turning. Facebook will keep sending updates, advertisements and messages. In other words, we will never die.
In my view, the Memento Mori of Spark’s caller was a gift to her characters but most didn’t see it as such. If you find yourself in need of a reminder, this is a gentle and enjoyable one. Just remember — you must die.
Book Club Menu
Tea — obviously, it’s set in England
There weren’t a lot of specifics mentioned in terms of food. Breakfast on trays, tea on trays and burned potatoes and pie. I’ve looked through my grandmother’s recipe box and found the perfect recipe which holds a memory of one of the treats of my childhood, shopping in Louisville with my mother, grandmother and great-aunt, and having lunch at the elegant old Colonnade Restaurant. Don’t burn the pie.
Colonnade’s Banana Creme Pie
3 1/2 cups whole milk, cold
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup cornstarch
5 egg yolks
pinch of salt
1 Tablespoon banana flavoring
1 or 2 bananas
2 prebaked pie crusts
Meringue: 8 egg whites, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Heat oven to 375. Heat 2 3/4 cup milk and sugar in medium saucepan over medium heat until milk steams. Combine remaining 3/4 cup milk with cornstarch and add to the hot milk mixture and cook, stirring until thickens, about 5 minutes. Continue to cook until thick and shows bottom of pan as it is stirred. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Beat egg yolks and salt until thick and lemon colored, about 3 minutes. Stir about 1/4 cup of the hot milk into eggs, repeat until you’ve used 2 cups of milk mixture. Gradually add warmed eggs to remaining milk mixture, beating until well combined and smooth. If mixture is grainy, the milk was too hot and you will have to start over. (so work slowly and be careful)* Beat in banana flavoring. Pour into two crusts. Top with layer of banana slices.
Make meringue: beat egg whites on high, gradually adding sugar then cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Top pies with meringue.
Bake until meringues brown, about 20 minutes.
*My grandmother’s note to herself.
Go ahead and have an extra-large piece. Remember, you must die.