The Futile Tirade Against Time | Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

This novel emanates the subtle horror of perceived senility. Old age makes Death less abstract but no less terrifying. A group of elderly friends begin receiving ominous phone calls stating “Remember you must die.” Is their relativity to death creating a mass hallucination or is something more sinister afoot? Or maybe their collective distrust of the minds of themselves and their friends combined with eccentricities hardened over many years is the spark that creates an entirely esoteric evil?

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Spark is brilliant and this novel is exemplary of her exuberant talent. This novel seeped into my brain. Her words, water to the plant she was growing inside my head. I begun to acclimate to the stifling dread surrounding this group of elderly people. It was scary to see how the treatment and disbelief of those in advanced years opens the door to manipulation and control. It was just too easy.

The phone calls served as a focal point to examine the complexities of this friend group. Their mixed reactions to the calls illustrates the intricacies of their personalities and the various powers at play. I especially enjoyed the idea that the phone calls were from “Death”. The calls weren’t necessarily ominous; the caller is merely stating a fact. There is no apparent threat. Yet their relativity to the long sleep, and the increasing number of their friends that are reaching the end of their time, bubbled dread and paranoia to the forefront of their lives. They were forced by the unseen hand of fate to confront the futility of fight against the end of  their days. It is a harsh reality to be reminded that it is not “if” we die, but “when”.

Whilst this is not the first novel I have read with elderly protagonists, it is definitely one of the finest. Spark does not remove these character’s autonomy or complexities without it being a concerted effort to create a story. These are people who happen to be in the unique circumstance of old age. They are losing respect, health, and breadth of life but they are still motivated to live, whether for good or evil. Spark has an undeniable pulse on human nature, as if she’s already lived infinite lifetimes. Spark’s portrayal of old age ignited a growing suffocation that only released at the close of the novel. She roots her climate in fundamental fears and lets it grow and fester. She is undoubtedly the queen of subtle horrors.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book but believe it deserves to be read multiple times to be able to get a steady grasp on everything Spark is trying to achieve. Whilst I got quite a bit out of it from my first read-through, I reckon I’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

This was my second book of Spark’s and judging by how much I enjoyed this, and The Driver’s Seat, I am keen to read more, or all, of her publications. If you have any suggestions of which one to read next, please let me know in the comments.

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Steppenwolf: The Multiplicity of Critique | Review

I’m not sure what I expected from this book. A sort of philosophising trip? It certainly played that part well. The writing was exquisite and perfectly encapsulated Harry’s internal conundrum. I was certainly enraptured by the magic theatre and musicality of this novel.

However, his conflict with his misplacement in civil society pertains to a specific gaze, that of the middle class white male. To some degree, Hesse was aware of this gaze (he was acutely aware of his class, but ignorant of race and sex). His descriptions of Jazz, Negroes (“primitive” and “vacant eyes”), Jews and depictions of women were products of the novel’s unenlightened breadth. The women in this story, specifically Hermine and Maria, were mere objects in this story. There is hardly any other way to describe them. I am aware that my own privileges in life enable me to be able to contextualise the ignorances and to be aware of the problems in the novel, without it deterring me from finding joy in both the novel itself and the pursuant analysis. It is exclusively through my own privileges that I can distinguish between the ignorances and what engaged me. I state this because I don’t want to feign ignorance of the harms of these evils.

I was still able to enjoy the majority of this book despite careful consideration of the fundamental biases that infiltrated the philosophy of this novel. Hesse has a way with words and there were some incredibly insightful and profound moments. I think I would like to read some critiques of this novel to further engage with what Hesse attempted to achieve.

It is precisely books like this that I love to find myself ensnared by. To be able to flex my analytical literary muscles to assess and dissect the good and the nasty. I can acknowledge the prejudice and hope to contextualise it or seek to distinguish it as noise, mere excess from the crux of the novel. But at the same time, I aim to engage with the philosophy. The philosophy that grapples with tenets of existentialism and nihilism. I can play with the ideas this novel churns out and try to piece together whether the novel is self-aware of its own flaws, or if the absence of awareness is what exemplifies the philosophy. Any conclusion, any derivation is the nature of literary criticism, the nature of the individualist experience of literature. It is an experience that I am innately enamoured by and I am glad and grateful that this book has ignited my passion.

To me, this book felt like an indictment of Harry, the eponymous Steppenwolf. The novel attempts to poke fun at the lens which Harry tries to unravel his internal war. His disconnect from society, from the experiences of pleasure or pain, was subtle parody on the intellectual asceticism, which denounces popular culture, for a culture more pure, more eternal and supposedly transcendent of space and time. Harry is his own paradox who perpetuates the things that disgust and separate him from society. The philosophical basis of this book anchored me with interest and I couldn’t help but enjoy this experience. Definitely one that I would love to return to in the future.

Quotes

This Steppenwolf of ours has always been aware of at least the Faustian two-fold nature within him. He has discovered that the one-fold of the body is not inhabited by a one-fold of the soul, and that at best he is only at the beginning of a long pilgrimage towards this ideal harmony. He would either like to overcome the wolf and become wholly man or to renounce mankind and at last to live wholly a wolf’s life. It may be presumed that he has never carefully watched a real wolf. Had he done so he would have seen, perhaps, that even animals are not undivided in spirit. With them, too, the well-knit beauty of the body hides a being of manifold states and striving. The wolf, too has his abysses. The wolf, too, suffers. No, back to nature is a false track that leads nowhere but to suffering and despair. Harry can never turn back again and become wholly wolf, and could he do so he would find that even the wolf id not of primeval simplicity, but already a creature of manifold complexity. Even the wolf has two, and more than two, souls in his wolf’s breast, and he who desires to be a wolf falls into the same forgetfulness as the man who sings: “If I could be a child once more!” He who sentimentally sings of blessed childhood is thinking of the return to nature and innocence and the origin of things, and has quite forgotten that these blessed children are beset with conflict and complexities and capable of all suffering.

There is, in fact, no way back either to the wolf or to the child. From the very start there is no innocence and no singleness. Every created thing, even the simplest, is already is already guilty, already multiple. It has been thrown into the muddy stream of being and may never more swim back again to its source.

Before all else I learned that these playthings were not mere idle trifles invented by manufacturers and dealers for the purposes of gain. They were, on the contrary, a little or, rather, a big world, authoritative and beautiful, many sided, containing a multiplicity of things all of which had the one and only aim of serving love, refining the senses, giving life to the dead world around us, endowing it in a magical way with new instruments of love, from powder and scent to the dancing show, from ring to cigarette case, from waist-buckle to handbag. This bag was no bag, this purse no purse, flowers no flowers, the fan no fan. All were the plastic material of love, of magic and delight. Each was a messenger, a smuggler, a weapon, a battle cry.

For the first time I understood Goethe’s laughter, the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passing through all sufferings, vices, mistakes, passion and misunderstanding of men and got through to eternity and the world of space. And eternity was nothing else than the redemption of time, its return to innocence, so to speak, and its transformation again into space.

The Catcher in the Rye | Review

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My highschool required reading was minimal compared to the classics that seem to be universally read throughout other schools. I’ve never picked up nineteen eighty-four, never glanced at Catch-22, or even considered The Catcher in the Rye. I’d picked up some things about the book before going into, such as Holden being a bit of a whiny character who dislikes phonies. My expectations were founded by I didn’t find Holden to be as annoying as so many people seem to think he is.

Holden is a unique character, who is desperately and destructively trying to linger in the innocence of his youth. Whilst he is interested in learning at school, he can’t bring himself to invest his mind because that would be pushing himself further into the adult world that is full of people that are true to themselves like children are. He finds these people that are grown up and enshrined in dull rituals of etiquette repulsive because they are the catalyst of lost innocence.

The plot is largely non-existent as it focuses on Holden experiencing New York at this transitory time in his life. He isn’t quite a child or an adult, so his place in this city is undefined and shaky. There is a strong contrast between scenes where he is violent unfit for the adult scenery (such as the scene where he has a conflict with a prostitute) and scenes where is acknowledged as belonging. He may be a compulsive liar but he is not a bad person. I see this clear as day when he was talking with the nuns who are a model of virtue and charity. He can’t help but proffer himself to them and provide charity and company because this is a form of company that is more aligned with his being.

This book is interesting because of how Holden is this physical representation of philosophical difficulties of adolescence. Definitely a fascinating character study and I can see its merit in a classroom.

4 out of 5 stars