Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
No matter. Although structured around their attempts to find the culprit, that’s not really what the novel’s about.
I’m not sure it’s even about ageing, and edging closer to death. The large cast of characters includes no-one under sixty, apart from Olive, a twenty-four-year-old who serves as confidante, and a little more, to several of the men. But it’s also a younger writer’s perspective on the elderly: Muriel Spark wasn’t yet forty when it was first published in 1959.
With housekeepers and daily women, it’s focus is upper-class antics, which holds little interest to me. Although I did enjoy elements of Godfrey and Charmian’s loveless marriage, with the husband’s envious attacks on his author wife’s success. Generally, it’s a comedy of manners, with the backdrop of betrayals, blackmail and infidelity. I can’t recall when I first read it, but it seems extremely dated in 2021.
Also dated – or least I hope so – was the Maud Long Medical Ward, where twelve women residents, all addressed as Granny, regardless of whether they’d had children, listen to their horoscopes as they await the Grim Reaper. Nowadays, they wouldn’t be in hospital, but in a care home or ‘the community’, dependent on rushed visits from overworked and underpaid care staff.
Have you read this novel, reissued by Virago Modern Classics in 2019? Do you think it would stand the test of time?
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Familiar with this story from the movie starring Jack Nicholson, I was surprised to find it narrated by Chief Bromden, the Native American who has languished among the Chronics for years. But, with his broom, and feigned deafness, he is ideally placed to eavesdrop on both patients and staff. His backstory of a community cheated out of their land and culture, is sensitively told.
Overall, I enjoyed this modern classic, first published in 1962, but it’s very much of its time. It’s not so much that the long-stay psychiatric hospitals have been demolished – the backdrop to my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home – but that the Chief’s crazy-but-true belief in the Combine, a far-reaching system of social control, seems mild relative to the challenges we face today. (The climate and refugee crisis and our conscious collusion in capitalism’s intrusion into every area of our lives.) But maybe I would say that!
The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak. We must … learn to accept it as a law of the natural world. The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf is the strong. In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about.
It might be a fair reflection of the times, but I was uncomfortable about the racial divides, where it seems that patients – apart from the Chief – and senior staff are white, while ‘black boys’ attend to the basics. And while single-sex wards inevitably furnish a cast of male characters, I wondered about the stereotyped roles for women as battle-axes, double-binding mothers and ‘whores’.
That said, it’s an absorbing and impressive debut novel, and a trenchant indictment of oppression and conformity pressures in mid-20th-century America, and of psychiatry not as care or treatment but as social control. Plus my 2005 Penguin edition comes with illustrations by the author. My Goodreads record has this marked as already read, but I reckon – sixty years after publication – I’m a first timer.
Incidentally, if you follow my newsletter, you’ll find One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest cropping up again – maybe even twice – around the end of April or early May. If you’ve not yet subscribed, a click on the image will take you to one portal. Get on board before March 12 to take part in a competition to win a signed copy of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.
Checking the prompt for the latest flash fiction challenge on the day I determined to write my review of Cuckoo’s Nest, I had the idea of pairing the two on the assumption – delusion? – sweet potatoes were a Native American thing. Maybe so, but it didn’t show as such on Wikipedia. But something else did, which surprised me – in a good way – and before too long I had my 99-word story. Let me know what you think.
Sounds stretched and shrunk, colours dissembled. Violet trees and turquoise cows drained her energy. The hospital promised to replenish it.
She requested seclusion, but they insisted new admissions sleep in the dorm. Sleep? With that symphony of snorts, sigh and squeals quarrelling with her inner voices. Hardly therapeutic!
The food was cordon bleu. Her taste buds functioned fine, but butternut squash repulsed them. She ate the lamb, pushed the vegetable aside. “Ain’t you eating your roast potato?” They claimed she’d ordered those nightmare orange lumps.
Now she sits in solitary, coaxing a tune from her sweet potato (AKA ocarina).