- “Look for One Thing and You Find Another”: The Voice and Deduction in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori
And mortified from every side
The voice of memory comes crying.—Muriel Spark, “The Ballad of the Fanfarlo,” Collected Poems I
They are the messengers who run
Onstage to us who try to doubt them,
Fetching our fate to hand—Muriel Spark, “The Messengers,”Collected Poems I
In attempting to rethink a common misperception about Muriel Spark’s texts, I want to pay attention to a persistent but neglected problem that is more often overheard than heard by critics: the voice. By overheard, I mean that the voice is acknowledged as an ambient noise or trope that lurks only in the background of a particular text’s content. My approach will be to foreground the voice as a conceptual and theoretical difficulty that requires a more inflected response. For example, in her third novel, Memento Mori, we are made privy to a strange series of telephone calls in which an unidentified speaker [End Page 558] offers an aggregate of elderly people a piece of advice: “Remember you must die” (2). As several critics, Joseph Hynes among them, have observed, the novel is driven by the characters’ different reactions to the injunction of this mysterious voice (97). But this text is not the only one that exploits the literary and conceptual possibilities of the sonic. Indeed, Spark’s work abounds with people who hear or overhear uncanny sounds and voices: the clacking typewriter in The Comforters, the long-dead neighbors who disturb Miss Carson in “The Party Through the Wall,” the voice of Roy, Dame Lettice’s wandering nephew, in the radio play “The Interview,” the murdered narrator of “The Portobello Road,” and the bizarre repetition of the overheard phrase in the story “Quest for Lavishes Ghast.” However, Memento Mori brings into greater relief the fact that Spark is not merely deploying supernatural or metafictional devices in a witty and accomplished way. Her novel places a kind of sonic pressure on the difference between speech and the voice. What is that difference? Speech is, of course, the communication of words with the instrument of the voice. But what is the voice? In Lacanian terms, as Mladen Dolar explains, the voice is a much more difficult object to place since it is a symptom of what is left over from speech, an uncanny object that speech cannot completely master. In other words, the voice as symptom, as a thing without a body, is that which exceeds speech or that which exceeds speech’s capacity to make sound meaningful (Dolar 15). The problem of voice as a thing without a body, as an enigmatic object of desire is, I contend, what drives the mystery of the plot. If this is the case, then we must assume a different critical attitude to the plot of Spark’s novel than has been adopted by past commentators on the text.
Before I turn to exploring the implications of this different critical perspective, I want to outline briefly how the novel is usually read. What strikes me as problematic about most critical reactions to Memento Mori is that it is read from the perspective of its ending and not from its beginning, which, as Nicholas Royle reminds us, opens the novel “in media res” (190). That is to say, one should not read the text retroactively as a novel about the supernatural or seductive power of Death.1 Instead, as I suggest below, the text emerges as an entrancing, significant break from the traditional detective story or the hardboiled detective novel through its meditation on the voice without object. Although Hynes quite rightly shows that Spark is engaged in a novelistic critique of the detective genre (especially in his reading of The Comforters), he does not consider how Spark is prodding the genre in a more late modernist direction through its parodic attitude to deductive psychology. In the novel that follows, we assume initially that we are meant to pursue the characters’ reactions as clues [End Page 559] to the identity of the voice, who is, by hilariously maddening turns, described as sinister and civil, young...