Time Reading Program: Memento Mori


Cover art by Tomi Ungerer.

I can’t believe this book has not been made into a film. I could visualize the introduction of the characters in the first few chapters as  a series of movie scenes. As one character meets another, we get a small vignette that illustrates each one’s personality, and then he/she bumps into the next character and a new vignette. Soon each characters eccentricity or uniqueness is revealed and the stage is set for the story to unfold. It’s a brilliant and cinematic opening.

All the characters are friends or acquaintances, all  over 70 years old, and in various states and manifestations of aging. Some are forgetful, some are obsessive, some are sharp but physically ailing.  Their interactions are both sad at times and deeply, darkly comical. This is one of the first books in a long time that had me laughing out loud:

Tempest Siddebottom fussed over the little man who beamed up at her with a fresh face under his wide black hat. He spoke in a shrill boyish tone. “Afraid I’m late,” he said. “Is the party over? Are you all Lisa’s sinisters and bothers?”

But more than just a dark comedy, the book takes a look at what it means to age and how the knowledge of impending death sharpens the need to let go and focus sharply on what matters most. Each character begins receiving mysterious phone calls in which the caller tells the person who answers: Remember, you must die. And this theme of death, the remembrance of death, is the central focus of all the characters and their actions:

Henry Mortimer said: “If I had my life to live over again, I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be full of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.”

Good advice, but how many of us do it?

The cover of this Time Reading Program edition is illustrated by Tomi Ungerer. Ungerer is a prolific French illustrator and author, and I know I’ve seen tons of his work over the years without realizing they are all by the same person. A quick peruse of Google images and you’ll see lots of examples of his work, even some of the more bizarre. But this cover for the TRP is one of my favorites, and captures the perfect mix of whimsy and oddly macabre to aptly illustrate the story.

personal copy
Originally published 1958 by J. B. Lippencott Company
Reprinted with new introduction 1964, Time, Inc.
Cover art by Tomi Ungerer

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