Monday, April 07, 2014

Set Piece

A man entered the store hand in hand with a toddler. The boy was a confident toddler with a good step. The man of course was directed, he had a mission in the store. The child looked around like brave new world. All was new. He did not pull,  they walked side by side. The boy said, “Come on, daddy.” With his eyes wide open, it was as if he were the mentor.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

My Friend Fu Manchu

I first read Saxe Rohmer’s books about Fu Manchu when I was a teenager. I don’t know how I came to them. I found them entertaining. I gave little thought to the comprehensive view except that it was a lively read.

Years later I read one, just to see if it held up. I found it compelling, and gave thought about the nature of the series. I’m still thinking.

I don’t know what kind of audience the novels have. I suspect that the name Fu Manchu rings a bell for many, perhaps only for the mustache. I don’t believe there’s been any revival like with Conan. There have been Fu Manchu movies—Christopher Lee has played him, I think—but nothing like Sherlock Holmes. The character type, diabolical genius from the mysterious East, has been used to a fare-thee-well, Fu Manchu unnamed. It somehow touches something.

Racism is part of that something. We define evil as what we don’t know or understand. We imagine conspiracies and plots by an inscrutable enemy. Kind of lazy, kind of ugly. Fu Manchu represents a consummate political bogie man.

The books are a sort of relentless imitation of Sherlock Holmes. Whereas Holmes is a genius, apt nemesis to the masterminds he tangles with, Sir Denis Nayland Smith is a bit of a dud versus Fu Manchu. Nayland Smith is a bulldog but always seems to be outfoxed by Fu Manchu. And yet, every round ends up won by Nayland Smith, or at least not won by Fu Manchu.

Like Holmes, Nayland Smith has a sidekick, Dr. Petrie. Petrie sometimes carries a pistol and an electric torch. That is his job, plus narrate events in hyper gasp. He ends up marrying Fu Manchu’s daughter, whaddya know. I don’t know wherefore but Petrie later gets replaced by a young journalist, Bart Kerrigan.

Nayland Smith is a government investigator, expert in foreign affairs. Nothing more foreign than the Asian menace. Rohmer describes Nayland Smith’s manner of speech with verbs like rap and snap, which I take are synonymous. Resume writers take note, Rohmer is a caution with the action words. Sir Denis also frequently raps his inevitable pipe, and he snaps his fingers irritably.

Sir Denis always seems on the brink of desperation in his battles with the evil genius. He and Petrie rush about trying to find leads, chase minions, and lay traps for The Doctor. The minions are sadly disgraceful. In one book, a  short, powerful Burman, which I think means Burmese, is referred to as subhuman. Immensely strong but Asian zombie in his blood. Yellow Race/Yellow Peril. A very minor character is described in ugly Jewish caricature. I suppose this is all normal for the time and place. Fu Manchu himself is rendered as diabolical, sinister, and the Devil incarnate. He’s a wee bit crazy, too.

Fu Manchu has moments of elegant sanity. I imagine Ian Fleming learned from Rohmer some things about monomaniacal masterminds intent on controlling the world. Fu Manchu always manages to set up a fully-equipped hide out in a dank riverside warehouse or an abandoned house in a bog. Nayland Smith and Petrie come very close to succumbing to The Doctor when some lucky mischance by Fu Manchu causes his plans to fail and he must flee. The Doctor’s return remains a perpetual threat. A grudging admiration exists between Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu. The Doctor also admires Petrie, mostly for being a fairly ordinary bloke.

The stories are all the same, but that doesn’t matter. We have this Manichean battle to witness. And it is all done with action verbs. These books are comprehensive in the focal demands of their racist congeries. And yet, Nayland Smith is so overmatched that you have to admire his doggedness versus this ultimate mastermind and his mindless minions. It’s like some do-gooder trying to bring the Koch brothers into a rationale of compassion.

The book cover of The Drums of Fu Manchu offers a collage of events in the book. The top of this emblem is the face of Fu Manchu. He looks crazed and provoked. Rohmer describes him as being tall and having green eyes, or maybe it is just his daughter with the verdant eyes. He wears a mandarin hat. Below him to the left is Scotland Yard, I guess, or Big Ben. The stakes. To the right, a guy in a striped shirt smooches a red haired hottie. The James Bond School of Relationship. They are Bart Kerrigan, journalist, and Ardatha, daughter or grand daughter of FM. I guess this is a scene from the book. Below to the left is someone aiming a rifle, presumably Nayland Smith. Finally NS with a knife to his throat—grey at the temple gives him away—tho it was Kerrigan who suffered the threat, which Ardatha saved him from.

The back cover features a small b&w of Rohmer sitting uncompromisingly on a desk in his library. He has a pipe in his mouth and wears a silk long robe. Nice!

If I can come to a bottom line, I like the energy of the narrative. Conan Doyle certainly knew how to raise the heart rate, in stories that often featured a 2-bit thievery, and Rohmer may top him. The racist figurines and the confident English rectitude conflate into a passion play of redemption, not that anything can possibly be redeemed in this murk. The noble intent of saving one’s class from the influence of Other allows mindlessness to flourish with a graceful radical. No, we are not beans in warm soil, we are the heroes of our small disposition.

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Antic View Returns

Almost nine years ago, Jeff Harrison and I began a blog called Antic View. We intended to have a public dialogue about writing, about his approach, my approach, the approach of others. We had a hiatus two years ago when my focus slid elsewhere. Not my interest, however, and certainly not Jeff’s. There was no formal closure, I just was looking in a different direction (several, I guess).

Jeff’s work has changed considerably over the years (I won’t comment on my own). In the fancy dance of the Internet, neither Jeff or I wiggle with proper gusto. I think Jeff has produced a fascinating and unique oueuvre unconditioned by the Internet’s official poetry world. I believe I have as well. Antic View, in my view, gives evidence that there are things outside Harriet the blog, and the academic rules committee. I don’t mean this in some sparkling defense of genius, I simply acknowledge the haves and haven’ts of promotion. I am happy to promote Jeff’s work, and even my own, but the point of Antic View is to see the work at work. The link, then: Antic View.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Beer Works, Lowell

We dropped Erin off at UMass Lowell, specifically East Campus. East Campus is about a block from The Beer Works. We had a nice dinner last summer at the Beer Works, which itself is across the street from where the Lowell Spinners play. We parked where we did last summer, only now Lowell had installed a revenue source. At least one dollar for an hour isn’t the worst I’ve seen. Better this than a random eager ticket.

Monday, around 3:30, the place was empty. A waitress came to seat us but we chose to sit at the bar. There were two bartenders along with the waitress, waiting thru the lull before dinner. “Blister in the Sun” played on the sound system. It carried into the bathroom, which is nice. The bathroom was clean but both sinks had severely wobbly faucets.

After some thought Beth selected the nut brown ale. I went with an ipa, of which there were several. I think it was called Dye Street. We also ordered the deep-fried pickles. The nut brown ale was rich and smooth with a touch of sweetness. The ipa was spicy and satisfying. I’m okay with overdone but balance is good too. Beer Works offers three glass sizes, 12, 16, and 24 ounces. Beth liked the design of one glass but the bartender wasn’t allowed to use that glass for nut brown ale. Each beer had its specific glass.

I had a second beer. The same ipa I’d already had was listed twice. The second one was cask-conditioned and unfiltered (the first was bottle-conditioned). It was served slightly warmer. It was cloudy, rounder with more yeast and fruit in the nose. Very pleasant.

Above the bar were three televisions with the sound off. Should mench that a small group entered and sat at the bar talking. One tv had a sports show with three hosts who were apparently being funny. They showed clips of athletes failing: falling down, losing fights, etc. They were full of what looked like tired guffaw. The middle tv had three talking heads on CNN discussing the Malaysian crash. I have not kept up with the controversy, but I could see they were tearing all life from yet another subject. Two serious looking experts flanked the attractive blonde CNN host who wore pink. None were in the same studio. At least it wasn’t Fox but you know it would all be insipid if the sound were turned up. The third tv showed a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the SF 49ers, from the 1980s. Tony Dorsett, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott. Golden oldies. What should beer drinkers watch if no sporting events are available?

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Crown Royal Maple

For some reason, Beth got curious when she saw a small bottle of Crown Royal Maple Whisky. She wanted to try it, and wanted me too, as well. I’m not much of a whisky drinker, nor am I enamoured of maple as a flavour. But years in the wine business has left me curious about tasting wine, beer, and even liquor. So I got the bottle and Beth, of course, declined to sample. My opinion stands thus:

Flavoured whiskeys have become rather hot. I like to read industry gobbledygook that features demographics and statistics that declare that every product is on the rise. I do see a certain eagerness about new flavoured spirits. Jack Daniels came up with Tennessee Honey, which seems to have hit a good stride. Our store was tipped off by a customer about a maple whiskey called Cabin Fever. It was made pretty much entirely by one man, who used syrup from his own sugar bush to flavour the whiskey that he made. He has since sold Cabin Fever to Jim Beam, which ensuingly got bought by the Japanese conglomerate Sun Tory. Tra la.

Flavoured vodka of course is a natural since vodka has little flavour on its own. Vodka flavours have devolved, if you ask me, from fruit and vanilla, to whipped cream, bacon and, omg, cigarette. True story, regular cigarettes and menthol.

Flavouring whiskey is a different matter because of whiskey’s already strong character.  The flavouring has to merge with the whiskey flavour. I was a little surprised that Crown entered the flavoured whiskey space. Like it is above such tactics. The market cries out, however.

Anyway, I poured a dollop over ice. I usually don’t like iced drinks but it seemed like the way to try it. When I tried Cabin Fever, the guy—I don’t remember his name—used ice. Cabin Fever is somewhat sweet and the ice mutes that some.

Crown smelled like maple whiskey. I’ve never had straight Crown, but it clearly was a decent whisky aroma. I got interesting fruit aromas, along with the maple. Orange came thru particularly. I do not suspect the addition of orange, that’s just what happens when Crown Royal and maple converge.

There’s some sweetness to the Crown, possibly less than Cabin Fever. It is quite smooth and lingering. It was a pleasant sip. I would drink it again, but probably not buy it again. I express why above, in the third sentence. You might try adding some to maple syrup, for pancakes or whatever. Not me, I put Frank’s Red Hot on my pancakes. I’ll bet other good cooking uses can be made.

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Blogs and Change

Tributary, this very blog, is almost 10 years old. That must be a century in Internet time. The blog has changed considerably. I began nervously, with flighty random thoughts. I then recounted things Beth, Erin, and I did, things I read or seen. That’s what I want from my writing, ride the wave.

A few years ago I chose to formalize the writing a bit. I used titles, which focused the subject matter a bit. I went to a little more effort with rewriting and the typo hunt. Not perfectly so, I am bound by a necessity with the blog to dash it off. I will usually let errors go if discovered later on, unless it is really ridiculous. And I almost never remove posts.

Anyway, I thought that I would post more often, and on a wider range of subjects, or even if I don’t know it’s a subject. Blogs of 10 years ago were much more conversational in the sense of readers functioning in and as a network. That job has been taken over by Facebook and Twitter, in a more fleeting and superficial way. I like writing and I like following the mysterious trails, so I will continue in my evolving niche. And there we are.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Dance Performance, “Calling to You”

I recently saw a dance performance by the Deborah Abel Dance Company last Sunday. I wrote about it directly. There's a degree to which I haven't really witnessed a performance or event unless I write about it. At least in part, I write to process the experience. Anyway, my blog awaits anything that interests me, and this performance certainly did.

Alas, I swung and missed. I tried to capture the narrative flow of the event, of everything that went into the concert. That can't be done in one sitting, maybe not in several sittings. Furthermore, I found my ignorance about modern dance hindered my writing. I cannot speak in the dance idiom, which essentially is what I tried to do. I can, however, speak in the art idiom. I am myself an artist and have been moved, confused, challenged, and inspired by the arts for all of my life. It is from this standpoint that I should write about the performance.

I have banished my first attempt from public view. With Take 2 here, I shall go light on technical matters. Plenty moved and excited me, music and dance.

The performance, or concert, is called “Calling to You”. Deborah Abel choreographed it. Lee Perlman wrote the music. Lee also played guitar and sang; Deborah also danced. They are married, which fact is apt because “Calling to You” touches on matters of collaboration, of engagement together.

The concert took place in a cozy theatre at Boston University. The musicians gathered in the pit at the left side of the stage. I could not see them well. Of course attention should be placed on the dancers but I was curious about what the musicians were doing. I think this is quite proper. They are part of the collaboration. It's not just the dancers who make the performance, it is the musicians, the person at the sound board, the person working the lights, the people changing the set. In theatre, we see the process and collaboration of creation that we do not see in movies or television.

After an opening invocation sung in Sanskrit, the curtain rose. A dark and sparely set stage greeted us. Two white rectangles hung on either side of the stage to suggest windows, ones that Nijinsky could never jump through. To the left a simple table and chair. Stage right a bed, more like a pallet. Two dancers set themselves at the table. The notes referred to them as Contemporary Male and Contemporary Female. He wore a sleeveless t-shirt and khakis, she a short red dress. He sat on the chair and she on the table. They were turned back to back. The tableau looked grim. Cue the music.

The music was essentially a set of songs, albeit richly arranged. Some were in English, some in Sanskrit, but either way I didn't really attend to the words. Taking in the spectacle of dance and music proves challenging enough on first viewing.

I found Perlman's music bore similarities to that of Dead Can Dance. Dead Can Dance is a musical group with a unique and eclectic sound. I don't mean to suggest similarities in any linear way. I mean more in the sense of passion, evocation, and mesmeric invitation. Percussion plays an important role in both examples, adding mood as well as beat.

The music of Dead Can Dance seems to have a strong Middle Eastern influence whereas Perlman's music seems tempered by that of India, at least here. I haven't mentioned yet that India provides the setting for much of this piece.

The instrumentation consisted of electric bass, tabla, flute, assorted other percussion, acoustic guitar, and violin. I mention the instrumentation because a rich and varied sound arose from the ensemble. I'm not quite sure how this collection of instruments produced those sounds.

The dancing in this first scene became an almost frenzied miscommunication between the two characters. They gallop towards each other, they swing away. They crawl on the floor, they roll over each other. The characters reveal anger and sadness, and even hope, but mostly look lost. All this in the difficult service of love. I think this scene ends with Contemporary Female curled face to the wall on the bed. Contemporary Male sits glumly at the table. Sadly opposed.

Between scenes the curtain remained raised but the stage was dark. A drone of some sort played. That made an effective maintenance of mood and connection to the next scene while the set changed. The audience clapped after each scene, which disturbed me. I guess it is what's done but it jolted me to return to “normal” after having been drawn into the meditative circumstance of the dance and music. The drone helped soften that jolt for me.

Narration accompanied the next scene. The story briefly, a boy and girl in ancient India become friends. Though they are young, their love reveals a knowing depth. Unfortunately, their families must move away and the children must part.

The contemporary set remains at the front of the stage, with Contemporary Male still seated at the table. He has his head on the table, dozing or just despairing. Ancient India is suggested in back by a few colourful elements plus the costumes of the dancers. Time is fluid; past and future are present now. The music here was upbeat and generative. The dancing was fluid, young, and happy.

The narrator speaks words in Sanskrit as the children part. The words are by Jnaneshwar Maharaj and are translated in the notes thus:

“Out of love for each other they merge and part for the joy of being two.” Read these words a few times, they are more of a riddle than you might at first think.

A quick web search discovers that Jnaneshwar Maharj was a revered poet who lived but 22 years at the end of the 13th Century. A little further on in the piece whence came the above quote, one finds these lines:

Two lutes, one note

Two lamps, one light

Two eyes, one sight

Two lips, one word

Two hearts, one love

This human intersection in which boundaries fall proves a central theme to the piece. The contentious pas de deux that began the concert showed the difficulties of separation, of boundaries.

Anyway, the girl Prema becomes a priestess and the boy Viveka wanders the world. Time and space separate them.

If memory serves, and it may not, the next scene featured Sadhus and priestesses. We see them on cushions, meditating perhaps. They are covered by veils. As the scene develops, they slowly flower by uncovering from their veils to dance. We see an interplay among them. The sadhus and priestesses then return to their cushions and one of them gracefully covers each, and then himself. The characters here seem timeless, unbound in that way. Perhaps here we begin to see them as tutelary spirits or guardians. As the concert goes on, the Ancient Ones show more interest in the Contemporary Ones, and the Contemporary Ones feel more the presence of the Ancient Ones.

Adult Viveka wanders into the woods, where he meets Tiger Spirits. The Tiger Spirits attack him. He puts up a good fight but they beat him down. I believe at this point Contemporary Male is gone and Contemporary Female lies curled on the bed.

Prema discovers Viveka, brings him to the temple and helps heal him. They reunite. Finally, the space-time intersection becomes complete: the Ancient Ones join the Contemporary Pair. At first male to male and female to female, the Ancient Ones lead and encourage the Contemporary Pair. Then male to female, female to male. Finally the Contemporary Pair feel free to dance together. Their contentions have broken down and their dance thrives with reborn energy and insight. Yin and Yang completion.

I found it easy to enter the “space” of this concert. The music made a rich landscape and the expression of the dance had a recognizable emotional touch. The dancing looked energetic and effortless.

It should be noted that Lee Perlman teaches philosophy at MIT, specifically a course on The Philosophy of Love. Obviously there's a grounding in ancient texts in this work. That grounding is organic and expressed gracefully in the dance, the music, and the words.

All in all, “Calling to You” displayed an organic collaborative quality and a skill to deliver its wisdom with poetic grace.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Santa Claus the Weird

Richard Lopez recently wrote a blog post about a movie he and his son watched called Santa Claus. His reaction is here. He includes a link to the trailer. I remembered the movie! That is, I remember seeing the ad for the movie on television when I was a child. I never saw the movie itself till I watched it with Erin on Christmas Day. It can be found in the Youtube repository, where our entire culture currently resides.

As happens so often with diversions meant for children, Santa Claus is a good piece of craziness. It was made in Mexico in 1959, then turned into an American product. I cannot say what was lost and found during the translation process. The movie’s a bit jumbly but nonetheless full of spectacle of a surreal sort.

Eastman Colorscope gets credit for the visual attack of the film. Who knows what that entails? Is Eastman Colorscope better than Technicolor? Well, the color is both faded and heightened, some of which may owe to old film or I don’t know what.

A voiceover narrator explains bits thru out the film. It comes across like a documentary. The first scene shows Santa’s workshop floating out in space above the North Pole. You may wonder why the displacement of Santa’s workshop from its usual terrestrial situation but later on we are informed that Santa can only stay on Earth on Christmas Eve. That suggests some penance that the jolly elf must serve. That’s a curious, undeveloped touch.

Inside the workshop we meet the jolly fellow. His jolliness verges on insanity, at least in his most heightened moments. He laughs hysterically for no discernible reason. Santa, as we receive him in the panoply of legends, is never really mischievous, but still he seems to have an air of Coyote. You know, sneaking around from house to house, eating cookies and milk at each one, busy at his endeavour. He’s up to something.

In the movie, Santa looks at his Christmas shrine, which is a manger scene, with Mary the honoured one. That confluence of sacred and profane makes me uneasy. He quickly leaves his shrine and toddles to his organ, which he starts to play with gesticulating zest. Surprisingly, because the actor obviously isn’t actually playing the organ, Santa puts a lot of energy into playing the pedals. He does this, seemingly, to entertain the elves.

In a separate workshop area are gathered the elves. At least I believe they are elves. They appear to be children from around the world. Here we get a rather tedious scene in which children/elves dressed in traditional gear of their land sing songs in their native tongue. The children (the actors) appear drugged, perhaps overwhelmed by the movie-making process. Just the fact that it is snowing inside the workshop might be enough to explain their discomfiture. Maybe 10 countries are represented in this scene including Russia and the nation of Africa.

We shift from this scene to Hades, Satan’s domain. The workshop was trippy enough. Hades is where the bad acid takes over. Hades is dark and red and flaming. A handful of red demons with big ears and bovine horns perform a cheesy Broadway dance routine that I guess means to assure young viewers that Satan and his crew are a bit wan and not to be worried about. Maybe it’s just me but when I see demons doing high kicks, I know I’m looking at shoddy merchandise.

After the dance recital, Satan’s booming voice explains that something has to be done about this fellow Santa. Satan directs a demon named Pitch to head up to the surface and mess with Santa. This isn’t the childish crank depicted in the Book of Job, this is Snidely Whiplash inventing nefarious plots that thin to nothingness.

Pitch transports instantly to an earthly rooftop, where he laughs with unreasonable vigour. The game is on.

Well, all he does is irritate. A crowd of children and parents gathers outside a toy store to ogle the delights. Included are a rich man and his son, who is confident to receive a great gift. We also meet a wispy little poor girl, who doesn’t look to get much. Pitch tempts three boys to lean toward the coal side of Santa’s list. They proceed to throw stones at the store window.

At Santa HQ, an elf alerts Santa that something’s afoot. Santa commands that his viewing device be used. It’s a sort of telescope with an eye at the end. I remember this image from the ad of long ago. Santa also has a listening device, a big ear, an a speaking device, a big, weird mouth. All this serves Santa’s good/bad surveillance.

Santa approaches anger at the thought of these boys performing bad deeds. He understands that Pitch is involved but still lays a burden on the boys. When I was in first grade, some second graders convinced me to yell something at the policewoman who got kids across Bedford St safely. They did not bully me, just explained how doing so would be a good idea. Well I did, I yelled “You rot.” I ended up having to stay after school there at the crosswalk. High crime. The point of this reverie is that I knew no better, and neither did the three boys. But Santa no like the rules broken.

Pitch also convinces the little girl to go to the dark side in some minor way. Her good soul and that of her mother make this only a brief dalliance. And Santa’s there to help her. There’s also a boy whose parents are a little neglectful of him, which Santa needs to right.

Time to deliver the presents. Santa has his sack and the elves stick presents into its internal endlessness. The narrator informs us that Santa’s reindeer, all four, are mechanical. Another random adjustment of the familiar legend. Aint anybody heard of Clement Moore here?

Santa carries with him something to make people sleep, allowing him to make his sneak attacks, and something to allow him to float, so that he can make use of chimneys. He rights Pitch’s wrongs. Ah but Pitch manages to make Santa’s magical items go missing. And just then an angry dog chases Santa up a tree. This is desperate because Santa’s time on earth is almost up and Santa especially doesn’t want to disappoint the little girl.

Santa calls to the elves, who can hear him thru the listening device. A magician named Merlin is called for. He’s a fragile, doddering old man in wizard suit. I’m not sure Merlin actually does anything. It seems like some of Santa’s magic stuff just appears, and all is well. I mean the dog stops barking and Santa can climb down from the tree. When I put it that way, the crescendo of dramatic tension doesn’t sound like much.

Santa seems like a good soul, if not that bright. The movie evokes a sense of the downtrodden even amidst its concern for middle class virtues. The Santa myth lacks comprehensiveness, which is obvious here and elsewhere. Why does Santa even bother to give presents to the son of the rich man (identified as such): that kid’s going to get the toy he covets.

In the old days, Santa was seen doling out dolls for girls and tin soldiers for boys. You could see Santa and his elf crew making those. Who ever thought Santa made Rocket ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, let alone PS4? So that conception of Santa is a fizzle. The image of the laughing, red cheeked Santa pleases but you cannot really hold it all together, the myth. This movie has its visual strength and basically good soul. It differs from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which just wants to be antic and fails. I feel that Santa Claus the legend will soon be outmoded. Too simple, and not generative enough in terms of product merchandizing.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym is a writer who I suspect isn't well known in this country. I think I stumbled on a book by her in a used bookstore, years ago. I don't know what led me to get it. The book surprised me for being so intriquing without having much of a plot. Pym has been in play for the Booker Prize (for this very book) so Great Britain must know her better.

Beguiled by that first book, I read a couple others, with satisfaction. Been a while since I have read her, but finding this at the library proved invitation enough.

This is a wonder-full novel, tho its uninflected nature makes that something perhaps easy to miss. As I was reading, I thought of A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery and James Schuyler. A better comparison is Arthur and Guinevere, by Schuyler seul. It shares with those works a de-emphasis of plot. Characters move about and “do” things, but they don't seem really at the authour's bidding.

I think Quartet also belongs in a Jane Austen lineage. V S Pritchett described the way Austen's character's intereact as like naval manuevres. You can see that in the way she lets Miss X and Mr Y grandly move toward and away from each other in the course of the story. Pym doesn't pace that way but there's an almost coded system among the four main characters as they politely and tentatively engage with each other. This is major league stuff.

The previous novels that I read centered on unmarried women “of a certain age”, and how they get along. These women are settled with their unmarried status tho somewhat dissatisfied. The books end without romantic clinch. The reader may root for these characters to end up happy, but Pym refuses to obstruct the veritable human processses of the characters.

In one novel, the protagonist referred to herself as a spinster. The word struck me as shocking, because the setting was contemporary, and the word seems so anachronistic and dated. It even has a cruel savour, coming from a time when the unmarried older woman was a degraded thing. I suppose that cultural command still exists, but maybe eased some.

Quartet concerns two women and two men who work together in some dreary office. All near retirement age and indeed the two women retire in the course of the book.

All four are unmarried. Only Edwin, a widower, had been married. He has a house. He spends his time at church. Churches, that is: he daily roams about to whatever church that is celebrating a Saint's day. He's not motivated by religion so much as by an eagerness to immerse in church community.

Norman lives in a bedsetter, a one room apartment. Where Edwin is somewhat pompous, Norman is more querilous, perhaps a bit fussy. He's move given of the four to make snarky remarks.

Marcia lives alone in a house that she inherited. She recently had a double masectomy. She's the most eccentric character.

Letty (Leticia) is the central character, tho all four characters are given roughly equal weight. Pym seems to be most inside Letty. None of the characters are entirely likeable, but we find all finally sympathetic.

You can't really draw the plot of this novel. The four, at work, interact in a familiar, bickering sort of way. They regard each other almost as friends, but they do not socialize outside the office. Except for Edwin and his churches, they have no friends or even interests.

This may sound grim but Pym is amazing in her ability to create a lively, realistic dislogue with these people. The characters all have these inchoate ideas about the world, intimations of understanding, that they always drop before “getting too far”. They tease each other, almost touching nerves, yet they remain in their grey disengagement.

Tho their conversation remains eminently polite, they frequently make thoughtless remarks about each other. Remarks, for instance, about the hopelessness of the women's existence (as aging spinsters), or Norman as a pathetic little man. These comments are blurted without guile or even interntion. Letty especially reacts to these remarks, yet no one seems to take them deeply to heart.

When the women retire, the company does not replace them. The men won't be replaced either when their time comes. The men vaguely worry about how the women will get along. They all do this, actually, but the change in situation for the women intensifies the men's dull concern. They all have a lasting, unexamined concern for each other. Letty is at least competent within her bounds. Marcia spins into dazed eccentricity.

A comic prop thru out the book is Marcia's hording of milk bottles. During the late war (the book's set in the 70s), you didn't get milk if you didn't have a bottle. Somehow a bottle that Letty had came into Marcia's possession. Marcia's dairyman won't take back that bottle. She developes an animosity towards Letty because of this intrusion into her life. When Letty's apartment situation is up in the air, everyone thinks she and Marcia should live together. Marcia even considers it, but the ghastly affront of Letty's milk bottle puts the kibosh on that arrangement. Marcia also hordes tinned food, which she hardly eats.

Tinned meals, or an egg and toast, plus of course tea, are what all of them go home to. They all note tiny kindnesses, like Marcia willing to share an economy-sized tin of coffee with Norman at the office.

I liken this to Alfred and Guenivere because so much is intimated, so much ripples under the surface. And Pym, like Schuyler, is so delicate and humoured with her characters.

There are some resolutions by the end of the novel. Marcia, who spent her retirement fading away, dies quietly. She surprisingly wills her house to Norman, who realizes he may not want the responsibility. Letty had planned to move in with a longtime friend in the country until this friend became engaged to be married. In the end, that engagement falls apart, and Letty has that possibility again. Letty, however, is unsure whether she wants to live in such dependencies.

The plot doesn't seem to embrace any fabrication. Pym peers straightforwrdly at lives of quiet agitation, and manages a lively wit and a kindly sympathy. And the book is surprisingly funny. I'll keep looking for Barbara Pym's work.

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