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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