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.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Hey! An Operation!

Sunday I had my first operation since I was a teenager. As a child I had the tip of my finger lopped off. That required an overnight stay to sew it up. As a teenager, I had a deviated septum. I had my nose reamed (not the medical term). My nose was packed so I had to sleep breathing thru my mouth. Which I didn’t really do. The night nurse supplied an empathy that I still remember. I was told that my father sat by my bed for a couple hours after I returned from the operation. I never woke while he was there but I cherish that. I’ve had some emergency room stays. I have had several immersive stays when my parents and Erin variously had lengthy stays. I’ve seen the wringer but this was the first I really felt it.

Friday at work I suddenly felt sick to the stomach and shivery chills. I assumed food poisoning. It felt bad enough that I left work a little early. I had a really uncomfortable night with aches and chills and a pain in my gut. I also had a supreme and unlikely hunger. When I got up, I tried to make soothing oatmeal. It tired me just standing at the stove. I crawled under a blanket. I managed to eat what I made before I left for work.

I would have skipped work Saturday but I knew two people were unavailable. I thought I could muscle my way thru. I did eventually rally, and I ate a sandwich for lunch. I meant to work the full day but Beth encouraged me to leave when the next person in arrived. Beth made magic matzo balls and chicken broth and I went to bed.

I passed off the pain in my gut as gas but Beth suspected my appendix. I don’t think she ever trusted my appendix, when it comes to that. She consulted our doctor and he said go to the hospital. So there it was.

Completing the initial paperwork, we sat and watched the final inning of the Red Sox against Tampa. As Koji Uehara was about to throw his last pitch I got called to confirm my entrance. I wanted to see Koji’s celebration. Soon after, barely hearing any of David Ortiz’s bland interview with somebody, I got called to the emergency suite. Appendicitis offers more risks than the cuts, breaks, and muscle tears that I’ve otherwise brought for show. Short wait before a nurse came for vitals. Watched the Bruins finalize a win in souped up e-room convenience. Watching this was more to please the attending nurse. A doctor explained that the likeliest diagnosis was appendicitis, which a cat scan would confirm.

Cat scan = modern fun! Over the course of more than an hour, I had to drink apple juice laced with contrast liquid. This liquid would help the scan image’s clarity. This was not onerous labour but it took time. Beth went home because she was exhausted and the scan wouldn’t occur for another several hours.

On the other side of the curtain there was a teenage boy who fainted during an sat test. He suffered a mild concussion in his fall. I half dozed until a nursed collected me and took me by gurney to another emergency room. This was inscrutable because it seemed like the same room. It was already occupied by an older woman who had taken a fall. She broke ribs. Doctors and nurses kept remarking on the injury to her face but I never saw it. Hospital staff several times asked her about kin, and her answers always included addenda: Joe is my nephew and he’s married to Julie. She wanted answers about what was happening next. The doctor who answered one time was quite petulant in telling her that she had already been told. He tried to lead her on to answer her own questions but that tack didn’t work. I finally got gurneyed off to the scan.

This radiology wing, not unexpectedly, was scarcely populated. The scan operator was probably glad to have someone to talk to. A glitch right off: I’d had blood taken earlier, and the site was kept open so that… I hope I’m getting this right… more scan liquid could react with the scan. I’d notice that the site was a little painful but in fact the needle had come out. The operator had to do a new one. The initial site was a vein on my right hand. She tried the left hand. Turns out she was not that good at using needles. The operation hurt and she never made a proper site. I purposely kept my cool and brushed aside her apologies, not wanting to rattle her, or myself. She tried a vein at the crook of my left elbow. This was equally a painful failure, and left a bruise. She said I had very hard veins.

After that she called a nurse, who quickly and painlessly applied the needle. I was then stuck in the scan tube. The liquid was sent thru my veins. I was told that I would feel a warm sensation that might make me think I was pissing my pants. Also, I was supposed to listen to the instructions of the automated voice. This voice, when it spoke, was at first inaudible. That worried me. Ructions in my intestines also worried me. I should have asked how long the procedure took.

Finally the voice cleared and I felt the warm feeling. I had to take a deep breath and hold it a couple of times. It took a few minutes to finish. As I was exiting the tube, an intense and increasing sense of hunger fell over me. This turned immediately to nausea. I announced how I felt and the operator gave me a bucket. I dry heaved four or five times then felt fine. After a quick torso x-ray, I got admitted to a room. I think it was close to 3:00.

I had a saline drip. Where the needle was set, it was easy as pie for me to occlude the tube. This activated an obnoxious alarm, one that required a pro to quell. This happened probably ten times. The nurses et al were fine with this but I know my roomies were not. At 6:00, I readied for the operation. I had to remove my jewelry. For this peacock, that means an earring, two wedding rings, another ring, and a silver necklace. I had never taken any of them off before except the earring. All were given to me by Beth.

A footnote applies to the wedding rings. Not long after the wedding, the ring fell off. That was upsetting. We got another, larger one. They were cheap. Lo, the first one was found, so I wore that two. I didn’t even know how to remove the necklace. I felt a strong emotion in removing the rings. Just to add to that, twenty two years earlier to the day, in this hospital, my mother died. I don’t know why humans think like this but we do.

The doctor had earlier explained his diagnosis and intended procedure. The scan confirmed a sketchy appendix. Not perforated but increasingly ready to blow. He was mostly calming in the information he gave. He described an area on the intestine that could be inflamed. Alternatively, it could be something else, however unlikely. I wasn’t nervous. I would have been had this been a planned operation, but as it was, it was just a long, weird day. The surgeon stood before me holding a box in front of him to support a piece of paper. He drew a stick figure and explained how things were and would go. Because of the placement of my appendix, he would incise over it and make the snatch. Okay.

I was wheeled down to surgery. There I met the attending anesthesiologists. In sooth, it was one anesthesiologist, one nurse-anesthesiologist, and a nurse. The a introduced himself and spoke calmingly about what he would do. He’s actually the guardian angel who lets the n-a do the work and him get the money. Inequity, I’m sure. He was an entertainingly scruffy guy. He was also a physicist and apparently wants to start some sort of physics business, the nature of which I never got to hear. The others introduced themselves. It seemed like an affable group. The nurse injected me with something that she said would help me to relax and forget. It was the last thing I remember till after the operation.

I remember waking up brightly, as I typically do. I did not feel drowsey or out of it. I spoke to the attending nurse. Beth says that she was able to catch me as they were wheeling me to recovery (my next book Wheeling to Recovery, the hardhitting story of…). She reports that I said “you… you… you…” Then I declared that they didn’t do the operation, just pretended to. That’s something I would say, no doubt. On the other hand, perhaps a man on business from Porlock interrupted my dream. I dunno. Years ago, I contracted a doozy case of poison ivy. Beth was on constant watch that I didn’t scratch the rash. In bed I think I moved and Beth, still asleep, grasped my shoulder and said “Don’t scratch. I love you. What’s for dinner.” So we’ve got this crazy love.

What time did I reach my room? Eight, maybe? No, later, football games were impending. Beth stayed a while, then I watched football, dozed, read David McCullough’s book about some bridge in Brooklyn, and dozed. Beth and Erin returned, then football, doze, book, doze, and repeat. I mostly slept on my back, not my best choice. Left side hurt the wound, right side caused the alarm to ring. I slept in one hour portions, normal hospital routine.

During the night, I got a new roomie, the first leaving early in the day. I should have taken notes how to act sociable and pleasant. He had, I learned, diverticulitis. Med he was given apparently made him nauseous. I heard him throw up undramatically. When a nurse arrived he brushed it off as an inconvenience. I do that, brush things off. I don’t want the bad stuff to grow too big. I’m just not tuned to charming anyone.

I don’t know how we’ll pay for this extravaganza—thank you, Neanderthalis republicanis—but there was a large dose of experience. This is the first time in my large life that I was the old guy that needed help. It is not an easy position to sustain. Gracefully, at least. This is the time we start to learn things. Erin just served me some chicken soup he made.