Saturday, January 6, 2018

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

One of the things I enjoy most is a novel which spends a great deal of time talking about literature.  I have a few novels which listed dozens of books.  I took a lot of ribbing from my book club at a meeting when I listed new 200 novels mentioned in the text.  That is unusual, but it is common in literary fiction to have characters reading or discussing an actually published novel.  I recently reviewed Paul Auster 4321, and while one character sent a list of 100 books Archie Ferguson “had to read.”  Only a dozen or so were mentioned, and most of those I had read.  However, one novel really caught my eye.  I knew Barbara Pym as a recognized author, but I had never read anything by her.  But when a character recommended Archie read, Quartet in Autumn, I sensed a need to read this story.  Pym provided me with a clue, which helped untangle the web Auster had created.

Barbara Pym worked as an editor for an African scholarly journal.  She picked up the habit of observing the passage of humanity.  Her first book was published, and a couple after, but publishers declined to continue to sign her, because they saw her work as old fashioned.  In 1977, an influential article in The Times Literary Supplement listed her as one of the most underrated novelists of the 20th Century.  She then published a novel, Quartet in Autumn, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

4321 is a complex novel, and almost everything points to clues about the novel and its characters.   Quartet in Autumn is the story of four people – Norman, Edwin, Letty, and Marcia – all work together in a room, but no one knows what they are doing.  Even the head of the company joked at a retirement party, “Exactly what is it you do?”  This detail is never revealed.  The “quartet” are friendly and helpful towards each other, but, oddly enough, they never socialize after work, and they never visit with each other.  The novel reminds me of Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.  This story details an elderly and lonely man and woman who decide to spend some time together.  A reader might characterize these two novels as “old-fashioned,” but I found Pym’s novel interesting and absorbing.

Letty was the first to retire.  She had a friend, Marjorie, who lived in the country, and on a visit, she discovered that her friend was in love with a local Vicar and they were planning to wed.  Marjorie half-heartedly offered to let her move in with the newly engaged couple.  Pym writes, “Of course there was no question of her living at Holmhurst, a large red-brick mansion standing in wide lawns which she had often passed when she went to see Marjorie.  She once noticed an old woman with a lost expression peering through one of the surrounding hedges and that impression had remained with her.  When retirement day came, and it was not far off now, she would no doubt stay in her bed-sitting room for the time being.  One could lead a very pleasant life in London—museums and art galleries, concerts and theatres—all those things that cultured people in the country were said to miss and crave for would be at Letty’s disposal.  Of course, she would have to answer to Marjorie’s letter, to offer her congratulations (for surely that was the word) and to ease her conscience about the upsetting of the retirement plans, but not necessarily by return of post” (54-55).

Some might see Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym as “old fashioned,” but with my library firmly established in the 19th century, I feel quite at home, with a steaming cup of tea and some biscuits.  5 stars  

--Chiron, 11/9/17

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