A woman of no interest: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn

Rohan Maitzen, an academic at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, who specialises in Victorian literature, wrote in her entertaining personal blog yesterday a piece about what she’s doing when ‘posting’ about rather than ‘reviewing’ books in her blog:

Here, in contrast, I can write whatever I want, no matter how inadequate my understanding might be. My blog posts are narratives of my own reading experience, and so I’m answerable only for being honest and thoughtful about that.

I feel much the same. Most of my posts about books are musings or personal responses rather than reviews.

Of late, when I’ve been obliged to spend quite a bit of time in bed trying to recover from a recurring heavy cold/cough, I’ve got through quite a few books, so today’s post will be a quick response to Barbara Pym’s 1977 novel Quartet in Autumn (links to my previous posts on BP at the end of this piece). A thoughtful introduction at the sadly now defunct Open Letters Monthly (one of Ms Maitzen’s former haunts) by Michael Adams in 2011 is a good place to start if you’re new to Pym’s quietly stated but profoundly moving fiction; he cites admirers such as those who rediscovered her in the 70s when she’d become neglected and unpublished, Larkin and Lord David Cecil, then slightly later advocates like John Updike and Shirley Hazard.

Pym Quartet cover

Cover of my Picador Classic edition (2015)

For several thoughtful, academic essays on this novel (and many other matters Pymian) I’d recommend the Barbara Pym Society website, which introduces Quartet as follows:

Quartet in Autumn, shortlisted for the Booker Prize when it was published in 1977, is one of Barbara Pym’s most unsentimental books, about four English office workers who face aging in different ways. Edwin, Letty, Marcia and Norman have little in common except that they have worked in the same office for many years.  They are each eccentric and difficult in their own way, and resist connections with each other. Letty is a spinster who doesn’t know why life seems to have passed her by. Marcia is an anti-social eccentric, whose quirks and paranoia are becoming more pronounced since her mastectomy. Edwin is a widower obsessed with church-going. And Norman is a ‘strange little man’ with a sarcastic sense of humor and more than a touch of misanthropy.
   In typical Pym fashion, these four characters dance around each other, unable to commit to truly knowing one another. They know each other’s habits and eccentricities, but they don’t really know each other. And when one of them goes into a decline, the other three notice, and try to move into action, but ultimately can do little to help.  This may not be an uplifting book, but it is certainly sharply funny, observant, sad and true. I always enjoy Pym’s clear-eyed observations about her fellow humans – while she shows her characters with warts and all, she does not judge them. They are real people, worthy of her respect. [Link here]

The link to the Society’s conference monograph papers includes several fascinating pieces on Quartet – and on her other novels and related topics. Well worth exploring. I’d recommend this essay by Tim Burnett on the social background to the novel: it very much reflects the dying world of shabby genteel gentlewomen about which Pym had previously written, but which by 1977 was changing rapidly – there are timely references to the welfare state, particularly the NHS (Marcia’s mastectomy – an operation that Pym herself underwent, would have been free at the point of service, the basic principle of Britain’s health service – but then, as even more so now, under severe financial strain), immigration (some slightly uncomplimentary references to a Nigerian landlord, racist anti-Asian graffiti, etc.) and other signs that the post-war world in which she’d grown up was transforming out of recognition. Even the ‘churchy’ elements that dominated her previous novels is much reduced; only Edwin, with his mania for attending obscure saints’ day ceremonies at a range of his favourite churches, and tendency to look up new priests’ details in Crockford’s directory in the public library (another aspect of the welfare state that’s so prominent in the novel), maintains that tradition.

Burnett also considers the theme of nutrition in this novel: Marcia hoards tinned food (among other things – milk bottles, plastic bags), and we are often told what the office quartet are having for lunch or supper – usually as an index of their social status and mental state (Marcia slips quietly into a kind of anorexia, subsisting largely on tea and the occasional biscuit).

The other Pym Society essay I found informative is this one by Raina Lipsitz on the characters’ varying degrees of ‘failure to connect’. Poor Letty, for example, perhaps the most sympathetically portrayed, and who we see most of, is shown resisting the overtures of a fellow diner at the cheap restaurant she lunches at – yet there’s a part of her that yearns for the human contact she instinctively, paradoxically, shies away from.

The writing shows Pym’s superb ability to convey depth and nuance in apparently effortless, transparent prose. Here she is early on, describing the quartet’s (separate, not collective) visits to the local library:

Of the four only Letty used the library for her own pleasure and possible edification. She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.

This is a deeply felt, poignant novel about that process of nearing and reaching retirement age in a world where you’re not noticed; when Marcia and Letty are given a low-key retirement send-off at their office, it’s done at lunchtime to keep the costs down, and no one in charge is clear exactly what any of these four colleagues actually do. They won’t be replaced – for they have no value to the organisation (which significantly is never identified, neither is the work they do: filing and clerical, it’s hinted, but they don’t often seem to do much work) – or, by implication, to society.

Pym’s is the voice of the vulnerable, marginalised, atrophied remnants of a bygone, dying era. As with Willie Loman, attention should be paid to them, no matter how unattractive or superficially flawed or redundant they seem.

Previous posts on Barbara Pym novels:

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

James Wright’s hammock with chicken hawk

I’ve not had time to post for quite a while, such have been the pressures of work. But just now I read the always stimulating Rohan Maitzen‘s post about what she’d doing in her classes, and I felt inspired to emulate her in my own way, by noting here what has roused my interest in my own teaching this week.

I came across the poetry of James Wright, and this poem; the links take you to the Poetry Foundation site, which has useful biographical/background information, and the text of this and other works by him.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota By James Wright (1927-80); CGI reading of it here

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   

Down the ravine behind the empty house,   

The cowbells follow one another   

Into the distances of the afternoon.   

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,   

The droppings of last year’s horses   

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

[from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose (1990); first published in The Paris Review, 1961; see this article about it there from 2015 by Dan Piepenbring]

He focuses, as surely most of us do when we first experience the shock, on that extraordinary last line, that explodes everything that’s gone before; is a lament, a joke, a kind of boast, or ‘a religious statement’ (Wright’s own view) he wonders? He provides useful links to other speculations about and interpretations of it. I’m still not sure what I make of it.

He also provides links to a piece about it by David Mitchell at the Atlantic, a provocative article on ‘the popular disdain for poems’ by Ben Lerner, and a list of other critical responses at Modern American Poetry’s site. Well worth exploring. He also considers some of those responses, including those of Robert Bly and Thom Gunn.

I notice, as I try to process that final line and how it arises out of the previous ones, how he makes interesting use of the definite article for most of the concrete nouns he itemises in his sweep of his gaze around the view from the hammock: ‘THE bronze butterfly’, ‘THE black trunk’, and so on.

But it’s ‘A chicken hawk’ (whatever that is; we don’t have them in Cornwall. We do have buzzards, so I’ll picture it like that.) Why so unspecific about this one raptor? And why is it looking for home (its own, or any old home? Is it lost? Is that what provokes that apparent non sequitur of a closing line?)

Odd, too, how it’s the cow BELLS that ‘follow one another’, not the cows…Bovine synecdoche (a rhetorical term that came up in today’s class on Hard Times – ‘the Hands’).

All the best writing raises more questions of this kind than it answers. And that goes for that enigmatic, explosive last line. Most of us, I’d have thought, would find the curious, engaged sweep of gaze across this rural scene very much the most rewarding kind of spending one’s life – far less wasteful than commuting through dank January streets to work.

Maybe that’s one aspect of its startling impact; if he thinks he’s wasted his life by observing the life around him from that relaxing hammock, what does that make mine (i.e. my life) worth?

You might like to try ‘Outside Fargo, North Dakota’ (1968), or other links at Poetry Foundation site, source of most of these materials.

Finally, I recommend Rohan Maitzen’s site,  the one I mentioned at the start, ‘Novel Readings‘, where she regularly includes a ‘This week in my classes’ item. There’s also plenty of other intelligent, thoughtful material on all things literary and academic.

Just looked up Chicken Hawk at Wikimedia Commons. Here it is:

By Maynard, Lucy (Warner), 1852-1936. [from old catalog] – from Birds of Washington and vicinity, 1902 (& Library of Congress). Seems it’s the popular name for several kinds of raptor, including Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Sharp-shinned?

 

Now back to Dickens.