June 2013 coming upYes, we have a Pym-tastic review post today. Well, not that fantastic, as I wasn’t hugely keen on one of them … but it’s Barbara Pym Reading Week in various places, mainly on the Thomas At My Porch blog, and we had two Pyms selected for her birth month in the LibraryThing Virago Group Pym Read challenge, so I have gone for both of them early in the month this time (I’m saving my book of her letters for my own Month of Re-Reading in July next month). Because we’ve been reading the books in publication order, not order of writing, oddly this month has brought the last book that was published (in 1961) before Pym’s publishers scandalously dropped her, and the first book to be published when she was picked up again in the 70s.

Barbara Pym – “No Fond Return of Love”

(1 November 1994)

I always find this an almost Iris Murdochian Pym novel, with the multiple and shifting pairings and sudden reversals and avowals of love (actually “A Glass of Blessings” confines that type of thing to a smaller social group), although only the London squares provide an authentic Murdochian setting, with much of the novel located in dusty suburbia or the genteel seaside, with an excursion to a girls’ boarding school for an academic conference. The description of this academic conference made me whoop and snort with glee (M: “Is this a book for monkeys?”) and the somewhat accidental friendship made there is beautifully done. There’s also a skillful portrayal of bewilderment with the slightly younger generation, with a line drawn between 17 year olds and 32 year olds very clearly; more clearly than it would perhaps be today. I liked these incursions of modern day beehive hairdos and shaggy jackets, although these are sometimes mentioned in reviews as a little incongruous.

There’s some rather advanced use of Crockford’s Clerical Directory and Who’s Who for stalking purposes; would it be more or less fun for the two heroines to partake of such high-jinks in the age of Google, I wonder, as we follow an attractive academic and his purportedly attractive clergyman brother to their maternal home and find out more about their family’s background. This kind of activity of course is known to be one in which Pym herself engaged, which makes it the more realistic.

In the usual lovely connectedness which these novels have, Deirdre Swan’s mother makes an appearance, with news of her and Digby, Father Tulliver crops up, and we get a whole scene with Wilmet and Keith from “A Glass of Blessings” that’s deliciously done (she seems to be like someone out of a novel). Then there’s the reclusive author in the hotel dining room – Catherine Oliphant, perhaps, or the author herself? Although there are few librarians or anthropologists, there is a gentleman from South America and a very amusing dog, so there’s a lot to love here, and it remains a joy.

Barbara Pym – “Quartet in Autumn”

(9 May 2013 – from the publisher)

This copy of “Quartet in Autumn” was kindly sent to me by Bello Books, who are doing print-on-demand copies of some of Pym’s books. I talked more about this project in my post about acquiring this book (scroll down for the details and pics). This was the one Pym that I’d never owned and never read. The others have been a constant source of delight to me over the years since I first discovered them as a teenager in the house of a friend and neighbour. But this one … well, I always thought of it as “The depressing one”, and as I’ve got older, much like the later Anita Brookners, it’s unfortunately appealed less and less. But, we’re reading all of her novels this year in the Virago Group, and when it was one of three that this publisher offered to me, it seemed like fate, and I stepped up to the plate.

I have to say that I read it quite quickly. I found myself pressing on with it after breakfast, when I had at least two other things do to (work, and buying cat food), but it demanded to be finished, and in many respects, that included, it’s a very good book. But it is, well, depressing. Quite depressing, in the American sense of the word (very, rather than rather).

I can see why it was shortlisted for the Booker. There’s a certain kind of Booker book, and always has been – short, beautifully crafted, observational, literary, well-written and depressing. That’s my opinion of course, and it’s not true of every book that’s won, but there is usually one that fits this category on the shortlist.

It is beautifully written. It’s the story of four office workers in their sixties, starting to fade and facing retirement. Of course, this being the 70s, the women retire before the men, and so part way through the book the two women have to face up to their retirement. Retirement (like drink and age in general, I tend to think) serves to make the women more themselves, somehow. So one gets odder and one gets more refined. Their looks seem to presage this, one woman letting her hair dye grow out while the other brings out her “good” tweed suit. The men carry on, spreading out a bit, and the difficulties involved in the relationships which must form in an office environment being carried over into “real” life are beautifully done.

We do have the Pym themes of church and excellent women, with one male character collecting churches and services (and mentions of Father Thames and Father Bode from “A Glass of Blessings” as well as a very good vicar who prefers visiting the dead and dying to his live parishioners). There’s also some good stuff about modern church services with long hair and guitars and beads, which forms an interesting parallel to Murdoch’s discussion of the godlessness of society at this point in time (sorry for the Murdoch obsession in this post). There are some wry laughs.

But it’s also really dark, and I had to keep reminding myself that self-employed editors don’t really retire; that I do have at least some family; that I have a good assortment of friends of different ages; that I don’t live in a bedsit. I don’t know if this would have been better read when I was younger; I’m only 41 now. But I do know that I’m glad to have got it over with, glad I’ve completed my reading of Pym’s full set of works, and I will be keeping this copy … but I’m not sure if it’s a candidate for re-reading and I’ll be glad to get back into the world of villages and anthropologists for the rest of the year …