Sunday 10 December 2017

Something in Their Lives: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

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 realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.
Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn (1977), ch. 1

A look at the subject matter of several novels of the time may suggest otherwise. But this was Barbara Pym's personal experience; it's a cri de coeur. Pym, writing Quartet in Autumn after years of rejection, saw little prospect of its being published. The novel has a recklessness: she's perhaps writing for herself alone, or for a coterie of fans such as Philip Larkin, who read and commented on the manuscript. The heartening and miraculous story of the novel's eventual publication, after Pym was celebrated in a TLS article, is well known. A Booker nomination followed, and the reissue of her 1950s novels, along with the release of several works that had failed to find a publisher in the meantime.

Quartet in Autumn is the story of four office workers near retirement, conventional Letty, eccentric Marcia, churchy Edwin, and chippy Norman. But '[T]he curious intimacy of the office is very definitely not repeated outside it,' comments Edwin at one point. All four are single; two of them live in bedsitters, and the question of their future in a changing world - 'all the uncaring intricate rented world', as Larkin called it - is approached head on. This isn't the cosy Pym of the Fifties:
How had it come about that she, an English woman born in Malvern in 1914, of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians? It must surely be because she had not married... (Ch. 7)
Not that this is a racist novel: the Nigerians are kind and dignified; it's Letty who's out of step. Pym charts the changing social scene, but her eye is equable, ironic. Any less than sympathetic comments are given to the less than sympathetic Norman, always on hand with a hackneyed expression, which Pym records with detectable though silent relish.

Pym guides the story towards a fairly traditional satisfactory conclusion, but there's no disguising the bleakness of much of what has gone before. Deprivation was to Larkin what daffodils were to Wordsworth, and the atmosphere is at times strongly Larkinian - the Larkin of High Windows in particular. A line from an earlier poem 'Ambulances' is directly quoted, and Letty wonders about the validity of being 'deprived', of 'not having'. As a reader of Anita Brookner, I wonder also about connections with this later author. Certainly the novel's anxieties about housing and property have echoes in some later Brookners, especially The Next Big Thing.

But Quartet in Autumn is a comic novel. High comedy - that's what Lord David Cecil called Pym's humour. I'm not sure this quite applies to Quartet in Autumn, but in spite of its darkness it's often very funny. Pymish comedy seems to have to do with accumulation, and with deadpan deftness of pacing. I don't mean just accumulation of telling detail but of language too:
By profession he was a driving examiner and his present stay in hospital was the result, not of an accident with a middle-aged woman driver on test, as was jokingly assumed in the ward, but of a duodenal ulcer brought about by the worrying nature of life in general, to which the anxieties of his job must surely have contributed. (Ch. 1)
Successive parts of this sentence modify and undermine the reader's response. We might take exception to the line about the middle-aged woman driver on test, but the next clause cuts this away, revealing the jokey sexism to be the ward's, not Pym's. The mention of the ulcer shocks us into a seriousness that's swiftly demolished by the prim faux-seriousness of 'the worrying nature of life in general'. The final clause acts as a pay-off, linking the sentence back to its beginning and satisfying the intelligent reader by confirming his or her initial suspicions.

By a similar token, Pym's darker moments are edged with humour:
Even Marcia had once hinted at something in her own life, long ago. No doubt everybody had once had something in their lives? Certainly it was the kind of thing people liked to imply, making one suspect that a good deal was being made out of almost nothing. (Ch. 4)
Wistful? Mocking? Bleak? The tone here is hard to catch, and this is the case time and again. It makes it a novel you can never quite 'get'. It's an ambiguity found in other Pyms, but mostly in the later ones. It's something that goes some way to explaining the Pym critical industry, now prodigious.

Another example: Marcia and her plastic bags:
The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read 'To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children'. From middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves. So Marcia took the bag upstairs into what had been the spare bedroom where she kept things like cardboard boxes, brown paper and string, and stuffed it into a drawer already bulging with other plastic bags, conscientiously kept away from babies and children. It was a very long time since any such had entered the house, children not for many years, babies perhaps never. (Ch. 13)
The comedy builds slowly, grimly. Pym does not falter, steadily piling on the pressure, drawing out every last nuance, however dark.

I came to Barbara Pym's novels via Philip Larkin, and Quartet in Autumn, which I remember reading on a trip to Paris in the early 1990s, remains my favourite. The incomparable Larkin/Pym correspondence contains much discussion of the writing of the novel as it developed:
It would be wrong to say I enjoyed it in the simple sense of the word, because I found it strongly depressing, but I seem to recall some Greek explained how we can enjoy things that make us miserable. It's so strange to find the level good-humoured tender irony of your style unchanged but dealing with the awful end of life: I admire you enormously for tackling it, and for bringing it off so well.
Larkin to Pym, quoted in Hazel Holt's A Lot to Ask: a Life of Barbara Pym.

Old beloved Granada edition

My not quite complete Pym collection

The Brooknerian will now be taking a break. Back in the New Year. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Providence: Closing Comments

(I'm not over-fond of these 1980s
British paperbacks, though their rather
curious cover paintings strike
me as worthy of study.)

  • The rest of the novel is taken up with preparations for Kitty's make-or-break lecture, which, we are told, she once envisaged as a 'sort of open exchange' but now becomes 'yet another solo performance of high strain' (ch. 13). Everything seems to depend on the outcome of this event: she fantasises about weddings, and about married life as an accepted Englishwoman in Gloucestershire. But by this stage the novel is tense with foreboding. None of this can end well. '[L]ater that night she burned in fires.'
  • There's a misstep at the start of chapter 13. Several pages are spent with two minor characters, while Kitty is elsewhere. This gives Brookner the chance to show us at length what other people think of her protagonist, but for me the scene's artistic infelicity cancels out any gain.
  • Chapter 14 opens meanderingly - we see the dreamy days before Kitty's lecture. Brookner goes into some detail. Why? I think she's showing us the reality of Kitty's life, and Kitty's failure to grasp it. Kitty nourishes high hopes of Maurice, but he is completely absent. The painful focus on these empty days before the approaching cataclysm are equivalent to the terrible time that comes after the similar discovery in Look at Me.
  • The lecture goes well, but there is Maurice's dinner party to come. Again we see Kitty alarmingly alone. Brookner's gaze is steady.
  • The hot weather is brilliantly conveyed, giving the novel's last chapters a special, momentous quality. Old Church Street bears 'a passing resemblance to a deserted Mediterranean port' (ch. 15). Kitty breathes the stale evening air 'as if she were on the shore of a distant sea'.
  • The novel moves like clockwork towards the revelation in its final pages. The reader, like Kitty, is left horrified and without markers. A similar trick is pulled in a later Brookner, Undue Influence. One is aware in these novels of Brookner masterminding almost diabolically the humiliation of her heroines.
  • And we're left wondering: What exactly is wrong with them? What is wrong with Kitty? Why didn't Maurice choose her? Why didn't she win the game? As ever, Brookner hasn't quite got the answers - and that's why we know she'll be back at her writing desk before too long.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Providence: Waving to Me Ardently

As she turned to give them a last wave, as she always did, she saw their two faces at the window, white masks that dwindled as she walked backwards down the hill, still waving.
Anita Brookner, Providence, end of ch. 12

Scenes of waving in Brookner: a topic for a minor study. There will be a leave-taking, the protagonist will depart, and he or she will look back at some significant other or others, often parents. A chapter usually ends here, or, in the case of A Family Romance, a whole book ('waving to me ardently, as if I were her best beloved.'*). There are examples in A Closed Eye and Altered States, and probably elsewhere. Waving? Drowning?

*Lovely deployment of the were-subjunctive there. (I once wrote a dissertation on the use of the were-subjunctive in British English. Brookner made an appearance.)

Monday 4 December 2017

Providence: Kitty's Last Seminar

Notes on the seminar scene in chapter 11 of Brookner's Providence:
  • Says Kitty of Adolphe's ending: 'For the first time we are aware of the author's consciousness rather than his recital.' Later she says Adolphe is interesting for its juxtaposing of intense emotion with very dry language. And Brookner? 'There is a constant delightful tension between the austerity of her message and the voluptuousness of her medium,' wrote Lucy Hughes-Hallett in 1998.
  • '[I]t is characteristic of the Romantic to reason endlessly in unbearable situations, and yet to remain bound by such situations. [...] For the Romantic, the power of reason no longer operates. Or rather, it operates, but it cannot bring about change.' The Romantic dilemma, or indeed the Brooknerian, in a nutshell.
  • 'We are dealing with a work of fiction, and I simply want to make the point that in this period fiction, indeed all creative endeavour, becomes permeated with the author's own autobiography.' How far is Brookner's fiction permeated with her own autobiography?
  • 'Déclassée women like myself frequently are [well-dressed]'. Was Brookner 'déclassée'?

Sunday 3 December 2017

Providence: Rien ne vaut la France

It doesn't yet feel like mature Brookner, but in Providence you do get the sense of an author finding her feet. The middle stretches are of interest: Brookner seems to proceed through indirection, sending Kitty Maule to a clairvoyant; to a colleague's cottage in Gloucestershire; on an outing with her grandparents; and to Paris. But the focus on the heroine and on the main plot is tighter than in A Start in Life, and this is an advance. The tone, accordingly, is more consistent. There is still humour - the schoolgirls and their teacher in Paris, for example - but it's better integrated and less distracting. The pace is, however, slack. It works in Trollope, this lessening of the tempo in the middle, but readers often need a breather in the course of a long Victorian tome. In a novel as short and slight as Providence the reader may feel uncertain as to where the story is going, may even suspect the writer of not really having a story to tell.

But the Paris scenes ('Rien ne vaut la France') are fresh and full of incident and authenticity. I well remember travelling there as a youngster myself: the ferry crossing, that cafeteria in the rue de Rivoli. Later Maurice arrives, secure and complacent in his faith. He proves a disruptive, alienating presence. He somehow, for all his Englishness, manages to appropriate France, a country Kitty might have thought of as her own.

Saturday 2 December 2017

Providence: At Madame Eva's

In chapter 6 of Brookner's Providence we find ourselves in uncertain and unfamiliar territory. Kitty, persuaded by her neighbour Caroline, visits a clairvoyant. Kitty is appropriately sceptical - '[s]he was intellectually, as well as morally, uneasy' - but she goes through the experience all the same. The visit is fully described and dramatised; there's even a crystal ball. And Madame Eva's vouchsafements? They're stunningly close to the truth.

What are we to make of all this? I've really no idea. It puzzles me. It's a strange intrusion into the normal rationality of the Brookner world. It seems obvious to me that Caroline, before the visit, fed Madame Eva with details of Kitty's life. But Brookner doesn't acknowledge such a possibility, and the episode is allowed to pass away. Why?

Friday 1 December 2017


Always an interesting topic, this. I live in hope of picking up some old volume and finding fascinating annotations within, clues to the past, remnants of old lives. I've got a number of very old books - eighteenth-century editions of Tristram Shandy, the Rambler, and the original Spectator - but their previous owners seem to have been careful, reticent folk.

Looking back at one's own jottings is another matter. I think I last read Brookner's Providence in the 1990s, and I'm using the same copy for my reread. I find disappointingly few marks, and no notes. But the few marks intrigue me. I responded, back then, to passages that leave me cold now. I don't wish to go into too much detail here, but in general I seemed to 'identify' (hateful word, but unavoidable) more with Maurice than with Kitty. Now the opposite is true. As I say, interesting - but probably only to myself, so we'll leave it there.