Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym [review]

Quartet-in-autumn

Barbara Pym and the novel that revitalised her career

Quartet in Autumn was only my second experience of Barbara Pym’s work and now I can see why she has such a devoted group of followers. What I enjoyed about Some Tame Gazelles (her debut novel) was her ability to portray the peculiarities of ordinary life in an English village of the 1950s. She uses the same approach in Quartet in Autumn but this time the focus is on the minor irritations and peculiarities of  office life in 1970s London.

Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, engaged in the kind of unskilled, menial clerical activities that don’t add up to very much at all. Now in their sixties they are on the verge of compulsory retirement. It should be the autumn of their lives, a time filled with colour and mellow fruitfulness, but that is not the case for this quartet of rather lonely people.

Letty and Norman live alone in rented bedsits; Edwin in the home he once shared with his wife; Marcia in her parents’ old house. They chat in work but mainly keep their private lives, private, and there’s no suggestion they should ever get together outside of the office. They don’t even lunch together. Letty goes to the library while Edwin prefers to visit a church. Since his wife died he’s rather thrown himself into church affairs, assiduously reading the Church Times,  ticking off a list of church buildings to visit and joining in with many church celebrations, especially those involving free sherry and food. Norman, a rather spry figure,  occupies his time planning trips with his detestable brother-in-law that he never takes.

And then there is Marcia, the character Pym imbues with the greatest quota of pathos. The highlight of her life was the time she needed major surgery, an event about which she regularly reminisces. That’s when she’s not talking about the wonderful surgeon who performed her mastectomy and about whom she maintains particularly warm thoughts. One of her happiest moments comes when she takes the bus to his home, hoping to spy him if only in the distance. Marcia is a birdlike figure, an obsessive who hoards empty milk bottles and plastic bags in a shed in her over-grown garden. In her house stand row upon row of tins of food yet Marcia is slowly starving.

The foursome try to keep in touch post retirement but it’s not a successful experiment. Her funeral brings three of the quartet back together again, an awkward event which sees them take tentative steps towards a relationship that is more than simple acquaintanceship.

At times Pym’s tone is mildly satiric as she takes us through the mundane lives of these four and their individual frustrations and preoccupations. But she’s never cruel, recognising that these are people who despite their melancholy lives are doing their best to soldier on. Letty captures the spirit perfectly when she reflects after one lunchtime reunion:

”She must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy.”

As boring as their lives are, and as full of regret and disappointment, Pym illustrates that their attempts to establish contact with one another is what gives purpose and meaning to their lives.

Footnotes 

The Book:  Barbara Pym wrote Quartet in Autumn over a three year period between 1973 and 1976. Several publishers rejected it on the basis that times had moved on and the reading public wanted more sensational topics than she offered. This changed when in 1977  the Times Literary Supplement published a list, compiled by notable literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Pym was the only writer to be listed twice, poet Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil were both fans of her work  Within a month, Macmillan  accepted Quartet in Autumn. It went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Author:  Barbara Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle was published in 1950, followed by Excellent Women (considered her finest work) two years later. She enjoyed success as an author for the next 11 years while continuing to work for the International African Institute. Her novels fell out of favour in the 1960s, being considered ‘old fashioned.’  Quartet in Autumn was the beginning of the revival of her reputation.

If you’re interested in learning more about Barbara Pym there’s a good review of her work in The Guardian, written by Alexander McCall Smith, or visit the website of the Barbara Pym Society.

Why I read this book: It was recommended by a number of bloggers after I published my review of Some Tame Gazelle. 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on March 25, 2017, in Book Reviews, United Kingdom and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I do want to read more Pym, but I may hold this back as it sounds particularly strong.

    You note that she’s never cruel. I think that’s part of her power. Bainbridge falls down a bit for me with her cruelty (same for Sparks). I’ve only read one Pym, but one gets the impression she broadly likes (or at least has compassion for) humanity. Bainbridge tends to feel to me like she has severe doubts about humanity, and Spark that we’re a thoroughly bad lot…

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  2. This was the last of Pym’s I read and I found it almost unbearably sad and poignant. Her other books have touches of that, but this was so masterful. If you enjoyed that aspect, you’ll like Anita Brookner’s later books. Lovely to see dear Barbara being reviewed!

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  3. This was my first of her novels and I went on to read whatever I could find at the time in the public library, fiercely and relentlessly. To the point where I have never properly sorted out which stories they were, but, then, it doesn’t matter all that much, because each has something to offer. If you enjoy a peek behind the curtain, her A Very Private Eye is worthwhile.

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  4. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out this review of the book, Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym from the Booker Talk blog.

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  5. This was my first Pym, earlier this year, but it certainly won’t be my last.

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  6. I haven’t read anything by Pym but this book is at my local library. I intend to read it soon.

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  7. I love Quartet in August, my second reading of it enhanced my experience of it. I think it is Marcia who has stayed with me longest. Those milk bottles say so much about her life.

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  8. This is my favourite Pym novel-reread many times. This is the book that convinced me that when you retire, you’d better have hobbies….

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    • It’s something you dont think about in your thirties or even fourties is it? but having recently retired I can testify to the importance of having interests that are absorbing. I thought I’d spend a lot more time reading but have found there is only so much reading I can do in a day

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    • No problem for litbloggers then Guy, we have two hobbies already – reading and blogging, eh?

      And nice review Karen. I read this many years ago and liked it a lot, but then I like quiet English novels eg Austen, Brookner (whom I must blog about one day).

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  9. Great review. I have this book on my TBR. I want to start with Pym’s Excellent Women first

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  10. I haven’t read this book, but I have read Excellent Women and really enjoyed it. It sounds like a Beryl Bainbridge novel, which is absolutely no bad thing! Great review!

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