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Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

There are no sweet old ladies in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial. 204 4tet in Autumn cover

The Story of Quartet in Autumn

The four share an office and have jobs that are utterly dispensable. We never find out what their jobs are or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans show that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has his church activities, and Letty her widowed school friend with whom she will live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.

Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart because Marjorie becomes engaged. Letty moves out of her room to avoid the noise of her new landlord’s Pentecostal church. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but still take their time to invite them to lunch.

In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.

Ultimately Letty learns that her friend has been jilted and would like her to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this makes her significant in the lives of other.

In many ways Quartet in Autumn is a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people (see also Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont). But the final words of the novel are ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’. 204 B Pym writer Gerson_cropped_op_298x311

The older women in Quartet in Autumn

Letty Crowe

Single women need to be ‘drearily splendid’. Barbara Pym was reflecting on her own situation when she used this phrase. Letty could be described as ‘drearily splendid’ as she comes to understand how little she matters to anyone in her old age. Her only family connection is a cousin she has not seen for years and who lives in the West Country. She has invested in her friendship with Marjorie and is deflated but not defeated by Marjorie’s plans to remarry.

She is discerning, is concerned for others and has spirit. She sets about making the best of everything with good cheer. Her new landlady is less than welcoming on her arrival but by the end of the novel the two women have developed a kind of friendship, based on sharing the kitchen and watching tv together.

204 B PymIt is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’.

Marcia Ivory

Marcia is a more troubling older women. She is ill and somewhat odd. Her oddness is represented by her cherished milk bottle collection kept in her garden shed. Marcia troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get Marcia to eat better and to become more connected to the other older people of the neighbourhood. She is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.

Marcia is inscrutable to the reader as well. She is a little like the old woman seen by Letty early in the novel who slumped on the tube and when approached by a friendly young woman was roundly told to ‘Fuck Off!’ We steer clear of such people, aware that they don’t invite or need our friendliness, and we don’t want to catch their eye in case they engage us in some crazy and embarrassing talk. We want to believe that someone else is looking out for them.

Marcia is not cut off entirely from the world. She had perceived Norman’s lack of any resources to deal with life while they worked together. It is her kind bequest that releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him.

204 My cover 4inAMarcia herself is neglected, avoided and abandoned as many older people are. She is a stark reminder of what it means to be alone, old and overlooked. There are more Marcias today than there were in the 1970s.

Barbara Pym and her Writing

The darker themes of Quartet in Autumn do not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee, but they both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of the social interactions.

Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiance who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)

In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the services of the welfare state. Barbara Pym describes here a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:

If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest-egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)

This passage draws attention to assumptions about older women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’ even today. In this passage Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept this prevailing view by showing us life from their perspectives. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we do need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, and indeed the two men who have not yet retired. 204 B Pym + cat

Barbara Pym knew what it was to be neglected. Famously her reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumn was published later that year. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Related posts

This is the 17th review in the series on older women in fiction. You can find them by clicking on the relevant category or by going to the page on the older women in fiction series.

An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novels on the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013

From the LA Review of Books 16th July 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knitting surveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, first published in 1977 by Pan/Picador 186pp

 

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The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

I am a little in awe of novels set in the Far East, and especially if the action occurs during the war. Three other books come to mind that are worth reading: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (reviewed here). Life seems to be experienced more at the extremes in these novels. The privations are fiercer, punishments are harsher and the deaths more violent.

63 tale

The Gift of Rain has been on my tbr pile for sometime, recommended by the wonderful blogger Annecdotalist and endorsed by a place on the longlist for the Booker Prize in 2007.

Rain, as a gift, is of course ambiguous as it is for the protagonist of this novel, Philip Hutton, who is blessed with the gift of the title. There are few certainties in his life, and he is pulled in two or more directions throughout the novel. He tells his story to a visitor as an old man. It is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation of Penang. His narration offers little in the way of criticism or regret or judgement, despite some horrific cruelty and barbarity and acts of extreme generosity and humanity.

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.

This was back in a time when I did not believe in fortune-tellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery. I cannot recall her appearance now, the woman who read my face and touched the lines on my palms. She said what she was put into the world to say, to those for whom her prophesies were meant, and then, like every one of us, she left.

I know her words had truth in them, for it always seemed to be raining in my youth. There were days of cloudless skies and unforgiving heat, but the one impression that remains now is of rain, falling from a bank of low floating clouds, smearing the landscape into a Chinese brush painting. Sometimes it rained so often I wondered why the colours around me never faded, were never washed away, leaving the world in mouldy hues. (13)

146 Gift rain coverThese are the opening paragraphs, setting up the expectation of change and wisdom from an older man’s perspective. There is a warning as well of the narrator’s acceptance of the relentless and unforgiving aspects of life’s events. Fate perhaps. The lofty and detached voice will come to relate some of life’s hardest suffering and challenges.

Philip Hutton grows up as a mixed race (English/Chinese) boy within an English family in Penang, Malaya in the late ‘30s. The tension between his dual ethnic heritages within his family is further heightened by his affiliation to the Japanese envoy, Endo-San, who takes him under his wing and teaches him the Japanese way. By the time of the Japanese invasion we have read of Philip’s experience of Japanese refinement and culture, the ethic of respect and loyalty and the skills of martial arts. He is drawn into these through his sensai.

It is clear to the reader, but not to Philip, that Endo-San while genuinely drawn to the young man is also exploiting Philip for his knowledge about the island to assist the invasion of Penang in December 1941. He has his own reasons for this betrayal. During the occupation Philip feeling guilty for all the information he gave his master, and in return for protection for his family, volunteers to join the Japanese occupier. His best friend joins the resistance. Again we read of the ambiguity and tension in Philip’s engagement with the occupying forces and his loyalty to his father, as well as to Endo-San. It is not a tension that the young man manages with ease.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

The Japanese were defeated, but not before they had stretched the loyalties and tensions between the Malay, British and Chinese communities, brutally removed any opposition and implicated Philip in some of their worst transgressions. We are continually invited to ask what options lay open to Philip, and once committed to one line of action how could he do the best according to his conflicting codes. Even fifty years later Philip’s reputation is mixed among the inhabitants of Penang, for he had been complicit in acts of atrocity in order to save some people.

The Japanese are also represented as conflicted. They are cultured, refined and very focused on economic and military domination of the Far East. Yet some of the most principled characters are Japanese. And it is made clear that many Japanese suffered from the war, not least the military personnel, and that some suffered for many lingering years to come. Philip’s visitor was the former lover of Endo-San, and she is dying from radiation sickness from one of the atomic explosions, Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

This is carefully plotted novel, and very long. We are presented with the backstories of many characters, revealing varied cultural customs and beliefs and their strengths and flaws when these customs are tested in the extreme conditions of war. We find many themes here: ambivalence, contradictions, nuance, uncertainty, divided loyalties, imperfect understanding, pride, face and cruelty.

The descriptions are rich, like the action. Here is Philip meeting Endo-San on the beach one evening.

I went down to the beach late. It was a timeless moment of the day, the sand still wet and silky from a downpour that had occurred earlier. Dark clouds were racing away inland, leaving the seaward sky clear. The moon was already out, a pale companion to the sun that was setting reluctantly.

Birds flew low along the surface, while some pecked on the beach for the almost invisible baby ghost crabs. I could not see them as the scuttled across the beach, only the tracks they left behind them, marking the sand like writing etched by a ghostly hand.

It was quite chilly, the wind carrying a trace of the rain that now fell almost as unseen as the baby crabs, as thought the clouds had been scraped through a fine grater. I solitary figure stood staring out to sea as waves unrolled themselves around his feet like small bundles of silk. I walked up to him, feeling the coldness of the water. (307)

An editor should have removed nearly all uses of ‘almost’ (twice in that passage). Almost is a writer’s weasel word I think – was it invisible or not, unseen or not? I’m not a fan of tightening jaws either, and there are lots of those. But these are very small gripes in the face of the overall achievement of this novel.

Tan Twan Eng (2007) The Gift of Rain published by Myrmidon 508 pp

 

Links to other reviews:

Sam Jordison reviewed it in the Guardian for the Booker Prize Club. He had some editorial comments but thought it an excellent first book.

And the blogger dovegreyreader scribbles enjoyed it too and had some questions for Tan Twan Eng, to which he replied. Here’s the post.

 

Any thoughts about this novel? Have you read it? Do you intend to read it? What have you heard about it?

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Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is being rediscovered yet again. She was acknowledged in her own time when this novel won the Booker Prize in 1979. Now her reputation is being revived by Hermione Lee’s biography, and enthusiastic articles by Julian Barnes. 4th Estate is reissuing her backlist. Great! But it’s a puzzle why Penelope Fitzgerald ever loses popularity. Successful novels by women seem to be forgettable. Something similar happened to Barbara Pym’s novels and to Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Even the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor is not widely regarded as an accomplished novelist.

Two years before she published Offshore Penelope Fitzgerald’s publisher informed her she was ‘only an amateur writer’. People refer to hobby writers with the same sneer. Her response was, ‘I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before your lose amateur status?’

Thankfully she was not put off and Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979. Everyone had assumed VS Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River would win. According to Jenny Turner in the LRB the BBC’s Book Programme suggested the judges had selected the wrong book. Sexism and ageism were at work, especially as Penelope Fitzgerald did not dress in the expected way.

A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.

74 PF

(Who else remembers what the Times said about Eleanor Catton when she won the Man Booker Prize in October last year? ‘She’s a chick, a slight pale (unassisted) blonde, … an unashamed nerd … but with pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness.’ Plus ca …)

74 OffshoreOffshore is a quirky tale about quirky people, who live on the shoreline of the Thames at Battersea Reach.

Between the Lord Jim, moored almost in the shadow of Battersea Bridge, and the old wooden Thames barges, two hundred yards upriver and close to the rubbish disposal wharfs and the brewery, there was a great gulf fixed. The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like othe people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be ‘successful’. They were not easily dislodged. But to sell your craft, to leave the Reach, was felt to be a desperate step, like those of the amphibians when, in earlier stages of the world’s history, they took ground. Many of these species perished in the attempt. (p2-3)

This gentle, generous humour and insight is typical of Offshore. The characters are all in one way or another losers in conventional terms. And yet they all have spirit and resourcefulness and an enviable sense of community. A charming aspect of this short novel is that the characters are revealed through the state of disrepair of their boats.

Nenna lives on Grace with her two children and is estranged from her husband. Much of the novels tension and drive arises from her feeble efforts to resolve her relationship with him. As a resident of a certain area of NE London for nearly 30 years I was amused by Nenna’s reaction to hearing his address in Stoke Newington:

 ‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’ (p40)

The other characters also live in something of a nether world. Richard, an ex-navy man, whose converted minesweeper Lord Jim is the smartest and most well maintained of the boats, cannot see that he may lose his wife who does not share his pleasure at living aboard. Maurice carriers on his trade as a male prostitute aboard his boat and is always about to make a better life for himself. His kindness extends to permitting Harry to store stolen goods on his boat. Willis is an old painter who lives on Dreadnought, a boat so poorly maintained it sinks even while he celebrates her sale. Hopeless. And Woodie lives separately from his wife during the summer, and then amicably in Purley in the winter, and is generous to all the inhabitants of the Reach.

Although they are quirky, the characters in Offshore are also comfortable because they are so flawed and so like all the people I know. We all occupy a shoreline between conventional mores and our own aspirations, expectations, obligations and ambitions. Re-reading this novel also reminded me of when I worked with troubled adolescents. The unexpected was always happening, events were always dramatic, rarely final.

The River Thames suffuses this novel, is almost another character with its moods, tides, mud and swells. Penelope Fitzgerald was drawing on her own experience of living on the river. And she knew a thing or two about sinking boats.

The only awkwardness was the daily life of the Nenna’s two children. Martha and Tilda seem as precocious as the kids in the tv comedy series Outnumbered. In 1961 these children were allowed to miss school and wander with little supervision – unbelievable in our times of compulsory schooling and testing and fears of paedophilia, let alone drowning.

74 PF noveld

If you have never read this novel, I hope I have kindled your interest. And if you have, I hope you may want to re-read it. Her other works are also enjoyable: The Bookshop, The Blue Flower, Innocence (recommended in Julian Barnes’s piece in the Guardian which you can read here).

 

Hermione Lee’s biography was enthusiastically reviewed by Philip Hensher in November 2013: here.

I note that Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel aged 61.

Next Readalong will be Stoner by John Williams, enthusiastically described as the novel of 2013 on Radio 4 and a must-read novel of 2013 by Julian Barnes. Time for me to catch up. Join me in March.

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