Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pym, Powell, Murdoch, Bayley

John Bayley's introduction to the 2009 Virago edition of Barbara Pym's A Glass of Blessings (1958) might as well have been written specifically for me, as it brings in two writers very close to my heart, Anthony Powell and Bayley's wife, Iris Murdoch.

Powell, as I've noted before, was a fan of Pym, writing in his journals in 1992,
From being merely tolerant of [her] as a novelist, I have now got into the swing of her style and characters, find the books very amusing. . . . She is one of the few novelists I regret never having met.
But Bayley reveals much more:
Addicts of Pym tend to get together to discuss their heroine, and that happened to me with Powell. We agreed, for example, that his own immortal character Kenneth Widmerpool might have walked out of a Pym novel, together, of course, with his mother in her famous "bridge coat," a garment that much delighted Pym.
I think Widmerpool is ultimately too grasping to fit in a Pym novel, but his mother--good god, yes!

About Murdoch, Bayley offers the passing observation that she was "never a fan of Pym's novels," but liked her greatly as a person. His invocation of the pair in his introduction is perfect, for A Glass of Blessings is simultaneously the most Powellian and most Murdochian of the Pym novels I've read (which at this point is most of them).

The Powell links are easy to trace--indeed, it's hard to imagine any Powell fan not perking up at a couple of points in the novel when the narrator and protagonist, Wilmet Forsyth, a thirty-five-year-old married housewife, reflects, Nick Jenkins&8211;like, on the people around her. Here, for example:
At that moment I heard the bell ring and shortly afterwards Sir Denbigh Grote came into the room, rubbing his hands together as if it were a cold afternoon. He looked so much like a retired diplomat is generally supposed to look, even to his monocle, that I never thought of him as being the sort of person one needed to describe in any detail. What did seem unusual was his friendship with Miss Prideaux, who in spite of being a gentlewoman had only been a governess in some of the countries where he had served in a much higher capacity. It could only be supposed that retirement, like death, is a kind of leveller; and that social differences had been forgotten in the common pleasure of recalling garden parties at the embassies to celebrate the sovereign's birthday, and other similar functions which few people would have been capable of discussing at all knowledgeably.
It's Powell to a T--especially from "It could only be supposed" on; the internal reflection is pure Nick Jenkins, especially in its focus on the effects of the passage of time on status and class relations. Pym even uses a semicolon, like Powell, where an ordinary writer would use a comma! The Murdoch echo is more muted, but ultimately, I think, just as inescapable for a fan of both writers. A Glass of Blessings, like many Pym novels, turns on a character who fails to imagine the full scope of the lives of those around her--and is thus surprised when they a revealed to be fully rounded humans, acting on emotion and sentiment, instead of plodding along on the familiar paths she's assumed they'd follow. Late in the novel Wilmet lies abed, thinking about some news she's just had delivered about an acquaintance:
I lay awake for rather a long time, either because of the coffee or my confused thoughts. It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road. Sybil and Professor Root, Piers and Keith, Marius and Mary--the names did sound odd together--all doing things without, as it were, consulting me.
One of Murdoch's great themes is the way that our solipsism blinds us to the reality--and separateness, difference--of other people, and, while usually stated more quietly than in Murdoch's novels, it's also one of Pym's recurring points. Even people we think of as good friends can regularly surprise us with their actions--and, more, with the reminder those actions bring that we're not after all the center of the universe. (Of course--what supplies much of the humor in Pym--we would never think of ourselves as the center of the universe . . . it just happens that only rarely can we achieve the critical distance required to escape our own glorious shadow.)

That said, I'm not surprised that Murdoch wasn't a fan of Pym's novels. She should have been, clearly: the two were working different sections of the same field. But Pym had none of Murdoch's glittering skill with--and love of--plot, none of her excessive qualities, none of her confidence in (and fear of) the tranformative, even demonic powers of love and passion (to say nothing of true eros, which has a deliberately muted place in Pym). Pym, as Bayley puts it in "Barbara Pym as Comforter," an essay he contributed to "All This Reading: The Literary World of Barbara Pym (2003), "offers the comfort of total non-insistence." She simply presents lives as they are, with the absolute minimum of drama required to sustain a novel; one of the most impressive things about A Glass of Blessings is how little of note happens in the book. Where Murdoch is everywhere overflowing, Pym is everywhere restrained.

And yet perhaps there was a late rapprochement. Bayley concludes "Barbara Pym as Comforter," with a few words about his late wife:
The novel is, ultimately, a very personal form, so I will conclude on a personal note. My wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch, suffered in the last years of her life from Alzheimer's disease. When she had been well and writing her own novels, I would sometimes read her bits of Pym that had amused or delighted me. I continued to do this when she was ill, and she always smiled at me or at the writer, even if she did not understand. After I had put her to bed, I came down for my own drink and supper, during which I usually and avidly read a Pym. The novels not only sustained but calmed and satisfied me during those days, as nothing else could.
A key thing that we learn from Pym is that one should take what comfort one can; the world offers little, and we should hold tight to it. Who knows what Iris Murdoch understood, much less appreciated, of what her husband read her, but the comfort the thought brought him was as real as anything.


  1. Powell is my sighted target for February. On a stilted Saturday, this certainly appears to be an apt ambition.

  2. I wonder if Murdoch was not fond of Pym's novels because she, at least in her early life, could easily have been a model for one of Pym's characters, judging by the quotations from her letters and diaries in this review - Pym would have had a lovely time bringing out the absurdity of the youthful Murdoch

  3. I usually spend February rereading Barbara Pym -- nothing could be more cozy, and different books of hers appeal to me each year. Although I very much enjoyed A Dance to the Music of Time, I don't have the same urge to reread Powell...