Friday, November 15, 2013

Barbara Pym for a Friday

I've spent my week with three of my favorite comic writers: Mark Twain, whose mess of an autobiography I've finally sunk happily into; Donald E. Westlake, whom I'm sort of always reading; and, this morning, Barbara Pym, who earned her place in my shoulder bag by writing novels that weigh approximately infinity less than Twain's gargantuan book.

And what a good choice! The novel is the posthumously published An Academic Question, one of the very few I still have to read, and it was such pleasant bus-and-train reading. I'll just quickly share a couple of perfectly Pym scenes. First, a brief discussion between Caro Grimstone, a bored academic housewife, and her (presumably gay) fancy male bachelor friend, Coco:
Coco, in whom I had unwisely confided one evening when he took me out for a drink, advised me to acquire a lover.

"That's what people do," he said, as if I had no knowledge of the world.

"Yes, of course," I agreed. "But who, or whom, come to that--who is there in a place like this?"

Coco became vague. He had nobody definite in mind, and I certainly wouldn't be satisfied with just anybody. A distinguished artist or writer, or even a member of a noble family or an exiled royal--perhaps there was one such living in the town. After all, it was the kind of place people like that come to--witness the example of himself and his mother.

"But an exiled royal would probably be decayed and moth-eaten," I protested, "and I want better than that."

"A pity," Coco sighed. "It would have been amusing--I should have liked acting as a go-between."
So much of Pym's particular eye and voice are on display here: all confidences, in Pym, are "unwise," are they not? And who but a Pym character stops midsentence to clarify that her imagined lover is the object ("whom") rather than the subject ("who") of her sentence?

Later, Caro attends a tea at the home of her friend Dolly, who runs a second-hand shop that spills its wares into her living quarters:
We finished the meal and moved into Dolly's sitting room, finding seats as best we could while she made coffee. There was an uneasy silence while she was out of the room, for to settle ourselves at all comfortably various books and objects had to be moved and there was nowhere to put them. To have to do this at all seemed like a criticism of our hostess and I think only Dick Merrilees and I, who knew her best, were unembarrassed.

"Did you see the play about John Aubrey?" Dick asked. "That stage set reminded me of Dolly's room."

Evan Crannon held up what looked like a dried hedgehog's skin which he had moved from a corner of a sagging sofa where he had been about to sit.

"What shall I do with this?" he asked.

"Oh, that's nasty," said Menna in a low voice. "Some old skeleton."

"Yes, I found it in a drain," said Dolly coming into the room and taking it from him. "Goodness knows how long it had been there--see, it's quite dried, all the flesh gone. What happened to that poor creature? That's what we must ask ourselves."

"Perhaps it got run over and somebody flung it over your wall," Alan suggested.

"It may have died of natural causes," I said hastily, feeling that Dolly was becoming distressed.
I promise I didn't quote that scene for the mention of John Aubrey, but because it's amusing on its own terms and because, combined with the conversation above about adultery, it brought to mind Iris Murdoch, and how easily the situation and setting that Pym is creating for her characters could be repurposed for a Murdoch novel. But oh, how different the tone. The playfulness wouldn't be entirely shed, nor would the humor, but the adultery would be undertaken and immediately begin spinning off casualties, while the mess of Dolly's house would be portrayed not as gentle eccentricity but as squalor, uncomfortably unsettling and indicative of a deeper disorder.

Murdoch is another personal favorite, like Pym, and I take great pleasure in reading and rereading her books. But for a Friday morning's commute, I was glad that my companion was the more gentle, more forgiving of the two.


  1. I have yet to sample the pleasures of Pym but these quotes and your recommendation make me wish to close that gap in my reading. Almost sure I've picked up a couple of her books over the years - now if only I can find them.

    1. Perhaps they're under that hedgehog skin in your sitting room?

      I have to say that Pym's descriptions of interiors often do not inspire confidence in the general level of comfort in mid-century English homes...