Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fending off the touch of another person (Books - Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym)

With my admiration of female authors from the British Isles - Virginia Woolf, Irish Murdoch, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, Marghanita Laski, A.S. Byatt, Deirdre Madden, Sarah Salway, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Drabble - it's peculiar that it took me all this time to read Barbara Pym. Unfortunately, I even missed Thomas and Amanda's Pym reading week, but I have finally righted the wrong.  Quartet in Autumn (1977, Plume) was Pym's comeback after 16 years without having been published.  It concerns four persons around retirement age - Marcia, Letty, Norman, and Edwin.  All work in the same office of the same department of the same generic, unnamed business, and have done so for decades.  They live almost hermetically sealed off from any meaningful contact with another person.
Letty picked up her bill and got up from the table.  For all her apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation.  Somebody had reached out towards her.  They could have spoken and a link might have been forged between two solitary people.  But the other woman, satisfying her first pangs of hunger, was now bent rather low over her macaroni au gratin.  It was too late for any kind of gesture.  Once again Letty had failed to make contact.
Even their encounters with each other after years of working together are generic, risk free.  Norman and Marcia share a tin of instant coffee which Marcia buys.  Each afternoon, she makes them both a cup, not, as they would have it, out of generosity or friendship, but simply because it is less expensive.  They live out this charade of economy never imagining greater meaning behind their sharing, because they dare not even consider intimacy, let alone commit it.  They shun the risk of touching or being touched by another human being.  They shun it as though they might die of it, and yet, and this is the beauty of the book, now that Marcia and Letty are to retire, each of the four considers their time in life, and endings, goodbyes, death itself, and each is forced to reckon with why they haven't taken the risk to know another person better.

Pym's writing creates a feeling of each character being wrapped in fleece.  They attempt to insulate themselves, but the world is becoming more insistent, and their efforts at isolation are no longer working. 
This morning, for instance, a woman, slumped on a seat on the Underground platform while the rush hour crowds hurried past her, reminded her so much of a school contemporary that she forced herself to look back, to make quite sure that it was not Janet Belling.  It appeared not to be, yet it could have been, and even if it wasn't it was still somebody, some woman driven to the point where she could find herself in this situation.  Ought one to do anything?  While Letty hesitated, a young woman, wearing a long dusty black skirt and shabby boots, bend over the slumped figure with a softly spoken enquiry.  At once the figure reared itself up and shouted in a loud, dangerously uncontrolled voice, 'Fuck off!'  Then it couldn't be Janet Belling, Letty thought, her first feeling one of relief; Janet would never have used such an expression.  But fifty years ago nobody did - things were different now...
Until now, these characters lived quiet, ordered, lonely, existences.  They became used to accepting the dregs offered them.
The organisation where Letty and Marcia worked regarded it as a duty to provide some kind of a retirement party for them, when the time came for them to give up working.  Their status as ageing unskilled women did not entitle them to an evening party, but it was felt that a lunchtime gathering, leading only to more than usual drowsiness in the afternoon, would be entirely appropriate. 
One character buys countless cans of tinned food, not to eat - she hoards them obsessively, as if preparing for armageddon.  Her sweaters are neatly folded, sealed in plastic bags. Another goes from church to church, comparing details of the services.  Each of these persons' encounters with the world had a deliberateness that seems to magnify their experiences, rendering them hyper-real, like a Magritte painting. Now, the offenses of the modern world poke through the layers of insulation like a knife.  'Dangerously uncontrolled' says it all. They fear interaction with others, because they cannot control the outcome.

The degree to which Marcia goes to protect herself sends her round the bend, Edwin is painfully precious, Letty endlessly disappointed in friendship, but it is Norman whose bitter sarcasm lets us see the humor in these delicate human beings who may have waited too long to allow themselves to be touched. Pym's vision of their lives affords them respect.  We don't laugh at them, but we do smile and feel for their desperate efforts to find respect and know they might be loved.


Thomas Hogglestock said...

This is one of the Pym's I haven't read yet. I'm glad you have taken a shine to her.

Ted said...

T - What is your all time favorite of her's?