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‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym ****

I am sure that many readers will agree with me when I declare that it is such a treat to come to a Barbara Pym novel. I so enjoy her writing, but have been trying to eke out the few books of her oeuvre which I have not yet read, so that I know I have some treats in store. I had not picked up a Pym novel in such a long time that I requested a lovely Picador copy of Quartet in Autumn from my local library, and began it almost as soon as I checked it out.

Pym was relatively well celebrated during her early publishing career. However, there was a gap of sixteen years between her first six novels and the publication of Quartet in Autumn. In this time, Pym had fallen rather out of favour; she was declared ‘the most underrated writer of the century’ by Philip Larkin. She has thankfully enjoyed a resurrection of sorts in recent years, thanks largely to Virago Press reissuing the majority of her books.

The Picador edition contains an introduction written by Alexander McCall Smith. This does give rather a lot of the story away, so I must admit that I did not read his critique of the novel in full before I began; rather, I came back to it. He comments that Quartet in Autumn is a ‘delicate and poignant novel [which] was the crowning glory of a literary career that in many respects reflected the author’s life.’ McCall Smith, quite rightly, lauds her as ‘surely the finest recorder of lives lived on the margins of a shabby and fading England.’

Quartet in Autumn is set in 1970s London, and follows a quartet of colleagues – Edwin, Norman, Letty, and Marcia. All are in their sixties – their autumn years – and nearing retirement. They work in rather an anonymous office – it is never made quite clear what they do, and Pym mentions that once all four have retired, their department will be dissolved entirely – and are all contending with loneliness. Edwin describes the quartet as ‘Four people on the verge of retirement, each one of us living alone, and without any close relative near…’.

Each character has been fantastically drawn, which will not be a surprise for anyone familiar with Pym’s work. Each is complex and feels lifelike; they are both predictable and not. Marcia, for instance, is a rather crotchety and proud lady, who lives alone. She takes ‘every opportunity to find out what was due to her in the way of free bus travel, reduced and cheap meals, hairdressing and chiropody, although she never made use of the information.’ Her idea of an enjoyable holiday away from work is to visit the doctor’s surgery about her various ailments.

Edwin is a particular man, quite involved with his local church, who treats himself to a jelly baby as ‘the last course of his midday meal’. Letty is by far the most sociable of the four. She rents a small flat, where she lives with a fashionable and up-to-date wardrobe stuffed with garments, given her penchant for shopping at every given opportunity.

Norman is perhaps the character we get to know the least, but there are still some quite memorable details given about him. Pym writes, for instance: ‘Norman and Letty both felt the pull of the open air, Norman to take his mind off his teeth, and Letty because she had the slightly obsessive or cranky idea that one ought to get a walk of some kind each day.’

Marcia and Letty retire at the same time, and a drab party of sorts is thrown for them. Pym comments: ‘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.’ On her first day out of the office, Letty amusingly ‘still kept to her rules – one did not drink sherry before the evening, just as one did not read a novel in the morning, this last being a left-over dictum of a headmistress of forty yeas ago.’

Quartet in Autumn is peppered with amusing scenes and memorable exchanges between the characters. There are quite a few tender moments too, and reflections on what it means to be ageing, and to be lonely. This novel feels particularly prescient to be reading during the current turmoil which the pandemic is leaving in its wake, when many older people are completely separated from family and friends. Pym is shrewd throughout, particularly when she writes about being alone at Christmastime.

Quartet in Autumn, the penultimate novel of Pym’s to be published during her lifetime, was a delight to sink into. I loved learning about the realistic and quite unusual protagonists, and their relationships with one another, as well as with peripheral characters. Quartet in Autumn is reflective and touching, just as it is memorable and witty. It is a marvellously balanced novel, which I would highly recommend.

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The 1977 Club

As is sadly becoming habit, my studies and my current book-buying ban have left me with relatively little time to find a title from 1977 to contribute to the excellent ‘club’ run by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.  Whilst I have therefore been unable to contribute a full review, I thought I would collect together ten titles published in 1977 which I am looking forward to reading in future.

 

1. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym 27411950
In 1970s London Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office and suffer the same problem – loneliness. Lovingly and with delightful humour, Pym conducts us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements, and – perhaps most keenly felt – their worries about having somehow missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them.  Deliciously, blackly funny and full of obstinate optimism, Quartet in Autumn shows Barbara Pym’s sensitive artistry at its most sparkling. A classic from one of Britain’s most loved and highly acclaimed novelists, its world is both extraordinary and familiar, revealing the eccentricities of everyday life.

 

2. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
In Delta of Venus Anaïs Nin penned a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. Delta of Venus is an extraordinarily rich and exotic collection from the master of erotic writing.

 

799093. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.

 

4. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliant, multilayered novel is set in the Lima, Peru, of the author’s youth, where a young student named Marito is toiling away in the news department of a local radio station. His young life is disrupted by two arrivals.  The first is his aunt Julia, recently divorced and thirteen years older, with whom he begins a secret affair. The second is a manic radio scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho, whose racy, vituperative soap operas are holding the city’s listeners in thrall. Pedro chooses young Marito to be his confidant as he slowly goes insane.  Interweaving the story of Marito’s life with the ever-more-fevered tales of Pedro Camacho, Vargas Llosa’s novel is hilarious, mischievous, and masterful, a classic named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.

 

5. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector 762390
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector’s consummate final novel, may well be her masterpiece. Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life’s unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marylin Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn’t seem to know how unhappy she should be. Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator–edge of despair to edge of despair–and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader’s preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction. In her last book she takes readers close to the true mystery of life and leaves us deep in Lispector territory indeed.

 

6. Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
‘The puzzling murder of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery sets the scene for this fervent, hard-hitting novel about disillusionment in independent Kenya. A deceptively simple tale, Petals of Blood is on the surface a suspenseful investigation of a spectacular triple murder in upcountry Kenya. Yet as the intertwined stories of the four suspects unfold, a devastating picture emerges of a modern third-world nation whose frustrated people feel their leaders have failed them time after time. First published in 1977, this novel was so explosive that its author was imprisoned without charges by the Kenyan government. His incarceration was so shocking that newspapers around the world called attention to the case, and protests were raised by human-rights groups, scholars, and writers, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Harold Pinter, and Margaret Drabble.

 

3387497. The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd
In 1903, a young Scotswoman named Mary Mackenzie sets sail for China to marry her betrothed, a military attaché in Peking. But soon after her arrival, Mary falls into an adulterous affair with a young Japanese nobleman, scandalizing the British community. Casting her out of the European community, her compatriots tear her away from her small daughter. A woman abandoned and alone, Mary learns to survive over forty tumultuous years in Asia, including two world wars and the cataclysmic Tokyo earthquake of 1923.

 

8. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters by Anne Sexton (edited by Lois Ames)
An expression of an extraordinary poet’s life story in her own words, this book shows Anne Sexton as she really was in private, as she wrote about herself to family, friends, fellow poets, and students. Anne’s daughter Linda Gray Sexton and her close confidant Lois Ames have judiciously chosen from among thousands of letters and provided commentary where necessary. Illustrated throughout with candid photographs and memorabilia, the letters — brilliant, lyrical, caustic, passionate, angry — are a consistently revealing index to Anne Sexton’s quixotic and exuberant personality.

 

9. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner 7405876
In “Monkey Grip”, Helen Garner charts the lives of a generation. Her characters are exploring new ways of loving and living – and nothing is harder than learning to love lightly. Nora and Javo are trapped in a desperate relationship. Nora’s addiction is romantic love; Javo’s is hard drugs. The harder they pull away, the tighter the monkey grip. A lyrical, gritty, rough-edged novel that deserves its place as a classic of Australian fiction.

 

10. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. With this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison transfigures the coming-of-age story as audaciously as Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez. As she follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which is your favourite book published in 1977?