“Quartet in Autumn”, by Barbara Pym

It was not until I was about twenty pages through “Quartet in Autumn” that I laughed out loud for the first time. It is such a quiet, finely observed, apparently sad story that I did not expect to be made to laugh quite so frequently, or so enthusiastically. And yet there are flashes of such wit and humour in this novel, and an underlying belief that life is, after all, something to be clung to, which mean that despite its subject matter it never strays into truly bleak waters.

In this novel, which was published towards the end of her writing career, Barbara Pym tells the story of a quartet of characters – two men, and two women – who are palpably alone and on the cusp of retirement. Though one of the gentlemen, Edwin, has once been married, they are four people who have really fallen through the gaps in life – single, childless, largely friendless and without any kind of passion or genuine interest, they drift through their days in a state of almost awkward bewilderment.

In the past both Letty and Marcia might have loved and been loved, but now the feeling that should have been directed towards husband, lover, child or even grandchild, had no natural outlet; no cat, dog, no bird, even, shared their lives and neither Edwin nor Norman had inspired love.

It is as though Barbara Pym has taken E.M. Forster’s rallying entreaty to “only connect”, twisted it, and applied it to four ordinary, middle-aged people in 1970’s England to tragicomic effect: “They could have spoken and a link might 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.”/ “Oh, you mustn’t let that put you off,” said an older and more experienced colleague. “A lot of them seem like that at first, but the contact has been made, that’s the chief thing, And that’s what we have to do – make contact, by force if necessary. Believe me, it can be most rewarding.” Occasionally members of the quartet follow one another on their lunch-breaks, or stray into one another’s neighbourhoods on sunlit evenings, but they never speak to one another or try to strike up a genuine friendship: the will to connect is there, it seems, but the ability to do so has been dulled by a lack of use. And that, of course, is how Pym injects the sense of sadness, even fear into her story – for how easy it would be, you find yourself thinking, to find oneself alone at the end of one’s life, having said no to one too many invitations…

And yet. As wretched as this summary may sound, there is such a feeling of irreverent pleasure in this book. Pym has a wonderful knack of spotting the absurd idiosyncrasies in her cast, and mocking them with fond good-humour. There is nothing cruel in her style; as unusual as the characters may be, Pym clearly holds them each in affection, and you find yourself rooting for their future happiness. Even Marcia, who obsessively collects milk-bottles and plastic bags and is perhaps the most eccentric of all of them, is given a kind of dignity – Pym carefully hints at her lost youth, and the fact that she too has an inner life the world does not see.

Pym famously had two phases in her career. Having published six novels by 1961, her seventh was rejected by her publishers for being too old-fashioned. It was only when the poet Philip Larkin championed her as being one of the most under-rated writers of the century that she entered her second phase of popularity. Perhaps it is because I know about Philip Larkin’s respect for Pym, but there is something in “Quartet in Autumn” which makes me think of his poem, “An Arundel Tomb” – the wry, not-quite-romance of it, the way in which we project what we think we see onto the lives of others:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Like Larkin’s poem, “Quartet in Autumn” challenges you to look at life rather differently: there is a tender humour to be found in even the most overtly-bleak circumstances, and, as Letty concludes at the end of the novel, where there is life, even if there may not be love, there is always hope.

But at least it made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change.

“A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Fiction is yet to create a hero as magnificent as Patrick Leigh Fermor. He was an extraordinary man, with a talent for writing which matched his talent for living.

When he was eighteen, PLF fell in love with a greengrocer’s daughter and, having been caught holding her hand, was expelled from King’s School in Canterbury. With no particular desire to set off for university and having decided that a life in the military during peace-time was not for him, he decided to walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul in a bid to find adventure and cultivate his talents as an author. He permitted himself an emergency fund of four pounds a month but otherwise resolved to live by his wits alone, and, one cold November day and with the encouragement of his remarkably supportive mother, set off for Europe “through a secret door.” By the end of “A Time of Gifts” he has reached Hungary. It is a remarkable account of Europe in the years before the second world war.

My copy of the book is dense with annotations and under-linings; every new sentence offers up something to savour. He has a unique, lyrical style, keenly curious mind and love of detail which gives his account a sense of absolute veracity – but also a clarity which is almost other-worldly.

It was pitch dark out of doors and with the extinction of each flame the interior shadows came closer. It heightened the chiaroscuro of these rough country faces and stressed the rapt gleam in innumerable eyes; and the church, as it grew hotter, was filled by the smell of melting wax and sheepskin and curds and sweat and massed breath.

The language alone makes this a book to treasure; and then on top of that, of course, is the fascinating subject-matter and the sheer courage it took for such a young man to undertake a journey of this magnitude.

I wonder if it would be possible now, for a wandering student to experience the kind of generosity of spirit which carried PLF across the first leg of his journey? From time to time and when he was in a particularly rural area, he slept on beds of hay, hidden in barns; more often than not, however, he was welcomed into people’s homes, pressed with food and books and clothes, and invited into fascinating, alcohol-fuelled conversations by roaring fires. I like to think that an enterprising young spirit would still find kindness like this, but I fear that this was indeed the end of an era  – a time of gifts which ended with the Second World War. There is an entirely unsentimental sense of this imminent loss of something precious throughout the book. Through his growing interest in history, PLF places his journey within the context of ancient, long-dead Empires, the Thirty Years’ War, and noble families who have long-since vanished into the shadows of history. As he encounters more and more brown-shirts in Germany, however, and as pictures of Hitler begin to adorn the walls of every bar, there is a feeling of escalating doom – a sense that there is something coming unlike anything which had touched Europe before. The account is written in retrospect and many years after PLF’s remarkable turn as the head of Cretan resistance during the war, which means that these wonderfully generous encounters with the German and Austrian families are coloured with a knowing sadness.

On the first day of the battle of Crete, the memory of these Vienna weeks leapt back to my mind…No chance now, like Cardigan and Radziwell recognizing each other from London ballrooms, of exchanging brief and ceremonious greetings through the smoke of the Russian guns. Again and again in those whistling and echoing ravines, where a new and unknown smell was beginning to usurp the scents of spring, my thoughts flew back to the winter of 1934 and the tunes and jokes and guessing games, the candlelight and the scent of burning pine-cones when nothing was flying through the air more solid than snowflakes.

What an unspeakably difficult thing – to have spent the years leading up to war living with, and depending on the kindness of, the families he would then have to fight. As I say this is all conveyed without self-pity or sentimentality, but it underpins the exquisite language of the account with a dark sense of what was to come.

As with “A Time to Keep Silence”, though, PLF also has a keen sense of the ridiculous, and fills his account with wonderfully strange human details. When talking about the famous Alchemist John Dee, for example, he recounts how the wizard was stripped of his Fellowship at Cambridge for arranging a public demonstration of the device by which Trygaeus travelled to Olympus in “The Peace” by Aristophanes; “As this vehicle was a giant dung-beetle from Mount Edna which the protagonist refuelled with his own droppings on the long ascent, the exhibition may well have caused a stir. I would have liked to have seen it.” He is also not in the least afraid to send himself up – and when rereading his youthful diaries seizes upon the fact that as an eighteen year old he had obviously enjoyed the pensive image of smoking a pipe. “I always seem to be “puffing away thoughtfully” or “enjoying a quiet pipe”, in these pages.”

With the innocence of youth, he passes through these countries with a deep fascination for people, history, and idiosyncrasy. It is an infectiously vital tale and I am, once again, very grateful to Susan Hill for introducing me to a man who has swiftly become one of my favourite authors. Forget James Bond; one need look no further to find the quintessential English hero.

“Journey By Moonlight” by Antal Szerb

“Journey By Moonlight”: what a tricky novel to try to squeeze into a genre. I still haven’t managed it.

It tells the story of Mihály, a bourgeois Hungarian businessman whom we meet in Italy, where he is honey-mooning with his new wife. Having spent a few magical years rebelling as a teenager in the company of the eccentric, death-obsessed and decidedly un-bourgeois Ulpius family, Mihály has finally taken up a respectable position in his father’s firm, married the well-connected and seemingly conventional Erzsi, and attempted to mould himself into the kind of man he thinks he ought to be. Something about Italy gets under his skin, however, and he and Erzsi are separated when he slips off their train to buy a quick coffee: rather than trying to pursue his new bride, Mihály takes the rather radical step of leaving her on the train and fleeing deeper into the Italian countryside, plagued by nostalgia for his lost youth and the extraordinary friends he hasn’t seen in years.

That hilariously unromantic break for freedom sums Mihály up perfectly. He is a wonderfully passive anti-hero – probably a rather unflattering self-portrait of the author – who drifts through an increasingly bizarre set of experiences with an endearing lack of self-awareness. In a tone which fluctuates between breathtaking sincerity and gentle irony, Szerb presents Mihály as a kind of flawed everyman – he believes no one could ever truly understand him; he is sure that he is more intelligent than anyone else he meets; and is frequently convinced that people are trying to kill him. Yet you always find yourself rooting for him, because as well as his charm he is essentially fighting a battle we can all sympathise with. After all, who hasn’t sat slumped in their office, looking at their never-ending list of unanswered emails and wondering how it could have come to this – how that idealistic eighteen year old, full of such ambition and passion, could have turned into someone who “measures her life in coffee spoons” and treats a walk to the scanner as an exciting daily highlight. What a silly, but genuinely heart-wrenching tragedy! Who wouldn’t let the train disappear out of the station and quietly sneak off into the Italian countryside in search of some magic? Run, Mihály, run!

It is on that basis, then, that Mihály wanders from town to town, occasionally delirious, frequently drunk, and quietly tormented by the notion that if he can just find his childhood gang, suddenly his life will have a new purpose. As I say, Szerb sways gently from to tragedy to comedy as he leads his Mihály on this rambling, psychogeographical journey – and those tonal drifts make you feel pleasantly disorientated, so that you never know quite where you are or what is real. His characterisations in particular are a complete joy, and raise Szerb up to the ranks of genius. Janos Szepetneki, the raffish thief who emerges out of the shadows and, Puck-like, orchestrates Mihály’s strange journey. Eva Ulpius, the beautiful, other-worldly and faintly ridiculous temptress, obsessed by her brother, death, and over-the-top theatrics. Ervin, perhaps the most heart-rending character of all – a highly-intelligent, chain-smoking Jewish boy with a passion for women, who sacrifices every worldly pleasure to become a saintly monk. Erzsi’s Persian would-be seducer, an opium dealer who attempts to buy her love with gold, and whose wild eyes always make her think of Blake’s “tiger, tiger, burning bright.” I challenge anyone not to delight in each and every one of them.

In the end, it is the gentle sense of melancholy which always stays with me when I have finished reading this book – because Mihály’s escape is, as you fear it will be, unsustainable, and eventually he has to abandon his fantastical Italy for Budapest, adult-life, and responsibility.

Mihály listened in silence. He was going home. He would attempt once more what he had failed to do for fifteen years: to conform. Perhaps this time he would succeed. That was his fate. He was giving in. The facts were stronger than he was. There was no escaping. They were all too strong: the fathers, the Zoltans, the business world, people. 

In a last bid for independence he half-heartedly tries to commit suicide – to please Eva and to give his life some meaning – but is tempted back to the world by a juicy bowl of pasta. And there’s Szerb’s fondly mocking take on the human condition in a nutshell – no matter how dull the bourgeois office job may be, there will always be pasta, and wine, and hope. For as he says in the novel’s closing line, “And while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen....”

Journey By Moonlight

A photo of Budapest, taken from the Danube last summer

“A Time to Keep Silence” by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Surrounded by elder-flower, with their bases entangled in bracken and blackberry and bridged as their summits with arches and broken spandrels that fly spinning over the tree tops in slender trajectories, the clustering pillars suspend the great empty circumference of a rose-window in the rook-haunted sky. It is as though some Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified in its climax ever since.

Patrick Leigh Fermor – the travel writer who famously spent two years of World War II in the mountains disguised as a shepherd, organising the Cretan resistance – uses language like a magician, conjuring images which burst with vitality and poetry. A Gregorian chant petrified in the rook-haunted sky; spandrels spinning over tree-tops; the husk of a derelict monastery rebuilt through sheer force of imaginative will, which echoes with the sound of “bells melted long ago”: reading A Time to Keep Silence has been a revelation, like discovering Ted Hughes for the first time – finding a custodian of the English language, someone who breathes mighty life into the letters on a page.

In this small volume, PLF recounts the weeks he spent at the Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, La Grande Trappe, and the rock monasteries of Cappadocia – places he visited in part to find the silence and solitude he needed to write. During his time living removed from the world he experiences a period of depression and passes through a spell of overwhelming tiredness, before finally arriving at a kind of blissful, secular serenity – which one of the monks at St Wandrille likens to falling in love. The stillness, which for the monks is a “springboard into eternity”, gives PLF the dreamless nights and calm days he needs to focus on his travel writing; and also the opportunity to observe their quiet life in close quarters. As such it is a testament to the healing power of solitude, as well as being a loving portrait of the monastic world.

In describing the history of each of these monasteries in captivating detail, PLF mourns their persecution over centuries of wars and secular reform, and also explains something I had never contemplated before – the “almost superhuman generosity and unselfishness” that underpin the monastic life. Not all the monks he spends time with maintain a perfect silence and a rhythm which precludes any kind of personal, intellectual endeavour – but in the case of the Trappists, who sleep on palliasses of straw in dormitories; spend their lives either at worship or working in the fields; and who are required to accuse themselves publicly of having sinned, what PLF characterises as being their melancholy existence is not just a personal sacrifice motivated by their search for spiritual consolation. Instead, they believe they are “lightening the burden of mankind,” taking our sins upon their shoulders and protecting us from evil through their own harsh regime – which, regardless of your own faith, is an extraordinarily humbling idea.

LBF has gift for finding the most human, magical details in his subjects. He offers us a portrait of the last secular inhabitant of St Wandrille in the 1920s, for example, who would roller-skate through the cloisters, “smoking furiously and followed by a cascade of barking terriers,” in search of artistic inspiration. What an incredible image. He tells us about Dom Walser, the former superior of an Abbey in Germany who had challenged Hitler’s regime as early as 1933, served as a chaplain in the American Army during the war, made broadcasts to the German troops and opened a seminary for priests among the German prisoners of war in North Africa – “a tall, florid, bony, blue-eyed man discoursing…with humour, gentleness, perception and, very occasionally, anger, about the politics and the movement of ideas in modern Europe.” He explains the architectural origins of La Grande Trappe – a building constructed in the shape of a reversed sailing vessel in honour of Princess Matilda (daughter of Henry I of England and wife of the Abbey’s founder) who was drowned at sea after the loss of the White Ship in 1120 – which is itself an incredible story of drunken aristocrats and thwarted heroism. And finally, the Abbot of La Trappe in the seventeen century, who gave up his wealthy, secular life for the Abbey, but who was apparently tortured by the sounds of stags and the “echo of the hounds and hunting horns” which invaded his cell and tempted him back to his old world.

It is a book which deserves to be read a hundred times, packed as it is with this incredible prose and irresistible history – I know I will want to go back to it again and again, to find new details and to savour the language. I also cannot wait to explore the books about his journeys across Europe as a young man, and his heroism during the war. How I have only just discovered a man once described by a BBC journalist as being “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” I will never know – but I am delighted that I have.