“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.

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