Barbara Pym has such a knack for telling a story of seemingly misfits and eccentrics with a deftness and lightness of touch that you just can't help smiling to yourself. Buried in Print and I decided (well, maybe I sort of nudged but happily BiP is a willing partner in reading) on whim to pick a Barbara Pym novel and decided on Quartet in Autumn--a reread for BiP but a first go for me (and this is a novel I had wanted to read last summer when I bought the lovely Picador reissue that you see here). What I like about Pym's novels is that I often see bits of myself in her characters, and what I like more is that they (or maybe she) doesn't take themselves/herself too seriously.
This is a novel set in 1970s London. It follows a quartet of friends (colleagues in an office) who are in the autumn of their lives. Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia. "Pym conducts us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements, and - perhaps most keenly felt their worries about having missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them." And since this is Pym, we're talking stylish, sparkling prose.
On the day we meet them, all four have (though not together) visited the library. So, of course, this is where I draw my teaser from.
"Of the four only Letty used the library for her own pleasure and possible edification. She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction. Gone were the days when she had hopefully filled her Boots Book Lovers' library list from novels reviewed in Sunday papers, and there had now been a change in her reading habits. Unable to find what she needed in 'romantic' novels, Letty had turned to biographies of which there was no dearth. And because these were 'true' they were really better than fiction. Not perhaps better than Jane Austen or Tolstoy, which she had not read anyway, but certainly more 'worth while' than the works of any modern novelist."
Edwin's visit is to consult reference works for research on a certain clergyman, Marcia uses the library as a warm place away from the office for a change of scenery, a place to pick up free leaflets and also a place to dispose of unwanted objects (not rubbish for the dustbin mind you, but other unclassified objects that could be left in a corner somewhere).
Maybe modern novelists don't write about people of a certain age who are solitary souls, but lucky for us Barbara Pym does.