Thursday, February 28, 2013

Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Barbara Pym’s 1977 comeback novel is a gentle and funny hymn to ordinary lives.

Barbara Pym had a successful run as a published novelist from 1950 -1961, with such titles as Excellent Women (1952) and Jane and Prudence (1953). Then publishers dropped her and she didn’t appear in print again until 1977, after supporters David Cecil and Philip Larkin wrote glowingly of her work. Pym’s comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn (1977) was subsequently nominated for the Booker Prize.

Quartet in Autumn centres around four aging office workers, Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia. The two women of the group are about to retire, and are making tentative arrangements for life after work. Rather hilariously, no one at their office knows what exactly it is that these workers do. It is presumed that once all four retire that their work stations will be mothballed and closed forever.

There is not much plot in Quartet in Autumn. Pym concentrates on the minutiae of daily life for those of an advance age in 1970s Britain. The four office workers go to the library to kill time, share family size coffee supplies to save money and eat the most boring food imaginable. There’s a lot of gentle humour and sympathy in Pym’s descriptions of drab English life. The characters obsess over the smallest details, like Marcia’s collecting of empty milk bottles. If there is any drama in the novel, it’s Marcia’s crabby descent into malnutrition and near starvation. Ironically, she collects plenty of tinned food while existing on old bread.

The overall tone of Quartet in Autumn, besides the humourous flashes, is deeply sad and melancholic. The novel is a hymn to the ordinary and downright dull. Pym borders on being defiant in giving us every prosaic detail of everyday life for the elderly, the lonely and the slightly mad.

This is my first Barbara Pym novel and it reminded me very much of Australian novelist Madeleine St John, an author who also concentrates on quiet lives and internal dramas. Words can’t express how much I enjoyed this funny-sad story about office workers trying to get on whilst confronting retirement and the end of their usefulness as workers. This is a story of people struggling half-heartedly for a few scraps of meaning in their humdrum lives, despite all the evidence indicating  that their existence is most probably meaningless.

Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780452269347  $19.95