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text 2019-03-22 11:31
Reading progress update: I've read 33%. I feel as if I'm becoming interred in the lives of these women
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

I'm beginning to see the method in Pym's light-touch writing style: it turns the authorial voice into a constant subliminal whisper, with each episode in a person's life dropping softly, like a handful of earth on a coffin, piling layer after layer of disappointment, self-denial, delusion and quiet unprotesting despair, until I feel interred in the lives of these women.


The two men don't interest me. They seem to me to be platitudinous, speaking only the ritual words that those of us with marginal social skills through the enforced proximity of working in a shared office.


This can be seen in the way the men in the responses of the men in the office to Letty's disclosure of unexpected and undesirable changes in her retirement plans and in her new landlord, a Nigerian priest in the Aladura Christian sect.

'It never rains but it pours," said Norman the next morning when Letty has told them in the office about the new development in her retirement plans. ‘First your friend getting married and now this –whatever next? There’ll be a third thing, just you wait.’ 


‘Yes, troubles do tend to come in threes, or so people say,’ Edwin remarked. There was of course an undeniable interest and even unadmitted pleasure in the contemplation of other people’s misfortunes, and for a moment Edwin basked in this, shaking his head and speculating on what the third disaster might be. 


‘Don’t tell us you’re getting married too,’ said Norman jauntily. ‘That might be the third thing.’ 


Letty had to smile, as she was meant to, at such a fantastic suggestion. ‘No chance of that,’ she said.

The hurt inflicted by the unthinking use of these boiler-plate phrases goes unobserved by the men using them. To some extent, the hurt is created by Letty, who can neither deafen herself to the negative implications of what has been said nor free herself from the pattern of ritual responses.


Letty, who I first thought of as independent and self-aware increasingly seems to me to be broken, not in a fractured by trauma way but more in the way of someone whose hands are swollen and callused through habitual misuse. Her manners constrain her perceived ability to act. Her expectations are meagre and vague yet she lacks the will actively to pursue them.


Part of Letty's passivity or paralysis may come from her inability to understand the course her life has taken. She asks herself:

How had it come about that she, an Englishwoman born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic, shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians?

The answer she gives herself denies her agency over her life in a way that she seems quite unaware of. She concludes:

It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm.

The way Letty thinks about her religious or spiritual life points to the heart of her inertia. When her new landlord asks her is she is a Christian lady:

Letty hesitated. Her first instinct had been to say ‘yes’, for of course one was a Christian lady, even if one would not have put it quite like that. How was she to explain to this vital, ebullient black man her own blend of Christianity –a grey, formal, respectable thing of measured observances and mild general undemanding kindness to all?

I was left thinking that her "grey, formal, respectable" life felt like a shroud that she has donned too early.


Then there is Marcia, whose damage is of the traumatic kind. I find being inside Marcia's head disturbing. She has a strong will. Her behaviour is disciplined, she reaches logical conclusions, takes responsibility for her life and yet she is trapped by fears and anxieties that shape everything she sees.


Marcia has an obsession with keeping a supply of canned goods in her house and having a collection of milk bottles set aside against some unspecified future disaster.


This hit me harder than it should. My mother was eight-years-old when the blitz destroyed large sections of her Liverpool. She lived through times when food was either not available or closely rationed and when baths were filled at night in case there was no running water in the morning. She was not Marcia but throughout her life, she had a cupboard full of canned foods and a chest freezer full of meals "just in case". Some things, usually the worst things, never leave you.


I find Marcia entirely believable and I really wish I didn't.

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text 2019-03-18 22:27
Reading progress update: I've read 30%. - what happened to these people?
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

Letty, the most vibrant of the bunch sees herself as an involuntary maiden, caught on a tide of history. She sees herself as part of a generation of women cheered by war of their opportunity to meet and marry, as if she’d missed a bus and was now doomed to walk.


Marcia is mentally ill, a condition either brought on by her mascectomy or worsened by it.


Edwin and Normam are so slightly drawn it’s hard to know who they are e c’est that they seem hollow men with low expectations that they still often fail to meet.


The flipping from head to head without resting in makes this a little like watching a reality TV show with the quartet of people like animals in a zoo with the author providing the narrative.

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text 2019-03-17 19:29
Reading progress update: I've read 15%.
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

I haven’t been able to spend the time I intend to on this bk this weekend so I’m only three chapters in.


its not fun.


I’m not enjoying the shifting points of view. Letty I understand.  The others are harder to empathize with. I get to spend relatively little time in their heads and, apart from the degradations of aging, I’m struggling to connect.


These seem to be dreary people living dream lives that will soon be over.


The experience of moving from “Ecellent Women” to “Quartet In Autumn” is like moving from “Pride And Préjudice” to “Mansfield Park”: disappointing 



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text 2019-03-15 17:05
Reading progress update: I've read 9%.
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym I started "Quartet in Autumn" today and already I can feel he kind of resonance that Wanda referred to in her review


I'm the same age as these and wondering what I do next.


As I followed Lettie to a hurried, solitary lunch in a restaurant crowded with other solitary people in a hurry, I felt a moment of recognition. I've done this often (although, as this isn't 70's England, I haven't eaten in places that serve "macaroni au gratin and chips"). I've never gotten the knack of connecting with people. My first instinct is to act as if I'm all alone in this crowded room. So I felt sympathy for this small incident in Lettie's day. Lettie is seated, eating her meal when a woman takes a seat at her table:


She looked up, perhaps about to venture a comment on price increases, pale, bluish eyes troubled about VAT . Then, discouraged by Letty’s lack of response, she lowered her glance, decided on macaroni au gratin with chips and a glass of water. The moment had passed. Letty picked up her bill and got up from the table. For all her apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation.


Somebody had reached out towards her. They could have spoken and a link might have 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.


I know exactly what that failure feels like.


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review 2019-03-07 23:53
"He Wants" by Alison Moore
He Wants - Alison Moore

Whatever I wanted, it wasn't this clumsily constructed, overly contrived but largely empty story.


Judging from the critical acclaim this novel received, I'm in the minority in seeing this particular emperor as naked.


"He Wants" was The Observer Book of the Year in 2014, which asserted, ‘Moore movingly mines the aching gap between aspiration and actuality.’ The Guardian called it "brave and rigorous’. The Financial Times declared, ‘Moore is a serious talent. There’s art here. There’s care.’


My experience of "He Wants" was very different. I read a book that was reaching for profundity wrapped in a fable but only achieved monotony, wrapped in astute and sometimes funny observations on what it feels like to grow old.


I'm in my sixties and I smiled at how well Moore captured the small assaults of old age on wellbeing. The prose was sparse but evocative, especially when summoning childhood memories. The opening was intriguing and promised much but the middle and the end delivered very little.


The framework of the story kept trying to link the action (such as it was) to a wider exploration of what we want and what we don't want and what we do about the gap between what we want and what we have but it was done in a very heavy-handed, sometimes clumsy way, that distracted from the story.


My main stumbling point was that I neither believed in nor cared about either of the two main characters.


Lewis Sullivan, widower and retired Secondary School RE teacher is, in his sixties, a boy-man afraid of the world and so passive and cautious that he's one step away from being put into care. Yet he doesn't come across as tragic or even interesting, just irredeemably dull and timid. Sydney, Lewis' anarchic childhood friend / teenboy crush, who, after disappearing for decades, returns from prison just in time to move the story towards its denouement, is at best and archetype and at worst a caricature.


The plot relies heavily upon co-incidence but doesn't use the co-incidences to go anywhere except around in circles of ever-diminishing meaning.


"He Wants" had me starting by wanting it to be as intriguing as it seemed to be, moves me swiftly on to wanting it to be less empty than it seemed to be and ended with me just wanting it to be over.


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