Trapped in the wainscoting of life

I love Philip Larkin's description of Barbara Pym's writing. He said that she writes "...of people, living like mice in the wainscoting of life, never invited to its table". It's a very apt description.

Barbara Pym can be very funny, but oddly sometimes I find her black humour profoundly depressing. Quartet in Autumn was her first novel to be published after 15 years worth of publishers' rejections, and was nominated for the Booker Prize. Written in her early sixties, it has many a funny, if hardly laugh-out-loud, moment; but there was also something very depressing about her quartet of middle-aged characters - Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia, all on the verge of retirement, and all having lived lives which could only be described as ordinary. Not that there's anything wrong with an "ordinary" life; it just felt to me depressing that one could have lived 60 years without doing anything except wake up, go to work (one job for life, naturally), holiday in a nice, safe, unadventurous place, go back to work etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Perhaps part of the reason that it made me feel sad is that it makes you question what life is about. Is this really IT? What's the point? And part of the reason that it made me feel sad is that there were some aspects of the characters that I recognised in me, and even more so in some of the people I know. There may have been moments that made me laugh, but to be honest I felt a whole lot more like crying.

In some ways Quartet in Autumn is a period piece. It is very much of its time - the 1970s - attitudes to women have changed, although perhaps not as much as we would like. There was much in this novel in terms of assumptions about the role of women that I think is not as different as we would like tto think. Attitudes to age are certainly different. It isn't as implicitly assumed now, as it was when Pym wrote the novel, that death was just around the corner following retirement. But people are not really that different, and I found this novel so sad.

I don't know why the thought of an "ordinary" life should bother me so much. I don't think I realised till I read Quartet in Autumn and then wrote this blog post quite how much it bothered me. I guess that I feel there should be something more than just work and play and being "safe", although what the something more is, I'm still not sure. It's an interesting novel, it is at times blackly comic, anyone who's involved in the Church of England will have a bit of a giggle at the two very different priests portrayed in the novel, but if you're feeling down avoid Quartet in Autumn. It's not a novel that's going to make you feel too positive about what lies ahead, even if it does attempt to preach the power of embracing change.


Shaz said…
Isn't it interesting the things books bring up in us? I myself have been feeling in a bit of an "ordinary" rut lately. I'm not unhappy with my life ... yet I want something more, even if I have have no idea what it is.

Your description of this book puts me in mind of the sitcom Waiting for God. Yes, it made me laugh, but it's portrait of the indiginities and dehumanization that aging bring was a real downer.
Book-hound said…
"Waiting for God" - yes, of course, that's exactly what this reminded me of - well summed up, Shaz.

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