Saturday, 12 March 2016

quartet in autumn

On Thursday 10 March I finished Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, which I enjoyed very much. It was one of a batch of small - well, what used to be just normal size, my preferred size, the size which fits nicely into a coat pocket - secondhand paperbacks I got at Kirkdale Books in Sydenham last Saturday (nine for £15.50, something like those numbers I think), in advance of our meal out with Marina.

(I also got 5 for £1 in a charity shop down the road from Kirkdale, a charity shop which obviously relies on turnover, and which, like a lot of charity shops these days, only seemed to stock relatively new books, and most of the paperbacks of unnecessarily large size; there were lots of quite new jacketed hardbacks too; a lot of books of the kind you could buy in big supermarkets, I'd say. I had a thorough look through them, and I think I only made one swop to finalise my selection of five in the end, so not much that tempted me, really, though I was pleased with what I got.)

Most of my purchases were from the first two sections I looked at - crime and small fiction (unusually, their general fiction bookcases were small A-Z then larger A-Z, which suited me very well). I'd hoped for some sf/f, but nothing grabbed me. When I came back upstairs, not having got as much downstairs as I thought I might, I went back to those first sections (I was avoiding spending too much on any book, also). I'm pretty smug about the male/female ratio of my authors, if someone causes me to think about it for some reason (it's not something I notice or think about in general), but I am aware that a significant part of the high proportion of female writers is due to my crime reading (and conversely, the proportion is dragged down by my sf/f reading). So I consciously looked in the fiction for female writers, and added to my pile an Anita Brookner (which may be one which I read over twenty years ago - we shall see), and one by Barbara Pym, who I had heard of but never read; the information and quotes on the cover made me think there was a chance I'd like it.

Before I finished it I had the same feeling I had when I read my first Alice Thomas Ellis novel - pleasure at reading a book by an author new to me and knowing that a little bibliography of other novels existed ready for me to read, which I hoped would be as good. Interesting that I should feel this with these two, since one might say they seem to be broadly similar (if this first Pym novel is typical) - a dry authorial humour, looking at lives which might appear ordinary or boring in other hands or to other observers, but are made otherwise. Also, in both cases, an admirable brevity. Novels these days seem to feel obliged to be long.

Just one quote, regarding the widowed character: 'There was a colourful range of magazines on the counter, some of which displayed the full naked breasts of young women, enticingly posed. Edwin looked at them dispassionately. He supposed that his wife Phyllis had once had breasts, but he could not remember that they had been at all like this, so very round and balloon-like.'

That last is a brilliant sentence.

First line: That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times.
Last line: But at least it made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change.

The cover suits the book very well; the colours, the elegant type, the single dried leaf (symbolic of the time of life of the characters, of course, but also of a small, single thing closely examined), all understated. It would be interesting to have been in the design meeting when they discussed whether or not to have the ruled lines in the book title, whether they really had to put the ISBN number (!) on the front cover, and the extent to which the whole design was spoiled by putting a book review quote in red right in the centre (I suppose it is nicely centred, and could cause you to reflect on the idea of a photo of a single dead leaf as a work of art, but still...).