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June 20, 2017

On the Bearability of Lightness

A couple of weeks ago, after a string of one-after-the-other satisfying spring reads, I couldn’t get into a single book. A problem that stretched out for a week, until I had no choice but to turn to a surefire solution, which was to reread a Laurie Colwin novel followed by one by Barbara Pym. The Laurie Colwin idea occurring to me because I’d created a job for a character in the novel I’m writing that seemed Colwin-esque—she was hired as a researcher at an institute for folklore and fairy tales. Which never happens to anyone in real life, but which is all the more fun to imagine for it. In the Colwin novel I read, Happy All The Time, not a single character is in possession of a real job. The book is about two friends, one whose job is to manage the philanthropic foundation that donates his family’s wealth and the other has a background in urban studies and works for a city-planning think-tank, where he meets his future wife who is a linguist working on a language project. The first character’s wife is just wealthy and doesn’t have to work, and spends her day-to-day life watering spider plants in her apartment, making soup, and rearranging jars of pretty things on her windowsills.

Do I sound critical of these details? I don’t mean to. It’s part of the reason I life Laurie Colwin, the rarefied experiences of a certain class of people but she gets at their ordinariness. It is all very strange, and an aspect of appreciating Colwin, I think, is learning to take that strangeness for granted. Which is not to say her books are frivolous, although they are in a way. But I think maybe the problem is that we have no template except for frivolity to understand a book that possesses a light touch. This is a novel that turns gender norms upside down, Jane Austen with the shoes on other feets. The two men at the book’s centre are yearning and emotionally complicated, besotted with emotionally distant women who don’t seem the appeal of love in all its frippery. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff going on here, although it’s easy to breeze right by it, to let it go down easy. It’s easy to give this kind of literature absolutely no credit at all.

What if instead of axes to the frozen seas within us, books were umbrellas to protect us from the ice pellets overhead? Or a house that we could go inside in order to escape from the weather for a while.

I read Barbara Pym after that, because I love her, but my confession is this: apart from Excellent Women (which is so so excellent, but they all are) I have a hard time remembering what Barbara Pym novel is which and they all run together. Which is why I try to reread at least one annually, and this time it was No Fond Return of Love, which I last read in 2010 (which I know because I then recorded a youtube video about how much I loved it). As with the Colwin, this is a book that skews with conventional narrative and is more subversive than it ever gets credit for. Really, it’s a story about stories, about seeing and watching and it’s an experiment in a novel with a protagonist who is not a protagonist at all. Very little of Dulcie’s story is her own, and she doesn’t even want it to be. She is content in her experience, but it’s other people’s experiences that fascinates her, and we keep waiting for the conventional things to happen, but they don’t. Dulcie is far more interested in other people than she is in herself, and so is the novel, which is pretty unusual. I think I read this one around the same time I saw the Emma Thompson film Stranger Than Fiction and read the Muriel Spark novel The Comforters which is similar, and so the metafictional elements of this Barbara Pym book (and the ways in which Pym represents her work and makes a cameo appearance) are underlined to me. I can’t remember if other Pym books are quite as self-referential as this one, or if No Fond Return of Love is an outlier.

In this novel too, things are arranged in jars on windowsills and we’re told what these things are and how the light things through them, and I think of the materiality of both Colwin and Pym’s work, how the furniture is so important. And is there anything wrong with books that are more concerned with end-tables than axes? What if literature didn’t have to be a weapon?

I read Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk next, which I read first in January, but I wanted to read again before my book club discussed it. A book I was so glad to get a chance to return to because it reads so easily you might almost forget it, or at least imagine there is not so much to remember. This the trouble with lightness, of course, is its deceptiveness. Which is the entire point of Lillian Boxfish, actually, and we had such a fascinating discussion about this book, about style and substance, about the way in which its narrator cultivates her persona and how reliable is she, is she writing us another rhyme? This novel written by a poet is written with such an awareness of language, and sense of play about it, and Lillian Boxfish’s point about her heyday is that there could be an intelligence to lightness then, humour and grace. And it made me think about Colwin and Pym, writers whose lightness might be held against them, as Lillian’s work is against her later in her life, dismissed as silly rhymes. But is there a difference between these silly rhymes and today’s silly rhymes, and has a basic assumption of a reader’s intelligence and vocabulary and capacity for challenge changed in the years since Pym and Colwin were published. Remember too that for many years Pym wasn’t even published, out of print for nearly two decades until her resurrection in 1977—so maybe it’s the same as it ever was?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I’m glad that reading light this last little while has given me so much to think about. Thinking about those pretty things in the their jars on the windowsill and the narrow space between light, light (illumination) and delight, which has no etymological connection, but it probably should.

December 21, 2015

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour, by Anne Michaels, illustrated by Emma Block

adventurespetitfour

While The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is indeed world-renowned writer Anne Michaels’ first book for children, it might be as accurate to state that it was written exactly for me. Bizarrely so. Right down to the bunting and teapot and caked goods on the endpapers. There is a jumble sale in the second chapter, for heaven’s sake, and every adventures ends with a tea party. There is an entire chapter about cheddar cheese. This was the other book that I bought last week, and we spent every night reading it together, being positively delighted. (Please do read this post by Lisa Martin, inspired by Doris Lessing, on the necessity of the capacity for delight as a precondition for resilience.) If a Barbara Pym novel married Mary Poppins, this book would be their progeny.

“Some adventures are so small, you hardly know they’ve happened… Other adventures are big and last so long, you might forget they are adventures at all—like growing up. And some adventures are just the right size—fitting into a single, magical day. And these are the sorts of adventures Miss Petitfour had.”

Miss Petitfour travels by table cloth, which is a terrific twist on the magic carpet, and much more scientifically plausible. She holds the table cloth just so and lets it fill with wind, and then up she goes (after she has taken “a measure of the meteorological circumstances, that is to say, the weather”), her sixteen cats trailing along for the journey. And their adventures are rich with digressions, narrative and actual, as well as bookishness, confetti, misdirections and festoonery. Charged with whimsy and fun, there is an underlying intelligence to these stories, which are so very much about words:

“People often say that children have no use for long words, but frankly, Mrs. Collarwaller [the bookseller] found this never to be the case. In her vast experience, children loved books that contained words such as propitious, perambulator and gesticulate, especially if they all ended up in the same sentence. The kind of word your tongue could get tangled up and lost in.”

In Miss Petitfour’s local bookshop, there are two sections: one side for adventure books and the other for books in which nothing happens (“the hum and the ho-hum”). In the most perfect way (in addition to the story about cheddar, there’s one about a runaway postage stamp, for example), this books manages to be both.

June 2, 2013

Victoria Sponge for Barbara Pym

IMG_20130602_180955I successfully baked a Victoria Sponge cake in honour of the Barbara Pym centenary (and because I feel like eating one). Recipe from Nigella’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, with fresh Ontario strawberries inside. Here’s hoping it tastes as good as it looks. And happy birthday, Miss Pym!

June 2, 2013

Reading Barbara Pym on her Centenary

excellentI have nearly all of Barbara Pym’s novels on my shelf, the bulk of which I obtained when a contents sale was held at a house around the corner and I pretty much cleaned out the library. And this is how it is with Barbara Pym novels–it usually takes death for a reader to finally part with them. Though they also turn up at used book sales from time to time (probably after a death as well), which is how I first encountered Excellent Women, perhaps Pym’s best-known novel. I’d heard of Pym from Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and also from this wonderful piece on the CBC on the Barbara Pym Society, which I joined shortly after becoming a Pym convert. It was Excellent Women that fast turned me into one too, and no wonder, I discovered, over the past few days as I read the book again.

It’s wonderful. I could see how encountering Pym first through some of her other novels might be a less delightful experience, one not truly appreciated until one understands the nature of the Pymmian universe. But Excellent Women, as subtle and small as her other books, is so absolutely funny, its goodness immediately graspable. As ever, the delicious gap because what is written on the page and the reader’s apprehension of the true situation. It’s the story of Mildred Lathbury, spinster daughter of a clergyman whose life changes with the arrival of new neighbours Rocky and Helena Napier, plus a clergyman’s widow who steals the heart of the vicar whom everyone had assumed that Mildred was in love with.

And the lines: “A little grey woman… brewing coffee in the ruins.” The austerity of 1950s’ England is not at the novel’s forefront, but instead a shadow in the background with references to bombed-out buildings, ration books, and bad food. But ordinary life goes on anyway, church services conducted in the half of the church that was not destroyed in the war, which gives the congregation a heightened intimacy.

And the vicar with his plaintive call: “May I come up? I can hear the attractive rattle of tea things. I hope I’m not too late.” Oh, so much tea. “Perhaps there can be too much making cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look. ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.”

There are so many landslides in this tidy book, whose whole world is turned inside out by its final page. Most aren’t the landslides you’d notice and it doesn’t end with a wedding (though a further glimpse of these characters in another Pym novel reveals that one will come about eventually!!!), but more with a change in consciousness, the main character’s heightened awareness of her place in the world. And it’s a funny little world too, quintessentially English, rattling tea things and all. How I adore it, absolutely.

This past week, I also reread A Glass of Blessings, which is more subtle and infused with a touch of melancholy in spite of its delights. So many musings on a furniture storage facility–such a curious book. A bored and idle married woman fancies herself the object of another man’s affections, though he turns out to be gay (which is as expressly stated as you’d imagine for a book published in 1958). Pym is truly the master of the unrequited love narrative.

I do look forward to much Pym rereading this summer. I’ve read most of her books in a pleasurable blur, and welcome the opportunity to think deeper about them. I also look forward to baking a victoria sponge cake this afternoon in celebration of her centenary. It’s either bake a cake or have a baby, and the latter doesn’t appear to be happening yet.

More: Barbara Pym on The Sunday Edition!

May 27, 2013

Reading in the here and now.

I just finished rereading A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I remember reading for the first time about 3.5 years ago in my room with the lighting so dim I could hardly see the words, and there was a little baby napping on my chest. Oh, is there anything worse than a little baby napping on your chest and then feeling a coughing spasm coming on? I remember that too. Of the many ways in which I’m in limbo at the moment, reading-wise is one. I have the new Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel waiting on my shelf, but it’s huge and I can’t make such a commitment to anything at the moment while I’m waiting for baby to begin to arrive. After baby comes, I will crack open Where’d You Go Bernadette, but I’m saving it ’till then. I reread Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin last weekend when I was sick. “What to read next?” is not usually a question I spend much time grappling with, as the books usually seem to be lined up for me, but not here and not now. Which is kind of lovely, a luxury–the only bit of this waiting in which I’m really revelling. And all I really want to do is reread. I think I’m going to pick up a Margaret Drabble next–the follow-up to The Radiant Way (my first and best Drabble…) which is A Natural Curiosity–I read it once the summer I got married. (I keep plucking these books off the shelf and they’re covered with dust.)

You might recall that my computer died in June 2009, with nothing on it backed up, including my list of Books Read Since 2006. Which means that I soon after started a new list, which is basically “Books I’ve Read Since Harriet’s Birth”. I updated it this evening–503 books read in my child’s lifetime. Not counting the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read to her.

Pym Logo  Multi

And speaking of Barbara Pym, whom I am really anxious to reread all summer long, a fun online reading project will be taking place in celebration of her centenary on Sunday. Barbara Pym Reading Week runs from June 1-8, with giveaways and a virtual tea party even. Ideally, I’ll be lost in newbornhood by that point, or even pulling off my ultimate celebratory stunt (giving birth on the big day), but I think I may be rereading Excellent Women at some point in solidarity.

I do so love Pym, whose essence was Englishness, who knew much about nuance, psychology, tea, womanhood, longing and romance. But who perhaps knew less about motherhood, if this passage from A Glass of Blessings is anything to go by…

“We were in her bed-sitting-room after supper, and I had been telling her about Sybil’s forthcoming marriage and what an upheaval it was going to make in our lives.

‘Yes,’ said Mary, ‘marriage does do that, doens’t it?–and death too, of course.’

‘But not birth.”

‘No–people seem to come more quietly into the world…'”

Which is not exactly how I remember it. But maybe I remember it wrong?

March 30, 2012

A Barbara Pym kind of morning

It’s all been very Pymmian, my experience of membership in the Barbara Pym Society. That I’d join a society whose membership includes attendance at events that I never, ever go to, for one. But the Pymmishness really began with a handwritten letter I received in the post about two years ago from a fellow Pymmite who was rallying Ontario members of the society to get together. The very best thing was that the letter writer’s name seemed familiar, and I realized that she was a writer whose essay I’d noted on this very blog about 3 years previously and we’d even had a brief email correspondence. Anyway, we were back in touch and arranged a Barbara Pym tea at my house later that summer. It was a delightful get-together and we all fell in love immediately, and everything was perfect except that I’d put out a ton of food and everybody had already had lunch before their arrival. Further social awkwardness ensued when afterwards a gift was put in the post for Harriet which never arrived. I didn’t want to say anything because perhaps there hadn’t been a gift after all, but then months later, there was an enquiry as to whether I’d received it, and I felt terrible, because all that time they’d been thinking that I was a type of person who didn’t send thank-you notes! Not to mention that the present had disappeared off the face of the earth. Oh, the perils of the postal system…

Anyway, last weekend, my friend Gloria called me (and it’s true that Barbara Pymmites and my mom are the only people who call me ever) to say that she and Judy were getting together this week, and she wondered if I could come along. At the time, I was facing a week of municipal labour unrest which meant no organized activities for my toddler, so I was very happy to accept. We drove out to the suburbs this morning with a blueberry cake in tow, and arrived only a few minutes late. It turned out that that the long-lost present had been found in the post office a few months ago, and so Harriet finally got to unwrap it– a gingham dress bought much too big so that 18 mos later, it fits perfectly. They also gave her a cowboy hat, which I can’t quite believe she didn’t own already.

The table was spread with just as many lovely things as I’d prepared back in 2010, except that we hadn’t had lunch before. We set to wait for the other guests to arrive… but they never did! Oh, we enjoyed ourselves, cups of tea and delicious cake and Harriet gorging on blue cheese. We enjoyed catching up again after many months, but at the back of our minds, we were concerned about where Judy and her husband had got to. The phone rang once and there was nobody there, which only served to up the urgency. We were all very polite and hid the panic, and poured more cups of tea, for what else can you do?

Finally, it was time for Harriet and I to get back to the city, and just as we were leaving, Judy rang. She and her husband had been caught in traffic all morning and finally decided to pack it in and turn around and go back home. Which was too bad, her waste of a morning and that we’d missed her, but we were all really thinking that our gathering had just narrowly escaped a calamity, worst-case scenarios passing before our eyes. We were all a little giddy as we bid our final good-byes.

So we will do it again soon, with Judy this time, and maybe we’ll all finally get it right but it’s funny how much these social situations are precisely the stuff of Pym, the excellentness of the women in particular, of course– Judy is even a vicar’s wife. That there is a timelessness to Pym’s grasp of human dynamics, their intricacies and awkwardnesses. And it’s unfortunate for those of us who have to live it but so fortunate for those of us who get to read it: these kinds of stories will never go out of style.

July 14, 2011

Barbara Pym for afters

We’ve invented a new dessert! Or rather, we’ve re-christened a very familiar one. This all came about because Harriet had taken to walking around the house screaming, “Barbara Pym!” Which is a bit weird, because Harriet and I don’t talk about Barbara Pym a lot, but I must talk about her to other people enough that the name is known (and I shouldn’t be surprised– Harriet has had her photo in the Barbara Pym Society newsletter after all).

One night a few weeks back, when Barbara Pym mania was at its height, Harriet was coerced into her chair at the table with the promise that we were going to be eating Barbara Pym for dessert. Dessert turned out to be berries with ice cream, which has since become the Barbara Pym that we eat almost daily. Splendid local raspberries tonight with maple ice cream made this particular dish of Barbara Pym delightful.

Here is a photo of the world’s dirtiest child devouring hers, having just completed her first course, which was mostly ketchup.

April 28, 2011

Barbara Pym Barbara Pym Barbara Pym!

I don’t know if I ever mentioned that Harriet and I were featured in the most recent issue of Green Leaves, the official newsletter of the Barbara Pym Society, along with the other guests from our local Barbara Pym gathering back in August. Some people have to wait their whole lives to get into Green Leaves, and so it was thrilling to be a part of things at the tender age of 31.

It’s also nice that my love of all things Pym has become a bit contagious, as attested to by Melanie’s blog post and its subsequent comments. (Seriously though, try it. You’ll like it.)

And finally, a heads up to the Pym-curious in Hamilton, Ontario– a Barbara Pym night is taking place at the Westdale Library on May 25th, organized by Pymmite Judy Smith. Email me if you’re interested, and I’ll put you in touch with her. Sounds like the event is going to be fun.

Oh, and another exciting thing. After I wrote my “How to woo a Barbara Pym heroine” blog post, I complained to my husband that never once in my whole life had I gone viral. He suggested that topics such as “How to woo a Barbara Pym heroine” were perhaps the reason for my obscurity. And then ten minutes later, the post went viral (in that understated way that such posts do, but there was still a surge, links by strangers, and on The Daily Pym [yeah, baby!] and Facebook and the post was featured on Stumble-upon). See, the world is hungry for Pym. I knew it.

April 12, 2011

How to woo a Barbara Pym heroine

I am exhausted from being constantly ridiculously overwrought, so here’s a fun diversion, totally stolen from 5 Dates for the Jane Austen Superfan (via Booksin140). How do you woo a Barbara Pym heroine? It’s no simple task, because spinsters are spinsters for having kept their standards high, and nobody is more romantic. The surefire way is to become a curate, of course, but here are five less dramatic suggestions.

1) Take her to church! High or low, mass or evensong. Going over to Rome and incense. I actually understand nothing about any of this, but that I’ve read and loved each of Barbara Pym’s books anyway is a testament to her wide appeal. At church, your heroine will encounter someone distasteful, either for being sluttish and ostentatious, or mousy and pious, and afterwards (over a nice hot drink) she will regale you with amusing stories about this woman. Someone will see the two of you in deep conversation, sparking inevitable rumours (and where there’s smoke, there’s fire!).

2) Accompany her to the jumble sale, and buy her a special piece of bric-a-brac, supporting foreign missionaries or distressed gentlewomen in the process. At the very least, you’ll get a cup of tea. And then at church in days ahead, you and she can talk about what dress the Vicar’s sister is sporting, and how she must have removed it from the jumble for her own personal use.

3) Arrive at her office (at the Society of Archaeologists) and take her out for lunch at a cafeteria. She will be slightly uncomfortable eating lunch from a tray, but she will try not to show it. She is nothing if not stoic. Listen to her talk of office politics, and who got fired for failure to make a proper cup of tea. Someone will be angry at her for having not sent around her tin of biscuits. And you will wonder how an Oxford grad with an endless capacity for quoted poetry works as an assistant in an office (however scholarly), and you’ll be pleased to liberate her from this life when you make an honest woman of her.

4) Take her to the library, and sit across the table in the reading room. Fall in love to the whispery din, to the scratch-scratch of pencils, and turn of ancient pages. In this atmosphere of restraint, emotions will become heated, and love will surely bloom.

5) Don’t say a word when you encounter the caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese. Ever-discreetly, set it aside, and proceed with your conversation.

April 3, 2011

Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

In her very strange book Felicity and Barbara Pym, Harrison Solow notes that Barbara Pym doesn’t so much write a lot about tea as that English novelists fixate on tea in general. Solow also writes that one hoping to learn more about the Pymmian universe could do with reading Joanna Trollope, which is the reason I decided to pick up Trollope’s new novel Daughters-in-Law. In which cups of tea are poured throughout, the ceremony never illustrated as quotably as it is by Pym, but how could it be? But yes, still, the tea at all signals perfect Englishness and is absolutely delightful.

Though Trollope writes of Pymmian class concerns, her work lacks the undercurrents that make Barbara Pym so subtly literary. This, however, also means that to read Daughters-in-Law this week was to escape into a world where plot dominates, and it was entirely easy to becoming altogether lost, which was a treat considering the week that I’d had. A double treat, actually, because I’ve had such a problem with commercial fiction since becoming a more demanding reader– is it too much to ask for accessible but not bad? And as I read through Daughters-in-Law, I kept coming up to intersections where lesser writers would turn off onto cliched avenues, but Joanna Trollope missed them every time.

Cliched characters are avoided too (for the most part) by Trollope presenting her story from multiple points of view, and so we see the impulsive, self-centred mother-in-law Rachel  from her own perspective and gain sympathy for her situation. That she has devoted her life to her family, to making her home the centre of her family’s life, a rambling bohemian nest in Suffolk where her husband paints birds in his studio, and she conducts cooking classes in her kitchen. Her position as the family’s centre has never been challenged, even with her two elder sons married, as one has married a woman whose family is abroad, and the other has no family at all. When her youngest marries a girl whose centre is eternally fixed on the self, however, friction is inevitable and explosions ensue.

Trollope writes with assurance of modern life– Pymmian and “old fashioned” aren’t necessarily synonyms, and I don’t think a curate turns up once. The youngest son Luke is forced to kick his cocaine habit before Charlotte will go out with him, however. And though Rachel and her husband Anthony live without a care on their inherited wealth, their children are all slightly constrained by housing prices. Trollope also writes matter-of-factly of one character’s experience with post-partum depression, which is incidental to the plot, life having gone on since the occurrence (as life often tends to do).

She also doesn’t have to rely on adultery for this novel about marriage and family relationships to progress, which is not to say that adultery itself is a cliche, but it usually is as portrayed in fiction. To write an an entire novel so compelling about people who (for the most part) behave quite decently is no small feat. And also, for that matter, Pymmish. It abounds!

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