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Civil to Strangers (1987)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3721452,811 (3.81)1 / 52
When Barbara Pym died in 1980 she left a considerable amount of unpublished material. This volume contains an early novel written in 1936, Civil to Strangers (originally called Adam and Sandra), three novellas and an autobiographical essay, Finding a Voice, Pym's only written comment on her writing career. Finding a Voice was a transcription of a radio programme Barbara Pym made for the BBC in 1978, part of a series by well-known writers speaking about how they found their own personal writing styles.… (more)

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English (13)  Italian (1)  All languages (14)
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
A volume I recommend only for hardcore enthusiasts, but useful for those interested in the development of a notable author.

Barbara Pym's oeuvre consists of twelve novels and a posthumous "autobiography" compiled from her diaries and letters. These are all satisfying, even if a couple of the works which were initially rejected by publishers in the 1960s, only merited release because of her "comeback" in the late 1970s. Alongside this body of work, however, Pym's archives included half a dozen unpublished novels (some unfinished) and a few dozen short stories and miscellaneous pieces. The critical consensus is that many of the short stories are not worth public interest, written as they were during her youth or specifically for publication in "women's magazines" of the era - and rejected even by them! Here, Pym's literary executors cobble together a selection of the best material, which has become the final piece in the Pym puzzle.

Civil to Strangers and other Writings contains one complete novel, three novellas, four short stories, and an autobiographical radio talk. The eponymous novel was written when Pym was 23, and is a fairly perfunctory village romance about the wife of an arrogant, vague novelist, who attempts to return the spark to their marriage when a handsome Hungarian man moves into town. The novel feels very much like a draft, with moments of Pymian insight and observational humour, and the undertone of repressed sorrow that lurks around the corner of all of her works. Still, it is clear that the young, still very naive, Barbara was unable to properly imagine a marriage, and she is reduced more heavily here to stereotype. Additionally, most of the chapters have a surface-level quality; the artist has not yet added the detail and shading to the primary colours. Pym had such a distinctive narrative voice, but here we are seeing her influences rather than she herself.

The three additional novellas - all from the late 1930s - are excerpts of complete or near-complete works in the archive, polished by literary executor Hazel Holt. Pym was living in her childhood home in Shropshire, preparing the house for the imminent war, and wondering what she would do with her life. Each of these novels feels like an attempt to traverse a different path, before she found her ultimate style. Gervase and Flora is a harmless story about a young woman who follows her true love to Finland, where he has found a job and a beautiful Finnish lass; Home Front is a realist slice-of-life novel about an English village at the commencement of the War; and So Very Secret is a kind of spy novel, centered around an unexpected lead, a vicar's daughter, who discovers that a missing friend was involved in espionage, and sets out to find her.

All of these works are of great interest to the Pym scholar, as are the previously- unpublished short story So, Some Tempestuous Morn and a piece commissioned very late in Pym's life for the Church Times, called The Christmas Visit, both of which resurrect characters from the author's previous novels. However it is fair to say that all of them are examples of a writer-in-training, rather than a novel that would interest a newcomer or even an average fan. I will never complain about additional words by this author, but I think this volume's attractiveness was related to a kind of "Pymania" that took place during the 1980s, after the author's death.

More worthy, perhaps, are the other two short stories. Goodbye, Balkan Capital!, written during the War but never previously published, is another of the author's many reflections on unrequited love, and the way we turn past memories into fantasy, and it is really quite touching. Across a Crowded Room was one of the author's last pieces, commissioned by The New Yorker in the final year of her life, and is a neat example of her late style. Finally the short radio talk, Finding a Voice (1978), sees Barbara reflecting on her particular narrative style, and the problems this caused during the 1960s and early 1970s when no publisher would accept her novels.

A collection of historical interest, but perhaps not much more. ( )
  therebelprince | Jun 24, 2021 |
This eclectic array of Pym's unpublished work reveals an active mind filled with endless creative possibilities. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
I stopped before the 'Other Writings'. It seems to me that Pym's novels fall into two categories; they are either light-hearted and full of wry humour, or they are more cynical and almost snide. 'Civil to Strangers' falls firmly into the second category. Cassandra had no real personality and her husband Adam was a pathetic man-child, whom she had decided to bestow all her money and devotion on for no discernible reason. Cassandra's Hungarian admirer was a totally unbelievable character. I did enjoy Mr Gay and Mrs Gower, but Miss Gay seemed to have been created solely to be mocked.

I have now read all of Pym's novels, and have enjoyed her writing, although in general more than I did in this case. ( )
  pgchuis | Apr 28, 2020 |
A treat for Pym fans, just a little more from her. You can never have too much Pym! ( )
  TanteLeonie | Dec 24, 2016 |
Barbara Pym wrote the short novel Civil to Strangers in 1936 when she was twenty-three years old, although it wasn’t published until after her death in 1980. Her wry, astute observations of a married couple’s problems reveals her early adroitness at analyzing the psychology of the female character which she later became so adept at. The novel fairly overflows with typical Pym characters but she also created something unseen in her other novels: the pompous, arrogant, impossible-to-please husband. Young marrieds Cassandra and Adam Marsh-Gibbon join the rest of their small community in being quite excited about the arrival of a new resident, a foreigner from Budapest, Hungary. Handsome, dashing Stefan Tilos is awestruck by the beautiful Cassandra and decides to ignore the fact that she is a married woman and tries to lure her into a romantic relationship. Adam, completely self-absorbed as he is, doesn’t mind or even notice the neighbor’s ministrations. Along the way, we are completely, safe within Pym territory with the expected Rector, a couple of spinsters, the wise older matron and more than one excellent women to keep things moving smoothly along. Things get problematical when Cassandra decides to take a vacation to Budapest on her own and an unexpected complication occurs.

The second half of the book contains bits and pieces of other novels, short stories and an interview that Barbara Pym did for the BBC which contains the only recorded information about how she felt about her work. I found this to be very interesting and a perfect end to my year of reading Pym. She spoke wistfully about the sixteen year period (beginning in the early 60s) when she couldn’t get any of her work published after successfully publishing six novels before this. She found herself in a literary wilderness but she continued writing until 1977 when Phillip Larkin wrote in The Times Literary Supplement that Pym was “an underrated writer” and shortly after that Quartet in Autumn was published and went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. ( )
4 vote brenzi | Dec 29, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Pymprimary authorall editionscalculated
Holt, HazelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Klein, KatarzynaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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"Dear Cassandra", smiled Mrs Gower, "you are always so punctual".
I think that's the kind of immortality most authors would want -- to feel that their work would be immediately recognisable as having been written by them and by nobody else. But, of course, it's a lot to ask for.
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Réunit : "Secret, très secret" ; "Roman du front intérieur" ; "Adieu, Balkans", nouvelles extraites du recueil "Dans un salon d'Oxford"
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When Barbara Pym died in 1980 she left a considerable amount of unpublished material. This volume contains an early novel written in 1936, Civil to Strangers (originally called Adam and Sandra), three novellas and an autobiographical essay, Finding a Voice, Pym's only written comment on her writing career. Finding a Voice was a transcription of a radio programme Barbara Pym made for the BBC in 1978, part of a series by well-known writers speaking about how they found their own personal writing styles.

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When Barabara Pym died in 1980 she left a considerable amount of unpublished material. This volume contains an early novel, Civil to Strangers, three novellas and an autobiographical essay, 'Finding a Voice', Pym's only written comment on her writing career.

In Civil to Strangers the lives of a young couple, Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon and her self-absorbed writer husband Adam, are thrown into upheaval when a mysterious Hungarian arrives in their village.
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