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Quartet in Autumn (1977)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,0824914,023 (4.05)1 / 286
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 1977 MAN BOOKER PRIZE"A spare masterpiece of loneliness in retirement" TelegraphIn 1970s London, Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office and suffer the same problem - loneliness. With delightful humour, Pym takes us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements; and, perhaps most keenly felt, their worries about having somehow missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them. Deliciously, blackly funny and full of obstinate optimism, Quartet in Autumn shows Barbara Pym's sensitive artistry at its most sparkling. A classic from one of Britain's most loved and highly acclaimed novelists, its world is both extraordinary and familiar, revealing the eccentricities of everyday life.PRAISE FOR BARBARA PYM"Quartet in Autumn is immeasurably her finest work of fiction" Evening Standard"An alert miniaturist ... her novels have a distinctive flavour, as instantly recognisable as lapsang tea" Daily Telegraph… (more)
  1. 30
    Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Deals with the pathos of ageing.
  2. 10
    At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels present the problems of old age.
  3. 10
    A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters by Barbara Pym (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Barbara Pym's diary shows how closely autobiographical this novel is.
  4. 00
    A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor (LBV123)
    LBV123: Strangely affecting quiet book in which not much happens. How do we move on?
  5. 00
    The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels present the problems of old age.
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English (48)  Dutch (1)  All languages (49)
Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
"But at least it made one realise that life still held infinite possibilities for change."

A masterclass in subtle, thoughtful characterization. Not a "fun" read, not an exciting read, but something that makes you think, about your own life, and the hidden currents of the lives of those around you.

Part of the fascination of this novel is the balance that it strikes between being an insight into the past (mid-1970s London), and its relevance for today. The four protagonists live lives that -- for us today -- are almost unimaginably limited. The line quoted above is priceless irony, because the only change that Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin can imagine, or tolerate, is microscopic, incremental and very, very frightening. At the age of early-to-mid 60s, they think of themselves as "old." Families have died or drifted away (cousins not seen in 40 years are a recurring motif), old friends have been lost, and they haven't bothered much to make new ones. They live and work in the center of London, then (as now) one of the exciting and vibrant cities in the world, and their idea of a pleasant lunch hour to to nip into the local library, to get out of the cold. They fondly remember a time when "... hymn singing was confined to Sundays and no one was fired with enthusiasm."

So, you say, great, fascinating: things were rough for soon-to-be retired clerical workers in London, in the mid-1970s. People boiled an egg for their tea, and settled down to eat it while listening to the BBC World Service on the radio, and put a shilling in the gas meter ... What does this have to do with me, here and now?

That's Pym's real triumph, for while Quartet in Autumn is firmly embedded in its time and place, its message about loneliness, and how people can hold each other at arm's length, seems very relevant today. One thing that hasn't changed is how easy it is, even in this age of constant inter-connectedness, for people to fall through the net ("that dreaded phrase," as one of the characters puts it), and be left with no one. In 2019, a Letty, a Marcia, Norman or Edwin might have different problems, and different ways of expressing them from their 1970s versions, but they are all to familiar types. They might even be you, or me. Pym leaves us with slender ray of hope that those "infinite possibilities for change" are available to all of us, if we're willing to be open to them. ( )
  maura853 | Jul 11, 2021 |
Pym's darkest novel, or perhaps "bleakest" is a better way of putting it. It's also, perhaps, her best. And this is odd because Quartet is rather unlike anything else Pym wrote. It has her needle-sharp accurate character portraits, her dry wit, her evocation of drab lives dully lived, but also its characters - deliberately - lack the sparkle that even her most grayest of characters cling to elsewhere. Written only a few years before her death, this is the kind of a novel only an older person can write, with its reflections on life, purpose, and meaninglessness. Thankfully, we can always sense the wry Pymian hand of the narrator behind the empty lives.

It's fantastic. It's probably the one Pym to read if you're not going to read any others (even though you won't get a sense of her high comedy canon!). And even at 32, I find myself wondering which of these sexagenarians I will be in retirement.

Grimly wonderful. ( )
  therebelprince | Jun 24, 2021 |
This is said to be Pym's masterpiece and, as much as I hate to, I disagree. I'd still give that honor to Some Tame Gazelle, but then I haven't gone thru half Pym's work yet.

Which isn't to say that Quartet isn't well-written with sharp observations into the psyches of the characters, because it is. My problem is that this must be the dreariest book I've ever read, it was actually a chore to finish it. The four main characters are neither interesting nor likable, and so detached from everything it would be hard to tell if they died. In fact, with one character, it is.

The story centers around four aging office workers in London during 1970. Their work is so unimportant that it's never once described, and when two of them retire they aren't replaced. In fact, the intention is to close their department entirely when the remaining two finally leave. That's about as unambiguous a hint as possible that these peoples' lives are going to turn out to be totally meaningless.

The four are Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin. Only Edwin has been married and has a family, tho his wife is long dead and his son lives nowhere close by; Edwin spends all his free time going to various church services and drinking with the local vicar. He's the one who comes closest to actually having something resembling a life, tho he too is almost pathologically detached.

Marcia, like Edwin, owns her own house tho in her case she inherited it from her long dead mother. I can't tell whether Marcia has mental problems or is just incredibly bad-natured, probably right on the dividing line of both. In any case, she's the sort of person about whom you'd think "that poor thing" if you didn't know her, and cross the street to avoid if you did. She dies about 2/3s into the story and I swear, her dying didn't seem fundamentally different from her living. It did not improve my attitude toward this book that Marcia was the character who reminded me most of myself.

Norman seems to have a lot in common with Marcia psychologically tho his problem is clearly and completely bad nature. He's lived all his adult life in a bedsitter, which I had to look up. A bedsitter is a one-room apartment, likely but not necessarily with "cooking facilities" (which I take to mean perhaps a kitchenette but not a full kitchen) and no private bathroom. You have to share a bathroom with the other bedsitter residents in the building, or at least on your floor. When Marcia dies she leaves Norman her house, for no apparent reason. Even Norman is baffled.

Letty seems the pleasantest person of the four, tho she's equally detached. In her case it seems more thru lack of will or energy than surliness or indifference. She goes from living in a bedsitter in a building that's sold to a Nigerian preacher whose loud in-home church services she finds alarming to a room in the private home of an elderly church lady of Edwin's acquaintance (if this sounds like Edwin was taking an interest, he wasn't -- he just likes taking charge). Frankly, even I would have stayed with the preacher. Letty was invited to join them for services and dinner, and the food there was probably much better.

And that's about it. I followed these four around for 218 pages and was just grateful it wasn't 219 pages. ( )
  BooksCatsEtc | Mar 21, 2021 |
A little darker than Pym's other books, but very, very good. It teminds me a lot of Muriel Spark's Memento Mori. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
I'd read this before, but now I'm closer to the age of the characters.
This isn't an action-packed story, but that's not why you read Barbara Pym anyway. It is full of people who are like many of the people in our own lives. ( )
  ReadMeAnother | Oct 2, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Pym, Barbaraprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Schuman, JackieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times.
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How had it come about that she, an English woman 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? 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. Why had this not happened? Because she had thought that love was a necessary ingredient for marriage? Now, having looked around her for forty years, she was not so sure. All those years wasted, looking for love! The thought of it was enough to bring about silence in the house and during the lull she plucked up the courage to go downstairs and tap — too timidly, she felt —at Mr Olatunde’s door. ‘I wonder if you could make a little less noise? she asked. ‘Some of us find it rather disturbing.’
‘Christianity is disturbing,’ said Mr Olatunde.
She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.
Letty stood looking out at Holmhurst [retirement home] ... Three old ladies - an uncomfortable number, hinting at awkwardness - were walking slowly round the garden. There was nothing particularly remarkable about them except their remoteness from any kind of life.
Marcia went into the garden and picked her way over the long uncut grass into the shed where she kept milk bottles. These had to be checked from time to time and occasionally she even went as far as dusting them. Sometimes she would put one out for the milkman but she mustn't let the hoard get too low because if there was a national emergency ... there could well be a shortage of milk bottles.
So many things seemed to come in plastic bags now that it was difficult to keep track of them. The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place ... So Marcia took the bag upstairs into what had been the spare bedroom where she kept things like cardboard boxes, brown paper and string, and stuffed it into a drawer already bulging with other plastic bags ... Marcia spent a long time in the room, tidying and rearranging its contents. All the plastic bags needed to be taken out of the drawer and sorted into their different shapes and sizes, classified as it were.
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SHORTLISTED FOR THE 1977 MAN BOOKER PRIZE"A spare masterpiece of loneliness in retirement" TelegraphIn 1970s London, Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office and suffer the same problem - loneliness. With delightful humour, Pym takes us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements; and, perhaps most keenly felt, their worries about having somehow missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them. Deliciously, blackly funny and full of obstinate optimism, Quartet in Autumn shows Barbara Pym's sensitive artistry at its most sparkling. A classic from one of Britain's most loved and highly acclaimed novelists, its world is both extraordinary and familiar, revealing the eccentricities of everyday life.PRAISE FOR BARBARA PYM"Quartet in Autumn is immeasurably her finest work of fiction" Evening Standard"An alert miniaturist ... her novels have a distinctive flavour, as instantly recognisable as lapsang tea" Daily Telegraph

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