Oh holy hell, I interrupt the measured and thoughtful review process here at An Anthology of Clouds to freak out about the most disturbing and haunting book I’ve read in ages…more upsetting than the Dovlatov prison camp memoir, much creepier than Kobo Abe, and it came in the guise of a book by a last-century English spinster whose dry romantic comedies I adore.
Quartet in Autumn is the book that Barbara Pym published in 1977, after the long hiatus in which short-sighted publishers deemed her work “too traditional.” Quartet is reputed to be darker than her other work. It was nominated for the Booker prize. Many say it’s her masterpiece. Despite those enticements, I’ve held off because it’s about four aging, single office workers and when I’ve tried to start it, the physical descriptions on the first few pages, even just of their old-person-hair, are so grim.
Edwin is: “thin, greying and bald on top.” Norman has: “‘difficult’ hair, coarse and bristly and now iron grey.” Letty’s hair is: “faded light brown hair, worn rather too long and in quality as soft and wispy as Edwin’s.” Marcia’s hair is: “short, stiff, lifeless.” And the characters are as vaguely unpleasant as their physiques. In just a few pages Pym sketches them as uninteresting people with few attachments, little family, limited interests and dull jobs, now nearing retirement age.
I respect Pym for claiming such people as worthy characters for a book–they exist in the real world, lots of them, why shouldn’t they have a story too?–and I’ve long intended to return to Quartet someday. I wanted to know what she had to say about old age. And now I’ll never forget it.
For all I know, this book was the thing that vaulted being an old lady eating cat food into the first-place fear of those of us who are afraid of dying alone. Anyone who has ever imagined being old, infirm, garishly made up and increasingly unable to care for herself, until one day she dies and no one knows, or maybe she dies and her cat eats her, or maybe her cat dies first and she buries it in her overgrown yard and then continues to eat its food for years….probably if you’ve had those fears, you don’t want to read this book.
The basic plot is that the four characters have worked together for decades in a rote, vague way, in an office. They don’t particularly like each other, but in fact, they’re the closest acquaintance each other have. When two retire, and one (the cat-lady) begins losing her mind, the others are nudged into taking each other less for-granted.
It’s a masterpiece of un-sentimentality, and, in its way, a powerful testament to the importance and fragility of human connection. Every time I think of the cat-lady’s story, as I have way too often in the few days since finishing the book, I think, Thank God I have children. Thank God I have interests. Thank God I like people and surround myself with them. I swear I’ll never let my hair go like that. I hope X and Y family members don’t get too isolated as they age. Joy! Take Joy in life. Reach out to others. Treasure them. Never stop trying.
Quartet as a cautionary tale. Though I’m not sure I recommend it.
(Also, this post is occupying numbers 21-24 in my year’s reading list because I re-read three other Pyms in this little bender; those books have been previously reviewed.)