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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Pym’

Staff Picks: Tall and Thin, Tortoises, Tennis Sweaters

September 25, 2015 | by

A 2014 photograph by Cedric Nunn, from Unsettled, now at David Krut Projects. Ntabakandoda monument, built by Sebe of the Ciskei Bantustan government as a homage to the Xhosa Chiefs who fought the British. Ndoda was a Khoi Chief who was killed in battle by Rharrabe.

A few pages into Barbara Pym’s 1944 comedy of manners Crampton Hodnet, I turned to Sadie in confusion. What’s with the descriptions? On page sixteen, “He was dark and thin, just a little taller than she was”; on seventeen, “He was a tall, distinguished-looking man with a thin, sensitive face”; and on twenty, “He was a short, jolly-looking man, while Mrs Wardell was tall and thin.” As Sadie explained, Pym never saw fit to publish Crampton Hodnet in her lifetime, so it’s possible that all these height measurements are a sign of inexperience and haste. On the other hand, the novel is such a sharp send-up of romantic conventions (handsome new vicar meets long-suffering lady’s companion) that they may be part of the joke. In any case, the book is addictive, with scenes as funny and impatient as anything in her later work. —Lorin Stein

The Greek tragedies were written for and performed by soldiers. Sophocles, a retired general, wrote his plays—many of them postwar tragedies, PTSD tragedies—between two major Athenian wars, and because they were performed during citywide festivals, they seem to have been a part of the civic war mechanism: a way for the citizenry to cope, understand, and grieve together. Bryan Doerries’s Theater of War project, which I first read about in Harper’s, stages readings of ancient Greek tragedies for service members and veterans in an effort to remind them that they’re “not alone across time.” Doerries’s new book is about his readings of the plays—and how he gained support from the U.S. military for his project—but it’s also a study of the therapeutic values of art. Many of us lamely suffer from PTSD headline fatigue: it’s always in the news but rarely makes the front page anymore, not for lack of persistence but because there aren’t many new ways of thinking about it. Doerries’s book implicates everyone when it says that the most useful healing is public rather than private. It’s hopeful, in a way, to consider that we can learn through catastrophe: that this is not a new idea, and that it’s best done together. —Jeffery Gleaves

“All the more elegant forms of cruelty, I’m told, begin / with patience.” That’s the first line in Carl Phillips’s newest collection, Reconnaissance. The book is thin, no more than forty-eight pages, and though you could easily read it in an afternoon, I’d recommend sitting with it awhile longer. Raw and unafraid, Phillips’s poems sift through the cruelties of the heart; he writes of the old lovers that “rise as one before you …/ like perennials you’d forgotten to expect again”; of betrayal, “the kind of betrayal … I’ve been waiting for, / all my life”; of mistakes, “the ones that sweetly rot beneath me.” He left me so mesmerized that I reread the collection as soon as I’d finished it. A few favorite (devastating) lines from “The Strong by Their Stillness”: “You can love a man / more than he’ll ever love back or be able to, you can confuse / your understanding of that / with a thing like acceptance or, / worse, all you’ve ever deserved.” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Salmon Mousse, or Absolute Power

August 17, 2015 | by

First edition, 1988.

Cooking, as we know, is a constant test of character. It’s easy to pretend we’re all attracted to the high-minded ideals of fostering community, continuing traditions, and feeding souls. But catering for others is often competitive—even if the competition is only with oneself. There is the constant temptation to show off, to experiment, to give into exhibitionism, to put theoretical pleasures before a guest’s actual comfort. The turning out of a completely anodyne meal can be an exhausting exercise, because for every normal and pleasing dish served, there exist the ghosts of a hundred more exciting possibilities considered and abandoned, haunting the dinner table with their potential glory. The trick is keeping overweening ambition at bay. The trick is remembering that, for the duration of the meal, you have a kind of control over others.

And so the question really becomes: What does one do with absolute power? The Stanford Prison Experiment is always looming on the horizon. Benignity goes against nature. Read More »

The Spit of Recollection

June 2, 2015 | by

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin.

A letter from Philip Larkin to Barbara Pym, July 18, 1971. The pair enjoyed a long, warm correspondence beginning in 1961; they met, at last, in 1975, at the Randolph in Oxford. “I shall probably be wearing a beige tweed suit or a Welsh tweed cape if colder,” Pym wrote in advance. “I shall be looking rather anxious, I expect.” In 1977, Larkin helped Pym find a wider audience by choosing her as the most underrated writer of the century.

Duke’s Head Hotel, King’s Lynn,

Dear Barbara,

I have a theory that “holidays” evolved from the medieval pilgrimage, and are essentially a kin of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one’s daily life. You’re about to point out the essential fallacy in this, viz., that we aren’t h. & c. in our daily lives, but it’s too late now, the evolution has taken place, and we do the world’s will, not our own, as Jack Tanner says in Man & Superman. Anyway, every year I take my mother away for a week, & this is it. God knows why I chose this place—well, there are certain basic requirements—must be fairly near where she lives, must have single rooms with private bathrooms & lift, must for preference be near the sea … even so, one can make grave errors, & I rather think this is one of them. One forgets that nobody stays in hotels these days except businessmen & American tourists: the food is geared to the business lunch or the steak-platter trade: portion-control is rampant, and the materials cheap anyway (or so I guess: three lamb chops I had were three uncuttable unchewable unanswerable arguments for entry into EEC if—as I suspect—they had made the frozen journey from New Zealand). The presence of the hotel in the Good Food Guide is nothing short of farce. Of course it’s a Trust House, which guarantees a kind of depersonalized dullness. Never stay at a Trust House. Read More »

Let Us Go to the Fitness Temple, and Other News

April 6, 2015 | by


Sascha Schneider, Athlete in Basic Position, 1907.

  • Charles Simic uses reading, as so many of us have, to cure insomnia: “I read only a passage or two, and at the most a page, because if I read more than that, I’m in danger of staying up half a night. All I require, to use a culinary term, is an amuse-bouche that leaves a pleasant aftertaste. Have you ever tried poetry, buster? The reader may be wondering. As a snooze-inducer, nothing comes close. Thanks to it, millions have slept like newborn babies over the centuries.”
  • Hanging around at the Barbara Pym Society’s annual North American conference: “Tom Sopko, the conference organizer, read aloud quotations from her novels and, table by table, we guessed the character they related to … The rest of the weekend was spent alternating talks about this year’s featured book … with suitably Pym-ish activities: a sherry party, a dramatized reading, and Evensong back at the Church of the Advent.”
  • A new history of the gym sees it as a “quasi-religious space,” as it’s been since Ancient Greece: “Freeborn male citizens would go there to train their bodies in the pursuit of arete—moral, physical and intellectual excellence. At the gym they would also enjoy same-sex erotic relationships, the beginning of a symbiosis between homosexuality and the gymnasium that continues to the present day.”
  • Salman Rushdie got a Goodreads account—and promptly began to assign unflattering ratings to novels by his peers. Money? Three stars. To Kill a Mockingbird? Three stars. Lucky Jim? One star. “I’m so clumsy in this new world of social media sometimes,” Rushdie told the Independent, claiming he had no idea his ratings were visible to the public. “Stupid me.”
  • Finally, some socially conscious citizen has done what man has long dreamed of: remove all the gluten from iconic works of art.

Ideas of Heaven

March 23, 2015 | by


The Bobbsey Twins series.

“If there’s a heaven,” my mom said recently, “I imagine it’s filled with brand-new Barbara Pym novels I’ve never read.” 

There’s a particular desolation to finding you’ve reached the end of a beloved author’s body of work. Just as discovering a writer can give you a where-have-you-been-all-my-life thrill, it’s easy to feel bereft when you’ve exhausted the trove—especially if the author in question has been dead for some forty years. 

In an era of easily accessible books, this poses certain questions. Once, you might have had to put yourself on a list at the library, wait for a call, or line up at a bookstore at midnight—now the next title can appear on your phone the moment it’s available. Do you take the glutton’s approach—binging, immersing yourself—or do you mete out the treasures carefully? Read More »

Gags and Novelties

December 17, 2014 | by


Illustration: Max Ronnersjö

“Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury … ” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. ―Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

We have all experienced such “landslides of the mind”: moments that upend everything we thought we knew or believed, everything that made us feel secure. These are the moments when we grow up—or resolutely refuse to. They are the moments that define us. In my case, it was the moment, in middle school, when I saw someone actually slip on a banana peel.

If you’d asked me in the minutes—days—years before it happened, I would have scoffed at the very notion. I knew certain things as facts: The sky was blue. Everyone died. People slipping on banana peels were not funny. My certainty was so obvious as not to require conscious thought; and yet, in a sense, it underlay so many of my assumptions about comedy, sophistication, and human nature itself. 

As a child I was in the habit of listening to the 1918 Prokofiev opera Love for Three Oranges (dramatized for kids by the peerless Ann Rachlin), in which a prince has fallen into a melancholy from too much tragic poetry; the only cure is laughter. Yet all the most amusing clowns and jesters in the land fail to coax forth so much as a smile. It is only when the evil witch Fata Morgana falls over and exposes her underpants that the melancholy prince is roused to helpless mirth, and his life is saved. Read More »