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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Pym’

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,
Norfolk

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

Athlete_in_Basic_Position

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

bobbsey

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

Banana_Peel

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 »

Angry Birds

December 2, 2014 | by

XenopsarisAlbinuchaKeulemans

From The Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1893.

Here’s a scene from Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women, in which the protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, meets Everard Bone’s eccentric mother.

I thought I had better revive the conversation which had lapsed, so I commented on the animals’ heads in the hall, saying what fine specimens they were.

“My husband shot them in India and Africa,” said Mrs. Bone, “but however many you shoot there still seem to be more.”

“Oh, yes, it would be a terrible thing if they became extinct,” I said. “I suppose they keep the rarer animals in game reserves now.”

“It’s not the animals so much as the birds,” said Mrs. Bone fiercely. “You will hardly believe this, but I was sitting in the window this afternoon and as it was a fine day I had it open at the bottom, when I felt something drop into my lap. And do you know what it was?” She turned and peered at me intently.

I said that I had no idea.

“Unpleasantness,” she said, almost triumphantly. Then lowering her voice she explained, “From a bird, you see. It had done something when I was actually sitting in my own drawing room.”

“How annoying,” I said, feeling mesmerized and unable even to laugh. 

I draw this to your attention because unpleasantness is a term that is sadly underused. I think of it often, usually in the context of that disgusting, grinning coil-of-feces emoji. (I will not dignify it by using its infantile moniker, as I was discouraged from babyish scatological terminology at an early age and cannot break the habit.) I mean, I don’t sit around being furious, or think about it at unrelated times, but people text with that thing all the time. Indeed, in a recent feature in a fashion magazine, I saw no fewer than two celebrities list this as their favorite, and most frequently used, emoji. (Even I will grudgingly concede that it is versatile, in its inscrutable, repulsive way.) 

To me, this is the unpleasantness emoji. This also applies to its animated iteration, which features circling flies. I know its history is an interesting window into tech development (read about it here, if you don’t find the juxtaposition with oral too off-putting) and I’m sure there are far more damning indications of the coarsening fiber of modern society. But it is a small, bad thing. And if I’m being completely honest, I’ve never really understood what it means.

What We’re Loving (The Love Edition)

February 14, 2014 | by

heart seyed mostafa zamani

Photo: Seyed Mostafa Zamani, via Flickr

“As usual, the love plot is the least convincing aspect of the book,” said my friend, handing me a crumbling, loved-to-death copy of Barbara Pym’s last novel, A Few Green Leaves. It is not clear to me which part my friend found unconvincing—the growing attraction between the meek, widowed rector Tom and the awkward anthropologist Emma, or the obstacles to their match. (E.g.: Tom’s dreary sister, a visit from Emma’s old flame Graham, or the Oxfordshire village full of aging gossips who have nothing better to do than monitor the hand-delivery of casseroles to local bachelors.) At any rate, I bought the whole thing, and I believed that Emma did, too. As Pym’s narrator observes, “Even the most cynical and sophisticated woman is not, at times, altogether out of sympathy with the ideas of the romantic novelist.” —Lorin Stein

The weather yesterday was awful; this incessant wintry-mix business has got to stop. It has me thinking about Russian poems set during the siege of Leningrad, and last night my brain produced one of the most incredible jump shots since 2001: A Space Odyssey—from Boris Pasternak to Guns N’ Roses. The former has a poem that begins “February. Get ink and weep! / To write and write of February / like bursting into sobs, with thundering / slush burning in black spring.” Naturally, that led to “So never mind the darkness / We still can find a way / ’Cause nothin’ lasts forever / Even cold November rain.” The latter seems somehow right today—it’s a song, after all, about the vagaries of love. In fact, the classic Guns N’ Roses catalogue is brimming with Valentine’s Day–appropriate songs: charged lyrics for lovers (“Said, woman, take it slow / And it’ll work itself out fine / All we need is just a little patience”) and the lovelorn (“To think the one you love / could hurt you now / Is a little hard to believe / But everybody darlin’ sometimes / Bites the hand that feeds”). —Nicole Rudick

Some advice: Run, do not walk, to your love’s home. Take her by the hand and recite this Restoration-era poem about premature ejaculation: “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a legendary libertine who slept his way around the Royal Court and succumbed, at age thirty-three, to venereal disease. Here, in words as lewd and depraved as anything uttered in 2014, he recounts one of his less inspiring performances. Making love, he can’t quite contain himself, and “In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er, / Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.” His lady unsatisfied, he finds himself unable to get it up again, and lambasts his errant penis. “Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most, / Through all the town a common fucking-post.” If that doesn’t make her swoon, gents, nothing will. —Dan Piepenbring

When Dan asked us to recommend love-themed staff picks, I was all set to talk about one of my favorite films, the 1945 Powell-Pressburger classic I Know Where I’m Going! Then I saw it described by Vanity Fair as “a cult among poetic bluestockings” and my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat. But it deserves whatever following it has—incidentally, Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese are in the cult, too—and I can’t think of a more romantic movie than this tale of a willful young woman stranded in the Scottish Hebrides. (When I describe it like that, I can see why the poetic bluestockings are so excited, but don’t let that put you off!) —Sadie Stein Read More »

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