Monday 20 June 2022

Barbara Pym and Natalia Ginzburg in a railway compartment.

Barbara Pym was a girl from Oswestry, Shropshire, of careful decent people, but she roamed Europe in her day, and laid the plans for future novels, before settling in England. Natalia Ginzburg was a girl from Turin, of art/political/activist antecedents; she had several brothers who, she said, didn't leave much room for her to talk, so she learned to be brief. 

I can see them opposite each other in a railway compartment circa 1960.

Barbara would look at Natalia Ginzburg and situate her in the rich tapestry of human life. Maybe too european for one of her characters, sitting by the window looking out, frowning a little, too harsh, or dry, riven by continental truths. Might not see Barbara Pym at all, a cosy Englishwoman abroad. A bullet between the eyes, is Natalia's style. And then hang out the washing. 

Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn, Norman and Edwin, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, have lunch in different places, live alone, tend toward mania and avoidance, dye their hair, or not, exhaust their own attention to where they are now, in the autumn of their lives, in the zone of social workers and luncheon vouchers. They end as they began, separately, quietly. 

The Sweet Dove Died is quiet too, elegant, sad, nonchalant, and onward. There's a belief in this english continuum. Cloying and attractive, by turns. The elegant older woman, Leonora, the antique dealer Humphrey and his sweet nephew, James, whom Leonora wishes to trap with silken threads, James's love life, the gentle pursuit of antiques, objects that contain so much more than themselves.

A Few Green Leaves is a portrait of a village in the second half of the twentieth century, the balance tender and amused. Playing a village like an instrument, out of curiosity and kindness. Always a vicar, and several unmarried Misses, an academic couple, a DMV (deserted mediaeval village), jumble sales and flower festivals. 

Barbara Pym is comfortable in her settings, with no difficult questions; this world should continue, there is good will, eventually, through every turn, forgiveness and resignation in equal parts. Natalia Ginzburg is terse, passionate, direct; not inviting any future nor invoking any past. 

I read Barbara Pym on the rocks down at Howe's Strand on a sunny Monday. Last time we went to Howe's Strand I was reading Virginia Woolf, and a group of girls on the little beach in front of us talked loudly and ate Pringles sandwiches, saying they'd go vegan, if anything. This time there was no one, except two plump brothers who came through silently, turned around and went back.

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