Tag Archives: Barbara Pym

Marginalia, no.143

I came to the conclusion that people who went to evening classes were all more or less odd.  It was unnatural to want to acquire knowledge after working hours.

~ Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings

In the late ‘90s I attended evening classes in Homeric Greek.  The instructor, who also taught Latin, lived with his partner in the building next door to ours.  He was a soft-spoken person with very fine fingers and though he was only ten years older than myself his hair had turned a brilliant, premature white that distracted from his lectures.  At term-end parties he served cantaloupe balls wrapped in prosciutto and complained that it was no use converting to Roman Catholicism anymore since they’d done away with the Latin rite.  I spent a year at the school pretending to be a character from Brian Friel’s Translations until I was finally overwhelmed by the full weight of the 150 forms of the verb Luo.  Perhaps I wasn’t odd enough at the time.  I like to think I’d do better now.

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I wonder if astrologers down the years have mistaken the influence of the seasons for that of the stars, or if rather than identifying ourselves by place of birth we ought to call ourselves natives of spring, summer, fall or winter.  Perhaps it’s because I was born at the equinox that I feel a sort of homecoming at the entrance of autumn, that melancholy season in the first three months of life having tempered my infant soul to its character.

This past week, during a bit of late summer vacation, we flushed a pheasant from the grass while bicycling in the Bay wetlands.  At the Sierra gold-rush town of Columbia we bowled several frames down a crooked antique lane.  We tried, and failed, to visit Jack London’s former ranch while en route to my parents’ home in Sonoma County, then kept the children up late to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus.  Next day we enjoyed a successful afternoon at the natural history museum in San Francisco, where I stared hard into the eyes of the basilisk and managed not to die.

It seems on the surface unreasonable but I never read as much on vacation as I manage during the regular course of work and home life.  This past week I continued my tour of post-war British fiction with Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington and am mid-way now through Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings.  To aid the digestion with some more American fare – and in the interest of philosophical good health – I also consulted Will Cuppy’s Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.  Otherwise, two weeks since finishing Anthony Powell’s Music of Time, my shelf of unread recent acquisitions remains untouched.

A common critique of Powell’s books suggests that he relies too heavily on coincidence in the lives of his characters.  Asked about this in a 1978 interview for the Paris Review, Powell offered the familiar observation that real life, in fact, abounds in coincidence even while fiction rejects it.  I recall a morning this past July when I was surprised by reading in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants a description of a scene from Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser which I had just seen for the first time the night before.

I doubt that we are subject to occult manipulation in any of this.  But as my native season comes round again and I see my children discovering some of the same places and enthusiasms I shared at their age, I want to agree that admitting the action of serendipity is simply being realistic.  The cosmos, as we learn, is not really infinite but its expansion and folding back onto itself again is something like a working definition of time.  It is a part of the comfortable poverty of the universe in which we live that forms and ideas are bound to recur if only we keep a look out.


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