Checking-in on Proust & Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels

The last couple of years I’ve read fewer books than usual.  Too many long books (War and Peace three and a half times).

And I am still reading long books.

Less Than Angels Barbara Pym Cartoon Pym 4I am also a fan of short books, and I was very happy to read (and finish) Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels.  This charming novel, published in 1955, is  wilder than her tales of curate-obsessed spinsters.   It centers on a group of anthropologists, some of whom appear in her other novels, because Pym obviously thinks they’re very funny. The novel is narrated from multiple points of view: my favorite character is Catherine Oliphant,  a romance writer and women’s magazine journalist, who provides a humorous outsider’s look at the group.  There is also Tom, her boyfriend, who returns from Africa after two years.  She kicks him out when she learns he is cheating on her with Deirdre, a 19-year-old anthropology student. Mark and Digby, two bachelors who are competing for grants for field work, are amusingly on the make at the new anthropological library and research institute.  And Deirdra, who lives in the suburbs with her mother, aunt, and older brother and is still very adolescent, is thrilled to have a sophisticated boyfriend, though she forgets him when he goes back to Africa.  Catherine proves the truer lover.

Pym’s mirthful attitude towards academics is typified by sketches of Professor Mainwaring, who persuades an American woman to fund grants for the center, and Miss Clovis, who became caretaker of the center after leaving Learned Society over the grand subject of tea.

The subject of Miss Clovis’s quarrel with the President was known only to a privileged few and even those knew no more than that it had something to do with the making of tea.  Not that the making of tea can ever really be treated as a petty or trivial matter and Miss Clovis did seem to have been seriously at fault.  Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed…whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature.  Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation.

So funny!  Of course I might have quit too…

I am also loving Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, though it’s futile to try to articulate it.  The series is one long novel, no? My husband, who has read the entire series in French, crossly says that Swann’s Way is the only volume worth reading.  Well, I’m simply loving it, but I see the structure is tighter in Swann’s Way than in the second volume, In a Budding Grove. Of course it’s all modernist brilliance. And there are seven fucking volumes so get used to it! One basks in Marcel’s symphonic descriptions of places, walks, meals, dinner conversations, the hotel in Balbec, neurotic worries about girls, friendships with the pretentious Bloch and the generous Robert, and lovesickness for the lively Gilberte Swann,.  The pattern of hopeless, anxious love is set by  his relationship with his mother, but his love for Gilberte is also echoes the pattern of Swann’s courtship of the fickle Odette, who makes him miserable.   In the second volume, we are amazed to find that Swann has become a bourgeois husband bustling to convince government officials to dine with Odette, since his aristocratic connections won’t entertain her.  There are many comic episodes: when Gilberte tells Marcel that Swann and Odette don’t like him, Marcel is indignant and writes him a very long letter about his love and respect for the Swanns. Ah, youth!  So funny!  I do recall writing a letter like that to a boyfriend’s parents, but thank God I didn’t send it.

I’ll try later to synthesize some comments by critics and biographers on Proust.  How I love homework!