Ah, Barbara Pym, what can I say except she’s right out of the top drawer? Did you know there is a Barbara Pym Society? They keep track of things like books and papers about Pym, hold an annual conference in London, put out a newsletter the back issues of which can be accessed at the website, and they have a short and tidy biography of Pym that makes me hope someday a book biography will be written about her if one hasn’t been already.
It took Pym a little while to get published but when she finally did she had a brief success with her first books. Then the 60s arrived and she found that in spite of her success no one wanted to publish her any longer because “times had changed.” She was unable to get anything published for 16 years until her fortunes turned by being mentioned twice in a January 1977 TLS. Suddenly publishers were interested again. Quartet in Autumn was published and promptly shortlisted for the Booker. Unfortunately just as she finally realized success, the breast cancer for which she had had a mastectomy in 1971, returned and she died in 1980.
Less than Angels was her third published novel. A humorous book about anthropologists, Pym’s wit and satire though sharp, is never mean. She pokes gentle fun at people who study other people but somehow can’t seem to get their own lives right. Every character in the book, whether anthropologist, student, writer, or suburban dweller is a bit quirky.
There is no real plot, only a slice of life sort of thing that follows love affairs, quests for grant money to go abroad, and the haughtiness, flippant opinions and gossip that runs rampant amongst colleagues. I couldn’t help but laugh at scenes like this one:
‘You mean this myth about Tom’s brilliance? What signs have you seen of it?’
‘Oh, well, one doesn’t expect to see signs of a thing like that, does one?’
‘I should have thought that one might have discerned the faintest glimmer of it by now.’
‘Certainly his conversation isn’t brilliant, perhaps even ours is a little better than his,’ said Digby uncertainly. ‘And I thought that paper he read in the seminar last term was–well–confused,’ he added, plunging further into disloyalty.
Mark took him up eagerly on this point and they went into a rather technical discussion at the end of which they had the satisfaction of proving, at least to themselves, that Tom, far from being brilliant, was in some ways positively stupid and not always even ‘sound’.
Since there isn’t much plot the characters become even more important. Catherine, Digby and Mark really shine. Mark and Digby it seems get the funniest lines and scenes. And Catherine, a writer of wild romance stories and help articles for women’s magazines proves to be more of an anthropologist than the anthropologists. Perhaps this is because she studies her own instead of running off to Africa to study a remote village. Her writing, though frivolous, comes off as more useful than the anthropologists’ who write articles on the evolution of a vowel sound in a tribe no one has ever heard of.
If you like Pym, you will enjoy this novel. If you have never read Pym, you might find this an enjoyable introduction. But beware, it will make you want to read more!