Mr Fox – Barbara Comyns

My Barbara Comyns journey began with The Vet’s Daughter, a strange, off-kilter, brilliant book and I have not looked back after that. Since then I have read and loved The Juniper Tree and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (both reissued by NYRB Classics), but I’ll admit that seeking the rest of the Comyns catalogue has been an uphill task because many of them are out of print. Luckily, she has seen something of a revival in recent times with both Turnpike Books and Daunt Books reissuing some of her titles. I hope that trend continues. Meanwhile, Mr Fox was reissued last year by Turnpike, and as ever it was another excellent Comyns novel.

In terms of tone and style, Barbara Comyns’ Mr Fox is in many ways similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, one of my favourite books in 2020. Both books feature an inexperienced, young woman struggling to break away from the shackles of a bleak existence that makes for fascinating and absorbing reading.

Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny.

She lives in an apartment in a building whose lease was handed down to her by her mother. Caroline sublets rooms in the building to an assortment of tenants to maintain a steady flow of income that can support them both. But with the spectre of war looming large, an increasingly uncertain environment compels these tenants to vacate the premises of their own accord.

From thereon, Caroline’s problems only heighten. Government officials and debt collectors come knocking at her door. Having nowhere to go and no one to turn to, in a fit of fright and desperation, Caroline approaches Mr Fox to escape from her predicament.

Mr Fox offers her and Jenny a refuge in his home with the agreement that she take charge of the cooking and other domestic duties. Left with no choice, Caroline accepts his offer, and although they don’t share a bed, Caroline keeps up her end of the bargain as far as housekeeping is concerned.

Mr Fox, meanwhile, keeps the monetary tap flowing by engaging in a slew of dubious projects and black market activities. Characteristic of the men of his ilk, Mr Fox is always dabbling in what he perceives are grand schemes with big payoffs, and yet when it comes to doling out money, he remains a miser. Personality-wise, Mr Fox oscillates between moments of generosity and kindness on one hand and flashes of anger and moody behaviour on the other. This begins to take its toll on Caroline and Jenny.

When air raids erupt in London with rising velocity, Mr Fox takes up a job in a factory located on the outskirts, a place called Straws, and the three of them relocate there, away from the dangerous environs in London.

In Straws, Caroline’s unhappiness only deepens. The house and the neighbourhood are dingy, shabby and dismal, and the dreariness of their existence eats into her spirit. Caroline begins to feel sad and homesick, although she has no place she can truly call her home.

Mr Fox didn’t get drunk or keep string under his bed, but he was very moody and sometimes bad-tempered, usually when he was short of money. Then he used to grumble about my cooking and Jenny chattering and about how much we cost him to keep. When he was like this I felt dreadfully sad and homesick and longed to escape from him, but we had nowhere to go.

These are the bare bones of the story and without dwelling too much on the plot, the rest of the novel charts how Caroline and Jenny grapple with their shaky circumstances and navigate a world that is in continuous flux given the dominance of war. Sometimes the two barely manage on their own, sometimes they are compelled to rely on Mr Fox.

One of the most unique features of Mr Fox is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life.

Some of the underlying themes covered in the novel are abject poverty, homelessness, and a woman with no prospects having to depend on the generosity of a man. War is as ever palpable, and is vividly captured by Comyns, particularly the air-raids, blackouts, food rationing, profiteering, and an overall sense of fear, dread and uncertainty.

There was Tantivy (their dog) sitting with his ears back looking perplexed and men were strewn about in tin hats, all blowing away and shouting, “Take cover!” I couldn’t take cover so I started to run, and as I ran I heard aeroplanes; the sky seemed to be full of them, but I dared not look and the wailing sirens were still going. “Take cover! Take cover!” they shouted and I ran so fast my shoes fell off; but I couldn’t stop and the pavements were scorching my bare feet. A woman was opening some garage doors and people seemed to think it was a safe place because they were going in, but they wouldn’t let me because of Tantivy, and I had to go on running even faster on my burning feet, and I thought I could hear machine-guns, or perhaps it was aeroplanes backfiring.

Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.

Jane and Prudence – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is the third Barbara Pym novel I’ve read, and it’s wonderful, right up there with my other favourites – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

Penned in 1953, Jane and Prudence is a joyful and poignant read from Pym’s oeuvre, reminding us, as quoted by Anne Tyler “of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.”

Jane Cleveland is a vicar’s wife, who after her marriage returns to Oxford to take up a teaching job. Prudence Bates at the time was one of her pupils, but they remain good friends despite the wide difference in their ages. But even keeping their age gap aside, the two could not have been more different.

Jane is in her forties and when the book opens, we learn that she and her husband Nicholas, a mild mannered man, have moved to their country parish, where Nicholas will take on his new duties as a vicar. Jane begins to more or less settle into her role as the clergyman’s wife, although she’s quite terrible at it. Having studied at Oxford and bestowed with an academic mind, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries.

It was a cold November day and she (Jane) had dressed herself up in layers of cardigans and covered the whole lot with her old tweed coat, the one she might have used for feeding the chickens in.

Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. With no inclination towards domesticity or even displaying a flair for it, she manages to soldier on relying on her competent cook Mrs Glaze and her efficient daughter, Flora.

In her late twenties, Prudence is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. She is getting older but has lost none of her good looks. Having reached the age when the prospects for marriage look dim, Prudence sometimes is beset with sadness and frets whether she will ever settle down with a man.

Prudence looks lovely this evening, thought Jane, like somebody in a woman’s magazine, carefully ‘groomed’, and wearing a read dress that sets off her pale skin and dark hair. It was odd, really, that she should not have yet married. One wondered if it was really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, when poor Prudence seemed to have lost so many times. For although she had been, and still was, very much admired, she had got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.

And yet Prudence is doing reasonably well for herself. She is an independent woman with her own stylish apartment and works in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy to him, although he rarely notices her or only when it’s convenient to him. Jane is aware of Prudence’s feelings for Mr Grampian but remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it.

Meanwhile, as she begins to mingle with the residents in the village, Jane is introduced to Fabian Driver, a man in mourning having recently lost his wife Constance. Fabian is good-looking but with an unsavoury aura around him – it is rumoured that he was frequently unfaithful to his wife during their marriage. And yet, he is now milking the ladies’ sympathies as an inconsolable widower.

Jane, in some ways is like Austen’s Emma – she is good hearted and greatly desires to find a husband for Prudence. Her introduction to Fabian brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions him to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other regularly. Will anything significant come out of it? Has Prudence finally met her man?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast.

As ever, Pym’s writing sparkles with humour and astute observations on the personalities of people…plus, her plotting and character sketches are top notch. We also get an inkling of the social fabric of the 1950s, where the women were chiefly concerned with finding someone to love and cherish and finally embracing marriage. Still, Pym raises the point that being single and living independently also brought its own share of rewards.

“I suppose I’ll never get a man if I don’t take more trouble with myself,” Eleanor went on, but she spoke comfortably and without regret, thinking of her flat in Westminster, so convenient for the Ministry, her weekend golf, concerts and theatres with women friends, in the best seats and with a good supper afterwards. Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; once couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.

Food is quite vividly described especially afternoon teas with their abundance of hot buttered toasts, iced walnut cakes, cucumber sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, buns and so on. Not to mention the occasional sherry. Tea can also provide the much needed respite from a dull office job. Indeed, at Prudence’s place of work, the sameness of their desultory conversations gets on her nerves, as her cronies constantly upstage each other over who got to work earliest. The only bright spot then is the tea trolley being wheeled in at four in the afternoon. These set pieces, particularly, highlight Pym’s genius for dry wit and comedy.

Jane and Prudence, then, is sprinkled with liberal doses of both laughter and melancholia. Each of the characters evokes the reader’s sympathy – whether it’s the well-meaning, blundering Jane, the gorgeous, self-centred Prudence, or even the frightful Fabian, who might have possibly gotten a raw deal towards the end.

This gem of a novel is awash with nostalgia for youth and its vista of seemingly endless possibilities. But with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work.

Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering is a treat – a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections, as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer. As a writer she always surprises – this is her first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

In Whereabouts, this European city is not named, but from various hints peppered throughout, it can be assumed that it’s a city in Italy. It’s a book made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture.

Our narrator is a woman, possibly in her mid-forties, a teacher by profession, and she lives alone in what she calls her ‘urban cocoon’. There is little else we know about her. But that is exactly the point. The idea is not to dwell on her identity, but to get a flavor of her experiences because in many ways they are universal. She could be any one of us. Not all of the events in her life will mirror ours, but quite a few are likely to strike a chord. The chapter headings, deliberately generic – ‘On the Couch’, ‘In My Head’, ‘At My House’ and so on – could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the sense of place in the novel is largely internal.  

The action in the novel is inherently interior, we are privy to our narrator’s thoughts and her perception of the world around her. She might be alone, but she is not completely cut off. Friends, acquaintances mark her social circle, transient relationships exist too. No definite pointers of her existence are handed to us on a platter, and yet a snapshot of her persona gradually emerges.

We learn that she has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother, who tormented by old age, expresses her wish to stay with our narrator if only because she dreads being alone. But our narrator resists, she wants to cling to the independent life she has carved out for herself. The past always comes back to haunt the present, and it’s apparent that the shadow of her father’s death, when she was 15, hasn’t entirely left her. She bemoans her wasted youth, of the years spent conforming to parental expectations, when she could have rather been a rebel with a cause.

Although she’s not married, our narrator tells us of her one long-term relationship with an anxious, highly-strung man, who she later discovers was two-timing her. The end of that union is a sort of a relief because she can “look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.”

Some of her friends don’t understand the choices she has made – “I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?” Another friend envies our narrator, and seeks refuge in her spartan home, away from her harried, busy life of working and raising a family – “’This is the only place I can relax,’ she says. She likes the silence, and not seeing objects scattered everywhere.”

Chance encounters punctuating our narrator’s existence are pregnant with meanings too – a fling with a married man conjures up images of languid afternoons spent in a series of trattorie talking and relishing delicious food, a mother bathing in the sea with her children entrances her because “she was a steady pillar in the midst of that roiling force.” A whiff of sadness permeates her being when her favourite stationery shop shuts down and the family running it, who she is fond of, is no longer around.

Solitude is the dominant pulse of the novel, it throbs persistently throughout the book – “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Indeed, solitude has its pleasures, it allows our narrator to control her time and space. And yet there are moments when she can’t help thinking, “There are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.” Essentially, our narrator wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties.

The majesty of Nature also evokes a range of emotions and influences our narrator’s perspective more often than not. While on the beach, she observes that “the gray light that pervaded the sky after sunset made me melancholy”, and at another time she notices “a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.”

The precision of Lahiri’s prose is striking. Her language is minimalistic, stripped off any embellishments and feels bleached down to its bare essentials, but there’s beauty in her stark expressions, the effect they create is hypnotic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in a European city, drinking in the warmth with a whole afternoon of people-gazing before you – people whose stories you don’t really know, but sudden glimpses into their lives on display can fire up the imagination of the myriad possibilities. Reading Whereabouts produces similar feelings.

I have read both Lahiri’s short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. These collections, along with her novels, have given her much fame, primarily for her exquisite portrayal of the quintessential immigrant experience, notably Indians trying to adapt to a Western land and treading a fine balance between embracing a new culture and staying true to their Indian heritage. Those were books that focused on the disconnect that people feel with their surroundings.

But Whereabouts is a different beast altogether because there are no such clear markers of people and their identities. The disconnect, the author portrays, is more with the inner self. Perhaps, Lahiri is trying to tell us that on some level we are all outsiders, that it’s a collective feeling we sense, not only when we move around the world, but also when we are rooted in the same place.

Is I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.

Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.

A Change of Time – Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books in the year so far, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans was pretty impressive too, and now Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time is another worthy addition to this list.

A Change of Time is a gorgeous, reflective novel of a woman re-inventing herself after the death of her husband and reclaiming her lost sense of self, brimming with sentences that ache with beauty and sadness.

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, the story is narrated to us through the diary entries of the schoolteacher and protagonist Lilly Hoy or Fru Bagge as she is now known.

In the opening pages, we learn that Fru Bagge has been visiting the hospital every day to be near her ailing husband Vigand Bagge, who is a respected doctor in the village of Thyregod. It’s immediately clear that something is amiss, notably communication between the two is sorely lacking. It seems that Vigand, although, well aware of the serious nature of his illness, chooses to keep his wife in the dark. Even when the time comes for him to finally admit himself in the hospital, it’s with the realization that he has single-handedly made arrangements for it without his wife having any clue.

Why was I not allowed to help you when you were dying, Vigand?

On Vigand’s death, Fru Bagge, married to him for some 20 odd years, is suddenly alone and must fend for herself. Gradually, their personalities revealed to us dip by dip, give us a sense of how the Bagges were an ill-matched pair.

We were married for twenty-two years. And although it has been a time in which many things have happened – a world war, motor cars, electricity, women’s suffrage – indeed an entire world would seem to have wound down and been replaced by a new one, I would still venture that those years have been one long and unbroken day.

Vigand Bagge is a competent doctor and the villagers look upon him with awe, but he is mostly a stoic, cruel, sarcastic man lacking empathy and the requisite bedside manner. He is a practical man, sometimes extremely so, and is impatient with those who unabashedly display their weaknesses. There is a tendency in him to mock people, and here even his wife is not spared.

On his death, Vigand does his duty of providing well for Fru Bagge with clear instructions, so that she can lead her life with dignity with no worries on the financial front. But with security and comfort of money, comes the painful and inevitable knowledge that there was a serious lack of connect in their marriage. It could be that Vigand was several years older to her, and never therefore treated her on an equal footing, adopting a more condescending attitude. It was a marriage that lacked compassion and tenderness, qualities that Fru Bagge wanted more than anything from her husband, but, alas, in vain.

Can one ask a person to show that they love you? Reason, that most faithful onlooker to the tribulations of others, says no.

But what says unreason?

Vigand’s death, thus, suggests a kind of freedom for her to embrace life anew. But it also leaves in its wake a trail of bitterness for all the years she has already lost.

In my darkest moments I understand only too well what misfortune can leave a person in such a place. Bitterness is a very soft and comfortable armchair from which it is difficult indeed to extract oneself once one has decided to settle in it.

As the novel progresses, the diary entries begin alternating between Fru Bagge’s past and the present. In the immediate now, she must choose a new accommodation for herself. And in an act of defiance, she buys back the car Vigand had sold and begins to learn driving.

In stark contrast to her present, though, a series of flashbacks reveal a different facet of her personality – her growing ambition of being a teacher, and her efforts to realize that dream.

Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young schoolmistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.

A scent of missed opportunities also wafts in the air, a sense of ‘what could have been’ – possibilities of serious relationships with a man from her student days, and later in Thyregod itself when she accepts a teaching position.

At its core, A Change of Time is a character study or a portrait of Fru Bagge/Lilly Hoy – the promise of making a mark in her youth wiped away by years of repression and being undermined in her marriage. In many ways, the book’s title heralds the dawn of a fresh start for Lilly. It is also a subtle depiction of changes that Lilly introduces or accepts to enhance the life of the village and its inhabitants, particularly, in the teaching profession, and also in many ways, one of the various lifelines thrown to her to help her regain her lost bearings after Vigand’s death.

Atmospheric and lyrically written, A Change of Time is wonderfully slow-paced in a way that is soothing for the soul and swells with warmth and tenderness, but is also suffused with a tinge of sadness and melancholia. Inherently inward-looking and fraught with potent silences, it’s a novel of finely etched characters and restrained emotions…and a quiet meditation on things left unsaid, finding pleasure and a sense of purpose in the smallest of things, and a chance of having a second go at life.

We are often told that being alone is a harbinger of loneliness, but there is nothing worse than being lonely in a marriage. While it’s perfectly fine to feel disoriented at first, if the end of a debilitating relationship means a newfound hope for freedom and joy, then it’s worth embracing it with open arms.

This strange gravity, the peculiar peace that descends in the evenings when the houses turn inwards and people retire to bed. I have begun to expect it, to look forward.

Last Stories – William Trevor

William Trevor’s Last Stories is an exquisite collection of tales featuring lonely lives, individuals resigned to a quiet existence, love not panning out as desired, and finding contentment in small things.

As tends to be the case with any short story collection, some of the stories were very strong, while others failed to hit the mark. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on the ones that made an impression on me because in a sense they also form the essence of the whole collection.

One of my favourite stories, At the Caffé Daria, is a tale of two women – Anita and Claire – good friends once upon a time but no longer. Anita is now a publisher’s reader and frequently visits Caffé Daria as part of her daily routine. On one of these visits, she runs into Claire who informs her that her husband recently died. The death of Claire’s husband brings back a flood of painful memories, as Anita recalls a past tarnished by betrayal. The reader is made aware of Anita and Claire’s friendship when they were dancers in a troupe called Fireflies. During this period, Anita agrees to marry an older man, who declares his undying love for her, and chooses to settle down. But while she is content with married life, her husband abandons her for Claire, leading to a rift in their friendship. When the man dies, in a fit of loneliness, Claire seeks out Anita, but will the latter find it in her heart to let be bygones be bygones? This is a brilliant piece on how betrayal can tilt the delicate balance of friendship, on how loneliness and anger afflict the two women as they cope with abandonment.

Claire cherishes in her lonely solitude what Anita, in hers, too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.

What is the price one is willing to pay to harness talent? At the heart of The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, is our protagonist Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, a woman in her early fifties, “slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features.” Miss Nightingale, now all by herself, gives music lessons in the same rooms where she spent most of her childhood and also carried out her secret love affair with a married man. Her parents are now no more, and the affair fizzles out, but Miss Nightingale is not a bitter woman, for “after all there was the memory of a happiness.” When a child prodigy begins to take piano lessons from her she is dazzled by his talent, until, she realizes he is equally adept at stealing objects from her room.

She had sought too much in trying to understand how human frailty connected with love or with the beauty that the gifted brought. There was a balance struck: it was enough.

In Mrs Crasthorpe, the titular character feels profoundly humiliated because she is the sole mourner at her husband’s bleak funeral, in a village he requested, though she does not know why. But, Mrs Crasthorpe is a woman of secrets herself, and believes that although she married her husband for money and was blessed with a comfortable life, she couldn’t really blossom in their union. Thus, she perceives his death as an opportunity for her to rise in life.

I shall relish my widowhood. I shall make something of it.

Her journey through grief and attempting to forge a new life is contrasted with that of another character called Etheridge. Etheridge has also experienced tragedy with the death of his wife, who he loved dearly, but he finds solace in work, reinventing himself and somehow moving on.

Etheridge’s path occasionally crosses with Mrs Crasthorpe’s, though he wishes it didn’t, and this uneasiness is also mirrored in the reader. This is an excellent, nuanced tale of two people, who grapple with a major upheaval in their personal life, and yet what fate eventually has in store for them is diametrically opposite. 

In An Idyll in Winter, a teenage girl, Mary Bella, living in a big house surrounded by a farm, finds her imagination fired up by her tutor, Anthony, an older man. An attraction that does not play out then, Anthony alters his career path to become a cartographer, marries and settles down with two daughters. A chance visit to the farm, several years later, kindles the romance between Mary Bella and Anthony, and the latter proceeds to end his marriage. Fear grips both the women in the story as they are bound to a man, who despite his best intentions, ends up equally hurting them.  

With that simplicity a loneliness began for Mary Bella that was more than loneliness had ever been before. Belittling the solitude she had so often known, it was mysterious too, coming as it did while she still had the companionship she valued more than any other.

The story Two Women, begins thus: “Cecelia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.” Cecelia is aware of her mother’s absence during her childhood, but is plagued with doubt whether she is dead. This feeling of uncertainty persists, and her father is reluctant to make things clear. Meanwhile, a new life beckons for Cecelia. Once she is ensconced in a boarding school, where she begins to blossom after initial hiccups, Cecelia notices two women who are possibly stalking her – they are always present at her hockey matches and other events. Who are these two women and will they shed some modicum of light on Cecilia’s origins?

This flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise crept, unsummoned, into Cecelia’s thoughts and did not go away. Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate. Yet they were there, and Cecelia reached out for their whisper of consoling doubt.

Last Stories proves that Trevor is truly a master of the short form. His writing is brilliantly understated and nuanced, the stories abound with sensitively portrayed characters.  He crafts his sentences with care, and every piece crackles with aching poignancy.

Not all the people in his stories are lonely though. They are certainly alone, but some find peace in routine and the life they have shaped for themselves.  Others are lonely creatures not only because they have no one that matters, but also when they are in relationships. Some are marginal people, on the fringes of life, like the dead woman in The Unknown Girl, whose life is summed up in a sentence – “Between the childhood and the death there was a life that hadn’t been worth living.” Others like Mary Bella are beset by persistent dread of losing the love they possess.

What is also remarkable about these stories is how unpredictable they are. A story will coast along in a certain direction, and the reader might form some assumptions, only to realize that it has shaped up in completely unexpected ways. A tincture of melancholia seeps into each of these tales, punctuated by ambiguities and moments of creeping doubts. Last Stories, then, is a fitting finale to Trevor’s illustrious writing career.