In Barbara Pym’s charming novel, No Fond Return of Love (1961), the whimsical heroine, Dulcie Mainwaring, attends an indexing conference. Dumped by her fiancé, she needs to meet new people, though the conference may be prosaic. And she cannot help but mock the the titles of the papers on the program: one is simply called, “Some Problems of an Editor.”
Though many conference-goers share Dulcie’s comical views, the black-clad Viola Dace, her next-door neighbor at the dorm, haughtily sets herself apart: she is here because she “knows one of the lecturers.” She does not, however, know him well: she has a crush on Dr. Aylwin Forbes, whose wife has recently left him.
That evening, Dulcie joins the ranks of Aylwin Forbes admirers.
“Who is that good-looking man?” Dulcie whispered to Viola, as they stood in the ante-room waiting for the final gong to sound for dinner.
“Good-looking man – where?” Viola had been lost in her contemplation of their fellow conference members, who were not, on the whole, good-looking. Indeed, she had been wondering what conference could possibly consist of good-looking people, unless it was one of actors or film stars. But as soon as Dulcie spoke she knew who it must be, and was annoyed and disappointed that she should not have felt his presence in some mysterious way.
Dulcie and Viola become friends, sort of, mainly because of their Aylwin crushes. And when Viola’s landlady kicks her out, she asks if she can live with Dulcie in her big house in the suburbs. Dulcie hesitates, because her niece is staying with her, but she is flattered that Viola likes her. And their Aylwin-mania continues: Viola lounges in a park near Aylwin’s house, Dulcie walks in his neighborhood and spots him on the Underground (he can’t place her), and one night the two women walk past Aylwin’s house, where, embarrassingly, they are seen and have to make an excuse.
Even funnier, Dulcie does research on Aylwin’s family: she learns that Aylwin’s brother is a vicar, and visits the church, where a woman is crying because of her crush on the too good-looking vicar.
I chortled throughout this rereading. In the realm of love, Dulcie practices the gentle art of indexing. And all turns out surprisingly well for everybody. Pym is just so funny!
“You’re lucky if you have one friend.” – A Relative
Years ago, when my mother was in the hospital, one of her best friends visited. Like my mother, she was very old. Even though it was winter, she wore cropped pants and a short-sleeved shirt. Both women suffered a certain confusion that may well have been the result of the many, many meds that keep people alive.
It was somebody’s idea before a routine surgery that my mother should have extreme unction. And so a priest was called in to anoint her with oil, which she fastidiously wiped off with Kleenex as soon as he left the room. All three of us pretended it had never happened.
By the end of the visit, her lifetime friend was in tears. The friend told my mother, “You’re my best friend.”
My mother said nothing.
So the poor friend had to revoke it. “One of my best friends.”
I wish Mother had at least said, “Thank you,” but later she complained that her friend never came to visit, that nobody ever visited. I attribute this confusion to the illness, the morphine drip, and the strange surroundings.
And, like me, she was sometimes too honest.
Friendship is a complicated contract dependent on a web of love, fondness, respect, need, and enjoyment. According to Cicero’s treatise, De Amicitia (On Friendship), you should choose friends who have strong character and are virtuous, not mere networking buddies. Cicero praises friendship between noble, devoted men who see themselves when they see a real friend. (Not the way I’ve ever seen friends, but…) He admits it is difficult to form a friendship that lasts till death. People grow apart; their opinions change; they make other friends.
Cicero, the great orator, is not a very deep philosopher, but he is occasionally funny and does crack one joke. A Roman nobleman named Laelius, who is an expert on friendship, makes what passes for a wisecrack as he recalls that his friend Scipio “used to complain that men were more diligent in all other things than in friendship; that they were able to tell the number of goats and sheep a man had but not how many friends.”
Friendship is a complicated business in Balzac’s brilliant novel, Grand Illusions. When the hero, Lucien Chardon, moves from the provinces to Paris, he gives up poetry for the excitement of bad journalism. He reviews books he hasn’t read, accepts money for rave reviews of plays, and writes anonymous political articles on demand, adopting different views for different editors. But then he is asked to betray his friend, Daniel d’Arthez, by writing a vicious attack on his great novel. If he doesn’t, his editor threatens to ruin the career of Lucien’s mistress, an actress. And so Lucien goes to d’Arthez, sobbing, and shows him the article he has written. The wonderful d’Arthez offers to rewrite the article for him.
Later, d’Arthez writes a long, kind, but honest letter to Lucien’s sister, who has written a worried letter about gossip she has heard. Of the vitriolic attack on his book, d’Arthez says, “I made your brother’s crime easier for him by correcting the murderous article myself, and it had my full approval.”
He goes on,
“You ask me whether Lucien has kept my esteem and friendship. That question I find it more difficult to answer. Your brother is well on the way to ruining himself. At the present moment I am still very sorry, but before long I shall be glad to forget him, not because of what he has done, but what he is bound to do.. Your Lucien is very poetic, but he is not a poet…, Lucien would always sacrifice his best friend for the sake of being witty.”
And now on to something lighter! The friendships in Barbara Pym’s novel, No Fond Return of Love, are certainly familiar to women and provide light relief. Two indexers, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, meet at an indexers’ conference. Both have gone to hear Professor Aylwin Forbes, their mutual crush. (Why else go to an indexers’ conference?) Though the two women are not exactly friends, Viola ends up moving in with her and they do form a bond. It is hilarious, one of her best.And, let me add here, we are all grateful for our true friends.
You say potato, I say patio. I am sipping a giant cappucchino and trying to stay warm on the patio. As the wind blows my hair and pierces my sweatshirt, I rummage through my bag for a light jacket. I would love to sit inside on a faux leather chair, but the coffeehouse is strictly to-go during the plague. Hence, we’re on the patio.
Patio life is, well, different. It demands a larger coffee and the kind of book you can dip in and out of easily. And that means shorter books, including poetry, comedy, and memoirs, of which I’ve recommended one of each.
So here are Three Short Patio Books I’m reading this November. And I’d love to hear your suggestions for patio-able books.
1 Gilgamesh. What is it about the name Gilgamesh that always filled me with boredom? Why did I never want to read the great Sumerian-Babylonian epic (the oldest poem in the world, so they say)?
But when there’s nothing else to read, this hero’s journey epic is surprisingly entertaining. Gilgamesh, the anti-hero king of Mespotamia, fights monsters with his friend Enkidu, and after Enkidu’s death takes a journey to find a man to tell him how to avoid death. I love Stephen Mitchell’s beautiful translation, and the poem itself is BLESSEDLY short. The introduction and notes take up most of the book.
Love it, embrace it, and hasten to the patio!
2 An Academic Question by Barbara Pym. This posthumously published novel, edited by Hazel Holt, is comical and appealing, yet has a different tone from Pym’s other novels. For one thing, there are no vicars. I do kind of miss them. But it is very enjoyable without them.
The narrator, Caro, a faculty wife, does not much like university life. Her husband Alan wants her to get a job, but she shudders at the thought of working in a library, as a singularly unattractive fellow faculty wife used to. Alan objects to her plan to work in a friend’s used bookstore, which he calls a “junk store.” As you see, being a professor’s wife is unremarkable, and she makes no friends among academics: when a student visits, it is not to see Caro but to used the sewing machine.
In the preface, Hazel Holt quotes one of Pym’s letters to Philip Larkin to explain why this book is different. Pym writes, “It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort but of course it hasn’t turned out like that at all.”
Actually, it is a bit Drabbleish,. but we love Pym just the way she is. I’m still reading it…
3 Carly Simon’s Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie. I love Simon’s music, and she is also a surprisingly lyrical memoirist. She was fascinated by Jackie before she met her, and used to follow her in the news like the rest of us. (My mother never got over Jackie’s marriage to Onassis.)
I am still reading this, but just to show you the power of Simon’s imagery, let me share one of her similes: she says a friendship is like a house. She goes on to explain:
“In the first weeks and months, you become meticulously and even overly familiar with the front hallway, the mirror, ;the hooks, the sneakers and shoes, and the living room, the candles with their black wicks on the mantel.”
And then she writes about the kitchen, bedrooms, and basement. I never thought of friendship in terms of a house, but it is an intriguing analogy.
I spent a few days in Iowa City, my hometown. I did some research at the University of Iowa Library. And I also took long walks around town.
Nostalgia was laced with Zola-like naturalistic observations as I contemplated the monstrous greed of developers who have destroyed whole blocks of graceful old houses and replaced them with cheap apartment houses.
And that’s why you can’t go home again. It’s like having double vision: seeing everything twice through optometrists’ lenses.
At first it was blissful.
Iowa City is pleasantly deserted in May, because the students are gone, and you have the place to yourself . You do not have to stand in line for an American Gothic coffee at Java House. You nip up the hill to College Green Park to sip your coffee and read Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, an eminently suitable vacation novel, peopled by Pym’s diffident, eccentric characters: Ianthe Broome, a librarian, who has “an unsuitable attachment” to a younger man; Sophia, a vicar’s wife, who is obsessed with her cat, Faustina; and Rupert Stonebird, an anthropologist, who can’t decide if he is more attracted to Penelope, whom he calls”the pre-Raphaelite beat-nik,”and to Ianthe, who is “more suitable.”
In the days when College Green Park was called College Street Park (why the change?), I often sat on the swings or picnicked on takeout from the Pioneer Food Co-op. It is the same mellow space it always was, except now it has a new gazebo.
After leaving the Park, I headed over to Washington Street and down the hill to the University of Iowa Library. This is a real library–with tens of thousands of old books. I found a table by the window in the eerily dark literature and language stacks, and arranged my crisp new notebook, British Library pen, and backup hotel pen. And so began the reading and note-taking.
So many books, some great, some terrible. I quickly flashed back to grad school techniques and recalled the unscholarly habit of judging books by the title. Yes, why not? One needs a whimsical sorting system among so many unpromising dull books. Not surprisingly, Sarah Lindheim’s Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides, is clever and amusing: the title even echoes You’ve Got Mail, the Nora Ephron movie. Lindheim is such a smart, amusing writer that I can’t help but think the allusion was deliberate. And the book is a fascinating analysis of Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of elegiac epistles written from mythological heroines to their lovers and husbands. On the other hand, I struck out with A Web of Fantasies:Gaze, Image, and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by Patricia B. Slazman-Mitchell. It’s best to avoid books with “gender” in the title, I decided.
After a morning at the library, I did a lot of walking. I do recommend visiting Hickory Hill Park, 190 acres of woods, meadows, creek, etc. I used to know the park well, but they have bought more land, built more trails, and have deliberately revamped others so you go nowhere near the gap in the fence that led into Oakland Cemetery and was a shortcut home. The large open meadow is now confusingly planted with trees, while another open meadow (which I mistook for the old one) still has that Andrew Wyeth look that makes you want to plop down in the sun. (I got sunburn.) A deer and I came face to face when I stumbled on a remote muddy trail, which perhaps was not even a human trail. Yes, I did get lost, but eventually found an exit that led to Dodge Street. Wow, I need to start a five-miles-a-day walking regimen, because I could feel this in my legs! My husband looked it up and said it was eight miles as the crow flies.
Iowa City is home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and in 2008 was named a UNESCO City of Books. We were always vaguely proud of the Workshop, where Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Gail Godwin, John Cheever, Frank Conroy, Marvin Bell, Marilynne Robinson, T. C. Boyle, Karen E. Bender, Margot Livesey, and many other brilliant writers have studied or taught.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, however, is NOT a haven for Iowa writers. The only Workshop alumna I can think of from Iowa is Elizabeth Evans. No, these geniuses come from New York, California, occasionally Grosse Point, Michigan. The name “Iowa Writers’ Workshop” is an oxymoron. I’m not suggesting a name change–I’m all for tradition!–but there is a certain irony.
Iowa City has always been bookish, but nowadays has trouble supporting bookstores, despite the UNESCO status. Prairie Lights, a two-story bookstore established in the late ’70s, is still magnificent, and has a stunning selection of new books and a good selection of classics, but the number of books seems slightly smaller than it used to be. Prairie Lights also sponsors readings, though fewer big names come through on tour these days. Mostly the readings are by Workshop writers now.
There are only a couple of other bookstores left in Iowa City. Around the block from Prairie Lights is Iowa Book, which used to be called Iowa Book and Supply (or Iowa Book and Crook). To say I was shocked that the store now has only a few shelves of remainders is an understatement. It always made most its money from t-shirts and sweatshirts, but now that is the entire business.
As for used bookstores, I am not a fan of The Haunted Bookshop, where a cat once attacked me. The bookstore clerks apologized, but as a longtime “cat mom” in a multi-cat household, I assure you this is unusual cat behavior. And, honestly, the condition of the books at The Haunted Bookshop is often barely “acceptable.” I miss Martha the cat at Murphy-Brookfield, a truly great bookstore that, alas, folded a few years ago. The Haunted Bookshop is now located in the old Murphy-Brookfield building.
There are many restaurants in Iowa City. The pedestrian downtown lost its department stores years ago and is now a center of restaurants and bars. The best food I found? The vegetarian sandwich at the University Library’s cafe. Honestly, I lived on those. But you won’t go hungry.
CAVEAT: Iowa City is larger than it used to be, and if you are a woman alone, do be careful. It’s hard to take Iowa City seriously as a city because it seems so quaint, but things change, and I was too casual in the evening. Iowa City has a homeless problem, or so I’d read in The Press Citizen, without taking it seriously. I scoffed, until I went to CVS at the Old Capitol Mall around 5 p.m., and had to thread my way through crowds of homeless men out of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. No, it wasn’t Little Dorrit or the Father of the Marshalsea. And I’m not anti-homeless, but they’re destitute and often off their meds. I am talking about safety. I also had not considered the risks of studying at the library at night. During the day, there are people working upstairs, but at night the stacks were deserted. I skedaddled out of there.
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS. IF YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE , LEAVE.
Yup, I couldn’t face it that Iowa City is a real city now.
Overall, a lovely trip, and it can be fun to visit your hometown. Just don’t stay too long!