The Ideology of the Trivial

Another writer, quintessentially English I believe, on my reading radar is Barbara Pym. Any Pym enthusiasts care to stoke my curiosity?

This passage from Judy Little’s The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose interested me, both by its references to Denton Welch whose work I’m currently exploring and Virginia Woolf, and also because I strongly support its argument in favour of (apparently) trivial details in narrative of all kinds. I wrote yesterday of my enjoyment of an ingenious sentence using the brand colour of a (once) well-known laundry whitener, Reckitt’s Blue, to pin down in text the precise colour of the Virgin Mary’s robe.

Several times in her journals and letters, Pym records her fascination with the trivial, with the details of everyday, noncrisis activities. Referring to Denton Welch’s request for more details (about food, homes) from writers, Pym suggests that a reader is most interested in these things not because they provide sociological information but “because they are pleasing in themselves.” The everyday experience is not only interesting but valuable. Her romance writer, Catherine Olliphant, says as much in Less Than Angels:
“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things, she decided, wondering how many writers and philosophers had said this before her, the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seem and overheard”. As she suspects, other writers have indeed affirmed her pleasure in the small or trivial, it may be that Catherine is recalling Virginia Woolf. In the novels and journals, Pym several times quotes or responds to Woolf who advised in “Modern Fiction”: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” 

8 thoughts on “The Ideology of the Trivial

  1. Last week I read “Quartet in Autumn”, one of Pym’s later works (and the first I have tried). It is almost entirely dedicated to “the trivial” – the way we measure our lives with coffee spoons. That attention to everyday detail – the make of a milk bottle or the size of a plastic bag – is really what gives the novel it’s peculiar, tragicomic edge, I think. I would definitely recommend it, in light of Judy Little’s quote…

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  2. I went through a Pym phase a few years ago – beginning with her earlier (deceptively comic) novels, and they are really good. I started with Excellent Women and read several more before getting to Quartet in Autumn, which is very different in tone and I think it is the one that has stayed with me the longest. Although even her earlier novels have this nice dark edge to all the humor. I look forward to see what you think.

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    • Thanks, Michelle. Very pleased to get your endorsement as well for Quartet in Autumn. I’ll try to pick up a copy this week. Tim Parks has written quite a lot about Pym’s work, with great enthusiasm.

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  3. One of my favourites of hers (other than the more serious Quartet in Autumn) is Less than Angels, which is very mischievous and humorous about anthropologists (or academics in general). Delightful social comedy, deceptively light yet with good depth.

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  4. I generally see life as made up of trivial or “small” moments, rather than any sort of grand narrative sweep. Books that acknowledge and engage with that seem a little more true (if that is the right word) to me. Those sorts of details I can either relate to, if I recognise them (in) myself, or offer a glimpse into a life beyond my own. The accumulation of those moments seems more meaningful to me than anything grander, I suppose.

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