Every weekday in my university library I see a diminutive elderly man seated in front of a computer near the main reference desk. He wears an olive-drab bucket cap with the cord fastened below his chin and a sweater with holes at the elbows. His nose is inches from the screen, against which he holds a pocket magnifying glass. Beside him is a pile of books and papers. His gaze is intent. Before last week, I had never seen him anywhere except at the helm of his library computer. That day I met him as I was entering the men’s room and he was leaving. He smiled and said, “Good morning,” in a tone once known as “chipper.” Alumnus? Professor emeritus? Lost soul? I don’t know and don’t have the impertinence to ask, but I admire his perseverance and good humor.
Libraries figure often in the novels of Barbara Pym, frequently as the setting for romance, unrequited, unsatisfactory and otherwise. Pym read English at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and regularly used the Bodleian Library, where her literary papers are housed. Pym wrote her second novel, Civil to Strangers, in 1936, when she was twenty-three years old, but the book remained unpublished until after her death in 1980. Much of the story is set in the Bodleian. Adam and Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon are an unhappily and comically mismatched married couple. Adam, as is customary with young men in Pym’s novels, is a feckless twit. Pym tells us:
“[He] wandered about looking at various books and reading the Dictionary of National Biography to see if he could detect any mistakes in it. Then he went up to the Catalogue to look up several books that he might read. He also looked up his own novels and poems, and, for some reason, made a note of them. After that he leaned on a radiator and read several volumes of the University Calendar. Finally he went back to his seat and began a letter to Casandra, but he found it difficult to write, as he really did not know what to say. He was glad when the bell tinkled, for this meant that all readers must leave the library, which closed at seven.”
That’s Pym’s gently satirical portrait of a young narcissist with literary pretensions. But here is the passage I remembered after exchanging greetings with the old man in the library. Adam, getting ready to leave the Bodleian, is joined by a clergyman he has never met before:
“`I wonder, when you are working here, have you ever given a thought to all those who have died in Bodley’s Library, or as a result of working there?’
“Adam was forced to admit that he had not.
“`You should, you know. It is quite an education.’
“`It would surely do one more good to concentrate on one’s work,’ said Adam austerely.
“`That is my work,’ said the clergyman simply. `I am preparing a thesis on that subject for the degree of Bachelor of Letters.’”
Pym’s comic genius is distilled in her choice of two contrasting adverbs: “austerely,” “simply.”