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An Academic Question by Barbara Pym (Dutton: $15.95; 182 pp.)

September 14, 1986|Michael Dorris | Dorris is a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College. His novel, "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," will be published this spring by Henry Holt & Co. and

The strikingly contemporary, first-person narrator of "An Academic Question" is Caro Grimstone, a faculty wife mired in a provincial British university town and married, somewhat below her class, to Alan, an ambitious ethno-historian. Theirs is a small world, enclosed by the intense concerns of its principal actors. Alan is fatuously unscrupulous in his drive to publish an article in an obscure journal "rather less readable than most." Caro is vaguely oppressed by her suspicions of Alan's admiration for an academically "able" divorced sociologist, Iris Horniblow, and by the fact of his laison with an editorial assistant named Cressida, "a tall blonde girl with a rather horsey, well-bred face and untidy hair like a lion's mane."

Other characters are more briefly but no less indelibly drawn: Coco, an effete, gossip-loving Caribbean Studies researcher and his spoiled, aristocratic mother, Kitty; Sister Dew, the officious nurse-administrator of a home for the elderly; a prickly host of jealous, self-important but second-rate scholars and librarians, and Dolly, Kitty's elder sister, the owner of a jumble shop and a woman with an unusual affection for hedgehogs.

On the surface, nothing much happens. Alan eludes the embarrassment of exposure for his small act of larcenous impropriety. Caro gets a temporary job bundling papers inherited by the university archives. Iris briefly takes a younger lover, but is no more than adequate in presenting her department's third annual Dabbs Memorial Lecture. Caro, sitting in the audience, initially has hopes:

"The subject (patterns of neighborhood behavior) had promised to be interesting--for what could be more fascinating than the study of a community one actually knew?--and at first I tried hard to listen. But after a very few minutes it became apparent that the dead hand of the sociologist had been at work and as soon as I heard the words interaction, in-depth and grass roots, I knew that this lecture wasn't going to be any more compelling than the other two had been."

Before the season passes, Alan has been casually unfaithful and Caro goes to Dolly for early morning comfort, but instead finds Dolly mourning a loss of her own.

"We sat drinking cups of instant coffee and smoking, commiserating with each other. An unfaithful husband and a dead hedgehog--sorrows not to be compared, you might say, on a different plane altogether. Yet there was hope that Alan would turn to me again while the hedgehog could never come back."

Thanks to the seemingly effortless grace of Pym's language and to the deadpan gaze with which she approaches her subject, the reader is involved almost as a participant in the milieu of the author's invention. Here social scientists become the objects rather than the perpetrators of community study, a reversal that must have given Pym particular pleasure. For a number of years, she held a job on Africa, an anthropological journal, and one senses that this novel was her uniquely deft revenge for the pretentious egos and posturings she must have regularly had to endure.

Caro, her reporter, observes those around her, and even herself, with admirable objectivity. "Waiting here, . . . conscious of people around me who appeared not to be conscious of me, I tried to step out of myself," she says. "Carefully, cautiously, with a cool eye and as much detachment as I could muster, I peeped at myself and Alan, as it were, lifting the corner of a curtain or peering through a chink in a lighted window."

Like last year's "Crampton Hodnet," "An Academic Question" has been posthumously edited and organized by Hazel Holt from early Pym drafts. While the flow of the resulting novel is occasionally choppy--especially in a conclusion that seems more tentative than in masterpieces like "Jane and Prudence" or "Less Than Angels"--there are revelations as well. "An Academic Question" was begun in 1970 during that unaccountable period in which publishing houses rejected Pym's novels, and toward the end of the book, there is a curious insight into the frustration of the unappreciated author. When Caro's bibliographic labors go up in smoke, she addresses Alan:

" 'I supposed you could say that all the work Heather and I were doing was in vain.'

" 'In a sense, yes.'

" 'But can't it have it's own reward? The peculiar satisfaction of a symphony that has never been performed or a painting seen only by the artist?'

" 'Or an article never published,' Alan added. 'There's not much satisfaction in that.' "

Alan fails to distinguish between creation and pedantry, search and research, as did perhaps some of Pym's employers and editors. "Perhaps my immediate circle of friends will like to read it," she is quoted as having said of "An Academic Question," never expecting that this circle would within the next two decades expand to encompass admiring readers throughout the world. The work she did was not in vain. It was her special genius to expose the sweetness, the urgency, the silliness and the significance of small events, and, in so doing, to transform them into art.

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