Sunday, July 7, 2013

Barbara Pym's Centenary

This post is dedicated to my friend B., who loves Barbara Pym's novels as much as I do.... I have mentioned writer Barbara Pym two or three times in this blog, but not in any detail. I am prompted to do so now by a 6/23/13 essay by Laura Shapiro in the New York Times Book Review, titled “Pride and Perseverance,” on the occasion of the centenary of Pym’s birth. This wonderful British novelist first wrote “six modestly successful novels” but in 1963, her publisher declined to publish more. Perhaps she seemed anachronistic in the 1960s; as Shapiro puts it so well: “Pym specialized in a minor-key world far from fiction’s cutting edge. Her characters tend to be unmarried women in sensible shoes, fond of musing over Anglican hymns and scraps of English poetry. They help out at the church jumble sale, offer cups of Ovaltine at moments of late-night crisis….” Pym herself, as well as her loyal readers, was shocked by this turn of events, and she was a discouraged writer for many years. It was only 1977 Times Literary Supplement statements by famed British writers Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil that Pym was the most underrated author that brought her back to the spotlight. Then her recent books were published, her older books were reprinted, and she was interviewed and celebrated. Unfortunately she died three years later of cancer. It is terrible that she had those 12 years of obscurity, and that she died so soon after her work was published again, but it is a great thing that she lived to see her work rediscovered and celebrated. I am personally a huge fan of her novels, having read all of them, some several times. They have great titles: “Excellent Women,” “A Glass of Blessings,” “No Fond Return of Love,” “The Sweet Dove Died,” and “An Unsuitable Attachment,” to name a few; there are about a dozen in all. The low-key aspect of her topics does not indicate low-key writing. Her work is witty, in an unassuming, musing way. She draws her characters sharply, with details and conversations that reveal much in a few words. Her understanding of human motivations and self-delusions approaches that of the great Jane Austen. Her novels, like Austen’s, are often labeled “domestic” dramas, and although in a sense that is accurate, it doesn’t begin to show how whole worlds can be found in domestic scenes. Sometimes reading Pym makes me laugh out loud at her humorous perceptivity. Pym’s women characters are sometimes sad, but good at cheering themselves up, finding ways to encourage themselves, often through helping others (but not in a goody-goody way). One of the later works, "Quartet in Autumn," is definitely darker than the others, as it takes a close look at ageing. I find myself somewhat at a loss to convey the unique and compelling qualities of this writer’s fiction. I strongly urge readers to just find and read one of her novels; I suggest “Excellent Women” to start, but really any of the novels will do.

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