Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Falling in love (with a writer--specifically Barbara Pym)

Is there any moment more important to us when we're young--more obsessed-over, more fraught--than that of falling in love? The energy and emotion that we, at sixteen or eighteen or twenty, bring to bear on trying to pinpoint the instant when appreciation and amusement and desire and friendship and intrigue crystallize into love . . . well, if it does nothing else it reminds us, ineluctably, that we're ultimately all the centers of our own Copernican scheme.

But when does it happen with a writer? There's no question that sometimes it's instant. For me, that's Borges, or Steven Millhauser: reading both the first time felt uncannily like welcoming old friends into the house--there was surprise and mystery there, certainly, but also a comfort, as if Borges's Library of Babel had already alerted me to the existence of these brilliant permutations of letters. Other times, it's gradual. I didn't really fall for Anthony Powell until well into the second volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, and I didn't--to stay with and extend the metaphor--marry him until my second time through the sequence.

It's probably no surprise, given the ups and downs of her reputation over the decades, that the process was gradual with Barbara Pym. Penelope Fitzgerald's praise led me to Less Than Angels, and I was impressed with her delicacy and humor, but it took time for head and heels to swap. I read another, then another. Then I read the diaries and letters, and used a whole pad of post-it flags. Then I found myself spotting Barbara Pym characters and situations in everyday life. I was caught.

There really is no one quite like her. Oh, Jane Austen is her model, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Anthony Powell impinge on her Venn diagram, but no one else provides her exact cocktail of insight, aphoristic asperity, wit, perceptiveness, and at times painful honesty--mixed, crucially, with love and comfort. Her centennial has sent me back to her books, as it should, and that has only confirmed my love.

I'll close with an anecdote that makes me smile, shared by Pym's sister, Hilary Pym Walton, which opens her brief foreword to "All This Reading": The Literary World of Barbara Pym (2003):
I am reminded of an incident from the distant past when someone, on meeting Barbara and me with our mother, asked, "And which is the clever one?" I am afraid that she was referring to me, as I had drawn a picture of a horse at an early age and had received some sort of certificate.
Which leads me back to Pym's inexhaustible diaries, to an entry from July 10, 1943, when she was in an army training camp:
I went with Peggy Wall, a quiet dark girl who seems to be about the best of our lot--she used to be secretary to a literary agent. She said as soon as she saw me she thought--I bet she's going to write a novel about it. Well--who knows.
If you share my tastes at all--there's nearly eight years of blog posts here to help you determine that--and you've not read Pym, do. It will make your summer.


  1. Thanks Levi, I would have missed the centennial entirely if you hadn't mentioned it. I just wrote a blog post to add to the many out there. I've loved B. Pym since the moment I first opened one of her books, but not everyone appreciates her. I remember years ago when I convinced my book group to read "Excellent Women." One member (someone I liked and respected) was furious that she had wasted her time with it. "She's (Millicent) so passive! She just lets everyone walk all over her!" After that, I gave up proselytizing, but one day my sister, noticing the large number of Pyms on my bookshelves, decided to try one. Now she's read everything except the cookbook.

  2. Pym is indeed a joy without season (although perhaps especially to be treasured on a gray fall afternoon, for some reason), and it's nice to know that while her great vogue, or one of them, may have passed, we who are devotees keep the flame.

    As for finding Pym moments in real life, they are indeed everywhere. In my travels, I've seen a great many Miss Clovises, bossy and dogmatic, and even a few Mildred Lathburys, diffident and wry, not to mention situations that would have delighted her endlessly (a memorable jumble sale in Ghana comes to mind).

  3. Thank you, I didn't know about her diaries. Now I'm going to Abebooks to see what I can find.

  4. Such a pleasure to hear from more Pym fans! I feel the same way you do, Flicker: I would hesitate to recommend her to most people, but that makes the moments when I find the right person all the better!

    zmkc, the diaries are part of A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, which is out of print but not hard to find. It's well worth it. Carrie Frye quoted from them well in her piece on Pym for the Awl over the weekend.

    1. Many thanks for both those links. Also the interesting Fitzgerald/Pym post - as to whether there is a present day Pym, my sense is that there may be but today's publishers would not view them as commercially viable - just as, for a long time, they didn't regard Pym as up to scratch (foolishly).

  5. Sorry, I meant Mildred, not Millicent! Typing too late at night... Yes, it's fun to find another Pym aficionado, and it isn't always the person you think it will be.

    I should mention that it's Barbara Pym who led me to Anthony Powell. Also Denton Welch, Rachel Ferguson, I'm sure there are others. At this point I figure anything she liked I'm probably going to like too.

  6. One of the monks of St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington, DC, wrote an essay on pilgrimages for the abbey's quarterly newsletter; half of the essay was an account of a literary pilgrimage to Pym's house in England. I handed it off to a co-worker, whose wife reads much Pym, and gather that she enjoyed it.

  7. Thanks to your enthusiasm, I am mere pages from finishing my first Pym (A Glass of Blessings) and just wanted to say thank you. One thing is sure: I'll be reading more of Pym. I find myself reading passages aloud and copying down delectable sentences: (i.e. "There was a film about the habits of badgers, which showed the creatures rootling about in a kind of twilight in what seemed to be rhododendron bushes"). I've just been reading some other comic British women writers of the period - what a range of formidable talent! - but if the rest of Pym's work is anything like what I'm reading now, I suspect she may well turn out to be the best of them all. And to think - I had one of her books in my library for years, and I gave it away thinking I'd never read it!

  8. George,
    Thank you so much for the tip (and of course, Dave, thank you, librarian that you are, for the link!) on the pilgrimage essay. My wife and I tend to visit literary loves when we're in the UK, so maybe we'll follow in his footsteps someday.

    Your comment made my day! Seriously: the primary reason I write here is to share thoughts about writers I love, and to learn that I've led a new reader to them makes it all seem worth it. I envy you having all that unread Pym ahead!