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.