Saturday, February 27, 2010

Barbara Pym, Writer And Martyr

I found Barbara Pym's first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, in the used books section of the local bookstore, and am rereading it now, as I reread her books whenever I come across them. Pym has been called "a 20th century Jane Austen," and all kinds of praise has been heaped upon her.

Whenever I read her, though, I cannot help thinking about her life, which was marred by the worst tragedy a writer can experience. She published her first novel in 1950, and five more between then and 1961, all to critical acclaim. Then, in 1963, her publisher rejected her latest book, saying that it was out of keeping with the times. She sent the novel out nineteen more times--the way writers are supposed to--but it was rejected.

She kept writing. Two more novels were rejected in the early 70s, and, in the meantime, she developed breast cancer and had a mastectomy, then a stroke. In 1977, she was mentioned in The Times Literary Supplement as "the most underrated novelist of the century," and suddenly everything changed. Her unpublished novels were published; her published works were reprinted. All her books were published in America, translated into foreign languages, internationally acclaimed. But it was too late: her cancer returned, and she died in January, 1980.

It seems so unfair that she was such a great writer and then fell out of favor for sixteen years, then was rediscovered only to die in two years. The vagaries of Fortune! What was going through her mind through those dark years? How did she manage to keep writing? I guess she couldn't help herself.

Sure, there have been many great artists who went unacknowledged during their lives--Van Gogh, who didn't sell a single painting, the most famous. But at least Van Gogh never tasted success, and so didn't know what it was to lose it.

I suppose we writers should look on Barbara Pym as an example, the way the lives of the martyrs were held up to kids in Catholic school. But something in me recoils from Barbara Pym's life, the way it did from the accounts of limbs cut off and bodies burned in the martyrs' lives. Call me superstitious, but I don't want to imitate either her or them, for fear that I might meet their fate.

Who knows, maybe Barbara Pym was an innately happy person. Maybe she did not attach to outcomes. But I don't think so. "I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again" she confessed. She must have suffered deeply. And yet, it's hard to imagine that, writing as well as she wrote, she didn't derive intense pleasure from it, despite the rejections.

So I will hold on to the idea of Barbara immersed in her writing, satisfied despite the reversals of Fortune. And when Fortune reversed itself again for those last two years, I hope that Barbara enjoyed herself to the hilt.

9 comments :

  1. i have a dear dear friend who is a novelist. her first novel received a full-length, very positive review in the New Yorker, among other places. Her second novel was praised. She won a Whiting Award. Her first collection of short stories was praised. She won the Rome Prize from the American Academy. Her third novel was praised, though not as widely.

    and she suddenly has published very little for the last 10 years. she blames 9/11, said fiction went out the window after that and the public only wanted nonfiction. now, with fiction coming back, she is seen as sort of yesterday's news.

    but she is not in despair. she lives her life, loves her son, just got a second dog. she continues to write (a recent short story is up for a pushcart prize). she does not have cancer, although, sadly, her husband does, and she is dealing with all of that as well.

    i say do not feel too bad for barbara pym. people live their lives and they usually are not lives of despair, even when fortunes change and things turn sour. life is too rich to be black or white. sorry to go on and on.

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  2. Laurie, don't be sorry! Thanks for putting things into perspective. Any chance of finding out who this writer is, so I can look for her next time I'm searching for a book to read (which seems to happen at least once a week)?

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  3. Wondering if I ever ready anything by Barbara Pym. The name sounds familiar.

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  4. look for a book called "little woman." (not "little women.") or "home movie." or the story collection "world like a knife."

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  5. It says something that she kept trying. I only had to have one disastrous teaching moment to know I'll never try it again (after 5 years of critical acclaim).

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  6. Dona, here's a list of her books. They are wonderful, and extremely funny, in a quiet, English sort of way:

    Some Tame Gazelle (London: Cape, 1950; NewYork: Dutton, 1983)

    Excellent Women (London: Cape, 1952; New York: Dutton, 1978)

    Jane and Prudence (London: Cape, 1953, 1978; New York: Dutton, 1981)

    Less Than Angels (London: Cape, 1955, 1978; New York: Dutton, 1980)

    A Glass of Blessings (London: Cape, 1958, 1977; New York: Dutton, 1980)

    No Fond Return of Love (London Cape, 1961, 1979; New York: Dutton, 1982)

    Quartet in Autumn (London, Macmillan, 1977; New York: Dutton, 1978)

    The Sweet Dove Died (London: Macmillan, 1978; New York: Dutton, 1979)

    A Few Green Leaves (London: Macmillan; New York: Dutton, 1980)

    An Unsuitable Attachment (London: Macmillan; New York: Dutton, 1982)

    A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, ed. Hazel Holt
    and Hilary Pym (London: Macmillan; New York: Dutton, 1984)

    Crampton Hodnet (London: Macmillan; New York: Dutton, 1985)

    An Academic Question (London: Macmillan; New York: Dutton, 1986)

    Civil to Strangers and Other Writings (London: Macmillan; New York: Dutton, 1987)

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  7. Laurie, thanks. I'll look for those books.

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  8. Thanks Lali -- I'm willing to bet I read at least one of her books in my teen years. They sound like they are exactly what I liked (and still do).

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