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 Her unpublished novels were published; her published works were reprinted.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.