Monday, August 31, 2015

Letting Go of Barbara Pym

On the top shelf of the little bookcase by my bedroom door are the Barbara Pyms.  About five of them, maybe six.  I haven’t picked one up to read for possibly twenty years, but they have had a secure spot in my bedroom and also in that mushy, sentimental area called my heart. Because Barbara Pym was an author so enjoyed by Bob Collin, my beloved, British, and first friend in San Francisco.  

It was 1959 and I was 22, newly arrived in the city when I got my job at an advertising agency named Stevenson Graphics, where Bob was one of the artists.  And when I got to know him, if Bob offered authors to me, I reached out eagerly and took them.

Ever since that first meeting, with the hint of discovering a soul mate, a brilliant, witty soul mate who also, I found out later, drank way too much and got himself in trouble because of it, but who, more importantly, was a marvelous artist and terribly funny and utterly kind, someone who collected chairs and gave us his extra ones when he ran out of room to store the latest acquisitions…and always, he spoke with that wonderful accent that made anything he said all the more interesting.  

He was from Warrington, near Liverpool.  He knew about the Beatles long before we’d heard of them; he cooked curry and I’d never eaten such a thing before.  He was the one who saw to it that I would know more about the world, no matter how sophisticated I already thought I was.  

And in 1960, when only the people in Greenwich Village were gay, since I’d seen them on a trip there with my art school friends and they had told me this important fact and also suggested that it was high time I read “The Well of Lonelines." He explained to me that he was gay also, and oh, yes, so were all of the people I worked with at Stevenson Graphics.

So one day, long into our friendship and amidst the many other books he’d told me to read, (Kingsley and Martin Amis, Phillip Larkin, Faye Weldon, Miss Read, Laurie Lee, John Le Carre, Joyce Cary, Joanna Trollope) he raved on about Barbara Pym, thought I’d love her.  He thrust a few books at me and I read them and, oddly, I identified with her distanced, lonely, old-maid status…well, not Ms. Pym’s, but her character’s.  

I wasn’t an old maid, but rather a married girl busy having three children all in a row.  I have trouble applying the word “woman” to me, as I still see that person I was then as a “girl”.  And Pym’s female characters mooned over vicars they usually could not possess and did volunteer work in their churches while mooning.  

This was nothing at all like my life in San Francisco with my student husband and three little kids in diapers and overalls, with their fine, light hair and big eyes.  It only occurs to me now how strange it was that I identified with Pym’s women, and I wonder if Bob had some insight into the person I really was but hadn’t realized yet. 

I think I was given Barbara Pym around the same time.

There seems to be such an investment in these books, what with that picture I now remember of my wide-eyed youth and that grand friendship with Bob Collin, who died nearly a dozen years ago, leaving me to miss him whenever I wanted to talk books, which is always.  

I cannot just give the books away. And to whom, after all?  

The friends who would have liked Barbara Pym already have a stack of their own in their bookcases.  I wonder if their pages are yellowing, actually browning, as mine have done.  Recycled Books, the library, Good Will?  Are these my other options.  It seems sad.  Those fictitious lives that lived in my head when I read them so long ago await rebirth by being read again, and if not by me, by someone who would care.  It seems cruel to abandon them.  I should cultivate a leap of faith that there are others out there waiting to love a Barbara Pym character. We all have in our minds a future generation who will start talking about an author and we spring up and go to the shelf and bring them a double handful, to their delight…

I picked up one of the books.  The title was A Glass of Blessings.  I thought I’d give it one more read before deciding its fate.  And the fate of its shelf mates.  It’s a paperback, and it has gotten awfully stiff.  It doesn’t open properly.  I had to hold it with both hands to see the words that aimed into the centerfold. But even with this annoyance, the very first page intrigued me.  (Of course, I didn’t remember any of it; how nice to have such a lacy great word! memory.)  

Here again, anew, was English written in a way that differed from the contemporary books I’d read recently.  Words like “unsuitable” and “verger”.  Things nowadays (and there: even “nowadays” is an old-timey word that is rarely used currently) are not “unsuitable”.  The word I hear so often now, and not necessarily as a substitute, is “inappropriate”.  And too, with church fading in importance as a setting for most novels now, “verger” is unlikely to show up.  

So here I was, carried back in time and sent to England on these stiff, browned pages, the place I’d ached for so often since Bob had instructed me about it, about London in particular, and all its attendant glories: in films, in books, in districts—the Lake District, the Cotswolds, etc. Here was a chance of some comforting time-travel in the book I had in my hands, a chance to get away from all of the things that stagger me with worry these days.  I decided I’d read this one Barbara Pym and then it would be clearer what to do with the lot of them.  And if they had to go, I’d have been fair.  

One always wants to be fair.