- By Merle Rubin
- Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor. The novel - a vast and flexible genre - has included romance, epic, adventure , satire, fantasy, realism, and social comedy. But if one were asked to point to the quintessential novel - the kind of novel that, were novels per se outlawed, could not be reborn in any other form - one would need to look no further than the novels of Barbara Pym, 10 in all, written over a period of 44 years, rejected, accepted, then rejected and accepted again by publishers more fickle than any of the feckless lovers who disappoint Pym's ever-hopeful heroines. In the tradition of Jane Austen, Pym's novels focus on the ironies of personal relationships, on the contrast between our idea of ourselves and other people's idea of us. Ordinary life is filled with these contrasts and ironies, but it takes a novelist like Pym to illuminate them for us. Pym's letters and diaries, expertly edited by her sister, Hilary, and her friend Hazel Holt, promise all of us who love her novels a glimpse of the woman behind them. At last, we murmur to ourselves, the real Miss Pym. Some reviewers have already been exclaiming that the real Miss Pym is even more fascinating than her books - not only as witty as Jane Austen but (surprisingly!) as passionate as Charlotte Bronte. But I cannot see why anyone should be surprised that the woman who wrote so comically, touchingly, and frequently of the delicious, foolish, poignant, sad, joyful, quasi-addictive experience of falling in love should herself have been as susceptible as any of her heroines. We learn from her letters and diaries that the self-proclaimed ''spinster'' had a number of love affairs. But none of the attachments chronicled in this book has half the vitality of those we may read about in her novels. The ''real'' Miss Pym - or, at any rate, the one recorded in these sporadic jottings - is bright and amusing, but also rather shallow and insular. Attending Oxford in the 1930s, when relatively few women were able to obtain a college education, Miss Pym reserves her intellectual curiosity almost exclusively for ''research'' on the young men to whom she is attracted. Clothes, makeup, popular music, and movies occupy nearly all her time, leaving a scant portion of her waking hours for her chosen academic field of English literature. Visiting Nazi Germany in 1934 in warm, if not hot, pursuit of a German exchange student (who happens to be a follower of Hitler's), Miss Pym has a ''delightful'' time and is ''very impressed'' by a glimpse of the Fuhrer looking ''smooth and clean.'' Critics who have lamented that Jane Austen's novels never refer to Napoleon should only be grateful that Barbara Pym's do not tackle the political events of her era. Like Austen, whom she modestly claimed not to equal, Pym had an instinctive wisdom for choosing the kind of personal subjects that by their very limitations gave her talents their greatest scope. In her fiction, the mildly interesting events of her life are transformed into art of enduring value. Her first novel, ''Some Tame Gazelle,'' written in 1935 in the midst of a failing love affair that would serve as prototype for those that followed, takes up the author's unsatisfactory and unsettling experience of loss and gives it new meaning and shape - not by changing an ''unhappy'' ending into a ''happy'' one, where the heroine gets her man, but by re-presenting the original experience more vividly and meaningfully. The novelist thus relives the emotions of an experience while at the same time analyzing and reconstructing it in a more intelligible form. What Freud called the artist's ''sublimation'' is not a flight into fantasy but a distillation that re-creates reality more truly and clearly the second time around. The ''real'' Barbara Pym is not in her letters and diaries - byproducts of life - but in the fiction she wove from life. The occasional flashes of humor and insight that grace these jottings are but fragments of the strong lucidity that glows from her novels. Nowhere in ''A Very Private Eye'' do we find the blend of tragedy and comedy, lightness and gravity that makes ''Quartet in Autumn'' perhaps her finest, certainly her most profound, novel. Even the sadness one feels reading of Pym's trials and tribulations, of the admirable persistence with which she continued to write her enchanting novels when no one would publish them is qualitatively different from the richer sadness that permeates her late novels ''Quartet in Autumn'' and ''A Few Green Leaves.'' It is the difference, perhaps, between the frustration and incompleteness of the artist's life and the satisfaction and completeness of her art, confirming what Sidney proclaimed in his ''Defence of Poesie'': ''Nature never set forth the world in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done. ... Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.''
A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, by Barbara Pym. Edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. New York: Dutton. 358 pp. Illustrated. $19. 95.