Excellent Women

 

I am probably just deluding myself that one day I won’t give in entirely to Pym love and join the Barbara Pym Society like every other obsessed Pym fan, especially if I continue to return to my favorite Pym novel Excellent Women.  This small and very, very funny book, like her other works, focusses on the genteel but rather drab life of an English spinster, in this case one Mildred Lathbury, whose world seems to consist of jumble sales, long chats with the vicar, and the inevitably endless cups of tea.  She is surrounded by friends, of a sort, and associates, all of whom seem to lead more exciting lives than her own and she observes them all closely, with  a dark wit and a sharp sense of humor that is second to none.  Much like the work of Jane Austen these books are certainly not plot heavy.  In fact virtually nothing happens and yet somehow it is Pym’s greatest accomplishment to make this nothing seem like absolutely everything to her narrator, and reader.  Mildred’s sharp eye is deeply ironic, and while life hasn’t handed her much she is never sad and seems only reasonably discontent.  It is impossible to read this book and not root for her, and the countless other women she represents who stand teetering on the brink of spinsterhood with a teapot in one hand and a china cup in the other.  Mildred Lathbury, we salute you!

Barbara Pym (1913-1980) was a moderately successful writer whose work fell out of favor in the early 1960’s for being out of step with the times.  For sixteen years she continued to write in obscurity until one day in the 21st of January 1977 issue of the Times Literary Supplement both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil named her “the most underrated novelist of the century.”  From that point on she rose to almost instant fame and recognition.  She died at the early age of 66 of breast cancer.

“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”
― Barbara PymExcellent Women

The Nancy Book

There are some faces so iconic and unforgettable that just to see them is to make one smile.  I think it’s safe to say that without a doubt, “Nancy” a comic strip character created in 1938 by Ernie Bushmiller is one of them.

The artist Joe Brainard (1942-1994) created more than one hundred works using Nancy, and Siglio Press in Los Angeles collected fifty of them for the first time for inclusion in The Nancy Book which also features essays by Ann Lauterbach and Ron Padgett.

It’s hard to express just exactly what makes these works and the book so charming.  Or, for that matter, what made the original Nancy herself so endearing.

Perhaps Ann Lauterbach sums it up best in her essay.

“Brainard’s Nancy works, many of which are simple collages, are an inventory of daydreams, a mobile landscape of identifications.  Consider: Nancy gets to be a drawing by Larry Rivers, numerous paintings by de Kooning, a sexy blond, an interior decorator, rich, President Roosevelt (her head on Mount Rushmore), André Breton at eighteen months, a New York City building, Abraham Lincoln (as a stamp), a ball, and Art Nouveau.  By inserting Nancy into these “public” frames — persons, objects, places, paintings — Joe Brainard gave us not only an intimate self-portrait, but also, because Joe/Nancy was conceived as “everyone”, he left us an astonishingly accurate, funny, and compelling portrait of ourselves.”

Ann Lauterbach – Joe Brainard & Nancy