Obituary: Latecomer wrote with 'wit, vivacity'

By Stephanie Johnson

Fellow writer Stephanie Johnson pays tribute to a novelist who wrote in a comic way about New Zealand's serious issues

One of Barbara Anderson's best loved books was  Portrait of the Artist's Wife , which still resonates today. Photo / Supplied
One of Barbara Anderson's best loved books was Portrait of the Artist's Wife , which still resonates today. Photo / Supplied

Barbara Anderson
April 14, 1926 - March 24, 2013

When I first heard that Barbara Anderson had died I toured our bookshelves looking for the book that had me fall in love with her. I'm sure this is a common experience for readers when a cherished writer has died - it's as if we want to catch hold of the memory of that writer's real voice before it is lost forever.

Many of us find that after we meet a writer whose work we admire, their voice remains with us. From them on, whenever we read their work, it is as if they sit beside us, reading aloud.

The book I searched for was her 1992 novel Portrait of the Artist's Wife. I couldn't find it, probably because it is one of many that I have given away or loaned that has never come back. I picture it now, tattered and much read by many, because it was that kind of book, destined to pass from hand to hand with the endorsement "You must read this!".

It's the story of an artist who struggles to maintain her sense of destiny and fulfilment in the face of her husband's more stellar career. In some circles this may seem dated, but it is an iconographic tale and one that still resonates today.

Famously, Anderson didn't begin writing until she was in her 60s, a fact that has been hugely inspirational to other older-starters. Writers who began their careers late could often be heard to proclaim, "Dostoevsky didn't write his first novel until he was 40!". After Barbara's fame spread, it was her age that they quoted.

That fame was achieved both at home and abroad, with her short story collections and novels, among them I Think We Should Go Into the Jungle, All the Nice Girls, and Long Hot Summer. In 2008 she published her last work, an autobiography, Getting There.

VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman was quoted recently as saying, "No one else has captured the social texture of New Zealand with the same vivacity and wit as Barbara. One of the great things about her was that she could be comic and highly entertaining while never losing sight of the serious undercurrents in her fiction." I agree with him entirely, and would say also that her stories and novels always gave us great intimacy with her characters and their times, while never detracting in the least from their human dignity.

I met Barbara only a few times, but I still recall her voice. She was gently spoken, gracious and generous of spirit. Tall and elegant, she always stood out in a crowd at writers' festivals and other literary gatherings. She was a huge reader, and would be astonished by the often-heard pronouncement "I never read New Zealanders", a ghastly symptom of our national trait of self-loathing. In a 2008 Listener interview with writer Paula Morris, Barbara said she read "masses" of New Zealanders, as well as writers from all over the world.

In the early 2000s, I was quoted in an interview as imagining that when I die, my children will find among my belongings some yellowing old novels and say to one another, "Look at this - I never knew Mum wrote books". The next time I saw Barbara she laughed with me about it, and said she imagined it would be the same for her.

Never! We got it right with Barbara. In 2009 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Otago University, and in 2011 the Arts Foundation Icon Award. These were her final awards among many.

More importantly, and enduringly, perhaps, her stories and novels occupy a special place in the hearts of many readers across the globe.

• Stephanie Johnson is the author of many poems, short stories and novels, including The Heart's Wild Surf.

- NZ Herald

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