Matthew Price, writer and book critic
V.S. Pritchett: A Happy Man of Letters
By Matthew Price. Bookforum, February/March 2005

V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life, by Jeremy TreglownThe major English writers born in the early years of the twentieth century can be a gloomy, brooding lot. Graham Greene labored under a heavy cloud of despair; George Orwell could be undone by pessimism and fury; Evelyn Waugh’s satirical high jinks barely concealed his allergy to modern life. V.S. Pritchett was a joyful exception: “I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive,” he once told an interviewer. “I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”

For the English critic A. Alvarez, Pritchett’s vigor was a thing of wonder: “He created his own microclimate, fizzing with energy and appetite. He was addicted to writing like some people are to the bottle.” His compulsion took him far. If any writer of the last century deserves the appellation man of letters, it was surely Victor Sawdon Pritchett. From the 1930s until well into the ’80s, he was a vibrant presence in transatlantic literary circles—a fixture in the pages of the New Yorker, where many of his famed short stories appeared, the New Statesman, where he served as literary editor and critic, and the New York Review of Books, which published scores of his animated literary essays on the classics of English, French, and Russian literature.

Born in 1900 outside of London, Pritchett grew up in a lower-middle-class world far closer to the Victorian era than to our own. Indeed, his voluble, eccentric family—his father was a chronic bankrupt who kept himself afloat through relentless scheming, his mother a babbling yarn spinner—seems out of Dickens, about whom Pritchett would one day write brilliantly. A dropout at age sixteen, his schooling was haphazard and by the way. Pritchett found his true classroom in books. Nourishing himself on a diet of voracious reading, he would in time become one of criticism’s great omnivores (“I am appalled by the amount I have read,” Pritchett would confess late in life). In a literary generation that was Oxbridge to the core, he was the rare autodidact, self-taught but arguably better read than any of his peers.

The impress of Pritchett’s origins is everywhere in his short stories. He had an acute ear for the inflections of class, for the petty vanities and pretensions of upwardly mobile strivers: “Look—posh! That’s the house I want,” says the grasping Mrs. Seugar in “The Landlord.” “You could live in a house like that. I mean, be one of the toffs and look down your nose at everyone.” Yet Pritchett never indicts his characters: He is a tender anatomist who lays bare the fantasies and self-deceptions by which, he suggests, all human beings live. “You Make Your Own Life” runs the title of one of his stories. His way of celebrating human existence was not to sentimentalize it, but to look at it with an undeceived eye.

Pritchett is often described as a comic writer, yet, as funny as he often is, his stories abound in failure and regret. “For me comedy has a militant, tragic edge,” he once said. An early story, “The Two Brothers,” traces the fraught relationship of two Irish siblings—one sickly and dependent; the other, “with his voracious health,” dominant, carefree—and ends with a horrifying act. Others traffic in thwarted, melancholy, isolated lives, forlorn imagery: “The park was empty. He blew across it like a solitary late leaf.” The title of another story, “Many Are Disappointed,” is suggestive: Pritchett’s fiction teems with lives stalled in a twilight region between respectability and shabbiness. (A London neighborhood is “a fate, a blunder of small hopes and admired defeats.”) Pritchett spared himself such a destiny by his puritanical work ethic. The subtitle of Jeremy Treglown’s laudably concise biography is apt: An inveterate scribbler who filled his notebooks with pages and pages of jottings, notes, doodles, and sketches, Pritchett lived to work. Driven in equal measure by passion and necessity, he made few allowances for days off—not filing copy meant not getting paid—and he went about his vocation with the ardor of a fanatic.

The terrors of freelance life filled Pritchett with dread. Sick in bed with flu in 1939, he worried to a friend about “a terrible conscience feeling that someone will find out and imprison me for not finishing all my books, reviews, etc. etc. and that the Bank will write me a snooty letter and all the tradesman will arrive in a charabanc [sic] and gather in deputation to say ‘We don’t like you not paying your bills, but we can put up with it; what we cant put up with is your just slacking at the same time. Get out of bed.’” He needn’t have worried. The fat heft of Pritchett’s collected stories and criticism, published over a decade ago in two giant volumes, each of which runs to a thousand pages, are testament to a lifetime of unflagging productivity and accomplishment. (Sadly, these collections are now out of print.) He died in 1997, at the age of ninety-six, garlanded with many honors, including a knighthood.

Still, Pritchett’s critics dither about his status. Though fellow short-story writers William Trevor and Eudora Welty exalted Pritchett in his lifetime, the epithet “minor writer” has dogged him. Even his admirers sometimes downgrade his achievements. In an otherwise generous essay from James Wood’s recently published book of literary criticism, The Irresponsible Self, he concludes, “Pritchett stories, perhaps like his criticism, do not have the instability of greatness”—a very strange criterion by which to judge a writer. Wood is wiser in his comment that “Pritchett’s stories creep up on the reader, not frontally but sideways or from behind, as a ship is boarded.”

Some of Pritchett’s fictions can seem trifling in their effects. As Edmund Wilson once told him, “In your masterly use of detail you so exactly hit the nail on the head that the reader expects a more usual kind of point at the end, and I haven’t always grasped that the final details … are equally significant in their accuracy.” Certainly there is no school of Pritchett: He did not inspire legions of slavish imitators the way Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver did. Nor did he make his mark as a novelist (an early aspiration of his ), unlike two other British masters of the short story, D.H. Lawrence and Somerset Maugham. Pritchett was not an innovator so much as a steady, patient craftsman. But his total achievement—as biographer, essayist, critic, journalist, and potent writer of short fiction and memoir—commands respect, if not awe.

* * *

Treglown appreciates Pritchett in all his variety as a writer, as well as gives us a fine flavor of Pritchett the man, and he manages to do so in less than four hundred pages. (In this age of bloated biographies, Treglown’s feat, especially given his subject’s long life, verges on the miraculous.) There was very little to dislike about Pritchett, but Treglown avoids the trap of hagiography; he praises without swooning. His dry assessment of Pritchett’s importance in literary history seems to me just: “He played a crucial part in the continuing growth of traditional literary forms during modernism and postmodernism, building as he did on the techniques of nineteenth-century fiction,” Treglown writes. “At the same time, he carried on the supposedly fast-disappearing profession of a freelance critic, becoming an important broker in the literary exchanges between Britain, continental Europe, and the United States.”

In both his criticism and his fiction, Pritchett was a connoisseur of the quirks of human temperament. Treglown dubs him “a performer, an anecdotalist,” and he is right—these terms are important clues to understanding the way in which Pritchett approached a character in a story or a writer under review. Treglown argues that Pritchett “watched and listened to people with the absorption of a psychologist, the opportunism of a collector, the unconditional affection of a man to whom other humans were his sole religion.” Physical and verbal gestures fascinated him. Few writers isolate the registers of mood and the quicksilver movements of the human face with such exactness: “Now a sly look came to her; it grew into a smile; the smile got wider and wider, and then her eyes became two curved lines, like crow’s wings in the sky, and she went into shouts of laughter.” From the piercing simile—”like crow’s wings in the sky”—to the way he deftly sets off each stage of the woman’s broadening smile with semicolons and conjunctions, Pritchett here fixes our eyes on a split-second moment in time.

Though his stories and essays echo with the billowing justifications of large egos, Pritchett was the least egotistical of men, which explains why he so completely vanishes into whatever it is he is writing. In his 1971 memoir, Midnight Oil, he concluded, perhaps a touch mournfully, “the professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing.” Pritchett was unfailingly modest in his assessments of himself, especially when it came to his role as a literary critic. In 1969, before a distinguished audience at Cambridge University, where he had come to deliver that year’s Clark Lectures on George Meredith, he described himself as a writer who is “neither scholar nor historian, who is not even, in the exclusive sense, a critic, who is utterly ungraduated and lives by standing at his stall in Grub Street every week.” He was the most unsystematic of critics; he simply heeded his intuition, and followed his instincts. In his method, he compared himself to the novelist and the ordinary reader, “persons of idle mind”: “Each of them goes for what interests him and what stimulates him. They would sooner skip to what they want, or ignore an issue, than miss the one or two things they are after. They put intensity of experience before all else.”

Pritchett didn’t much bother with what other critics were up to, but he objected to the “academic habit of turning literary criticism into technology.” In the two decades after World War II, when Pritchett was in his prime as a literary journalist, filling the back pages of the New Statesman each week with gems on classic literature and new fiction, he gleefully flouted every critical prohibition of his time. If the austere, close-reading priests of the New Criticism sometimes seemed to eliminate the human element from literature altogether, Pritchett reveled in the biographical fallacy. For him, the climate of a writer’s personality is always a vital indicator. On the deforming resentments of George Gissing, to take just one instance, Pritchett wrote, “No other English novelist until then had had a chip the size of Gissing’s; self-pitying, spiritless, resentful, humorless, his lucid bleat drags down his characters and his words. There is a disturbing complacency in him as he stands at the sink and tells us that life is wretched and defeating.”

Even the best critics of the last century sound dreary when compared to Pritchett, whose essays were a kind of melodrama about the writing life. He always placed a writer in a rich web of historical and economic settings before honing in on some singular, defining essence. Of Arnold Bennett, for instance, Pritchett wrote that “we speak of the disciplines of belief, of art, of the spirit; Bennett speaks of the discipline of life itself, reveres its frustrations, does not rebel against them; kneels like some pious behaviourist to the drab sight of reflexes in process of being conditioned.” On Zola, he was typically comparative: “Like Balzac, Zola is the novelist of our appetites, especially of their excess in satisfaction or nausea, but he lacks Balzac’s irony or subtlety.” On one of his favorites, we see Pritchett’s gift for aphoristic summary: “Dickens, the histrionic egotist, is the poet of egotistical soliloquy, the poet of the ham-acting inner man, pleading his own fantasies.”

A vast procession of writers strode across the pages of Pritchett’s criticism: Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Dickens, Walter Scott, Henry James, George Eliot, Samuel Richardson, George Sand, as well as his beloved Russians, Turgenev and Chekhov, and above all “those most remarkable men and women: the great novelists of the past, those who are called the standard novelists.” Deeply read in the literatures of continental Europe—he had a solid knowledge of French and Spanish—Pritchett championed the work of those passed over by the vagaries of literary fashion, such as the nineteenth-century Spanish writer Benito Pérez Galdós or the neglected Italian realist Giovanni Verga. If somewhat backward looking in his tastes, he could be penetratingly acute in his judgments of modernists like Italo Svevo and Robert Musil, and he was an early advocate of Salman Rushdie’s work.

Pritchett is funnier in his criticism than in his fiction. He had a mischievous gift for pointed barbs and droll wisecracks. Here, from an essay written in the early ’60s, he jibes at engagé writers like Graham Greene: “The revival of Henry James has taught us that writers who live passively within history may be more deeply aware of what is really going on than those who turn up in every spot where the news is breaking.” His clowning, ironic flourishes owe a great deal to his techniques as a fiction writer. He could launch off into wicked flights of parody, as he does in a hilarious review of Samuel Beckett’s trilogy:

Why was I born, get me out of this, let me live on less and less, get me to the grave, the womb, the last door, dragging this ludicrous, feeble, windy broken old bag of pipes with me. Find me a hole. Give me deafness and blindness; chop off the gangrened leg; somewhere on this rubbish dump where I crawl there must be some final dustbin, where I can dribble, laugh, cry and maunder on the this and the that of the general mystery.

Treglown rightly notes that while Pritchett’s criticism is sharply impressionistic, his riotous jumble of perceptions sometimes gets away from him. For all his gusto and wit, Pritchett couldn’t slow down long enough to pay attention to the fine details of a writer’s words. One wishes he had been more of a close reader.

Pritchett once wrote that he hoped to “catch the novelist in the throb of writing.” Reading Pritchett’s criticism, we catch him in the throb of working through his own creative dilemmas. The drama of creation consumed him, the process by which a writer is “obliged to turn his deficiencies into virtues or new discoveries.” Assessing his own critical work, in Midnight Oil, Pritchett writes, “In my criticism, perhaps even more than my stories, I am self-portrayed … In penetrating to the conflicts of authors, I have discovered and reflected on my own.” Pritchett could easily have been writing about himself in the following remark: “Some very fine artists impose themselves, but Henry Green belonged to those who masochistically seek to let their characters speak through them.” The two writers who fed Pritchett’s creative development most were Chekhov, the architect of the modern short story, and, of course, Dickens. From Chekhov, Pritchett learned the art of patient (if ironic) observation and compassion; Dicken’s influence is obvious: Ham-acting inner men (and women) are enduring types in the Pritchett landscape.

If Pritchett lived well from his writing, he never strayed too far from the lower-middle-class world of his parents, evoking it in story after story. “He didn’t gentrify his imagination an iota,” as Martin Amis put it. Although the protagonists from his late phase include a professor (“On the Edge of the Cliff”), a batty film producer (“The Last Throw”), and a well-to-do clubman (“The Skeleton,” a superb story), Pritchett’s best work is set in provincial backwaters, or shabby suburbs, and feature salesmen, shopkeepers, and working-class laborers and misfits. Gossipy neighbors whisper and bicker among themselves, while boozy pub chitchat fills the air. In “Things as They Are,” an off-duty barmaid and a regular lose themselves in glasses of gin and muse over past loves:

“I know,” said Margaret, waving her heavy bare arm. “You’d have been signing papers. He’d have stripped you. He might have murdered you like that case last Sunday in the papers. A well-to-do woman like you. The common little rat. Bringing his fleas.”
“He—was—not—common,” said Mrs. Forster, sitting upright suddenly, and her hat fell over her nose, giving her an appearance of dashing distinction.
“He was off a ship,” said Margaret.
“He was an officer.”
“He said he was an officer,” said Margaret, struggling with her corsets.

Pritchett’s interest in the run-down and the ordinary, unlike that of many of his contemporaries, was not the least bit political. Indeed, politics rarely intruded into the world of his stories. But reading closely, one can track England’s change and growth in the twentieth century, the reach of modern life into the country. In “The Wheelbarrow,” a story from the ’50s, a niece returns to her late aunt’s house to tend to her estate: “They were driving up the long hill out of the town towards her aunt’s house. Once there had been woodland here, but now, like a red hard sea flowing in to obliterate her memory, thousands of sharp villas replaced the trees in angular waves.”

In his introduction to a newly issued collection of sixteen Pritchett stories (a little too slim to warrant the description “essential” in the book’s title), Treglown deftly characterizes the author’s fictions as “verbal animations.” Take the justly praised “The Fall,” the story that most goes to the core of Pritchett, a pure expression of his kinetic bent. More painful than funny (though it abounds in comic touches), the story amply displays Pritchett’s instinctive genius for lives played out in a minor key. An accountant named Charles Peacock has come to a “large, wet, Midland city” for an annual professional dinner. He is at once a strutting show-off and a social coward:

Crowds or occasions frightened Peacock. They engaged him, at first sight, in the fundamental battle of his life: the struggle against nakedness, the panic of grabbing for clothes and becoming someone… . No one who saw Peacock in his office, in boardrooms, on committees, at meetings, knew the exhausting number of rough sketches that had to be made before the naked Peacock could become Peacock dressed for his part.

Peacock is little more than an empty shell, “the unsettled being” who compulsively checks his reflection in mirrors to confirm that he exists at all and animates himself by doing bad accents which also serve as a desperate attempt to amuse his colleagues. Peacock do the voices, but nobody wants to listen. His brother is an actor who is renowned for his stage fall, which Peacock badly apes, first to his coworkers’ delight, then to their disgust. In his misplaced theatricality, Peacock is pathetic but also a figure of pathos. Such behavior consumed Pritchett, yet he demurred in calling his characters “eccentric”: “They do not seem so to me, but very native English in that they live for projecting the fantasies of their inner, imaginative life and the energies that keep them going… . ‘normal’ people of the lower middle class—which is my country—have the characteristics I describe.”

Pritchett placed himself in what he called “the disorderly, talkative, fantasticating” tradition of comic writing. Disorderly folk populate his fictions, like Albert Thompson, the titular character of one of Pritchett’s best early stories, “The Sailor.” Adrift in London, “exhausting a genius for misdirection,” Thompson craves “hierarchy, order, payday, peace,” yet he is a jumble of contradictory impulses. Taken in by the country-living narrator to be a handyman, Thompson only rebels against the quiet orderliness of rural living. In the end, he sets off again for London, and the cycle, no doubt, starts all over again. The wayward soul, the odd fit, the uncontained personality are all hallmarks of the Pritchett universe. But for all the energetic rebellions against what he called “clock time,” Pritchett is also concerned with the inertia of daily life: “One understands how much of living is habit, a long war to which people, plants, and animals have settled down,” muses one of his narrators.

Though Pritchett was a traditionalist in his adherence to the conventions of realism, he thought himself quite up-to-date in his choice of genre. The short story, he wrote in 1982, “is the glancing form of fiction that seems to be right for the nervousness and restlessness of modern life.” Yet Pritchett was one of the most profound interpreters of novelists and the novel. Indeed, his early ambition was to write in the long form, and over the course of his life he published five novels, among them Dead Man Leading (1937), a Conradian story of a South American river journey, and Mr. Beluncle (1951, now reissued by the Modern Library), in which the title character is inspired by his father’s extravagant fantasies of self-enrichment.

* * *

Pritchett’s own father, Walter Sawdon Pritchett, fascinated and appalled him. “He is so vulgar, so boring, so destructive,” Pritchett told his friend Gerald Brenan in the early ’50s. “I must write about him quickly, turn him into cash.” He did so in several of his stories, and with vividness in his first volume of memoirs, A Cab at the Door: “At no time did he seem to belong to the city, as my mother did, but rather to float and flutter about over it, even to regard it piratically as loot.” But it is Mr. Beluncle which represents Pritchett’s most sustained artistic effort to fathom his father in all his giant appetites and manic bumptiousness.

Treglown contends that Mr. Beluncle “ranks with any novel of the mid-century,” but he is off the mark. While the wonderfully named character—an insatiable, scheming hypocrite who daydreams about fine houses and tyrannizes over his family—is pure Pritchett, the writer’s talents diffuse as he spreads them out among a horde of supporting characters—a mistress, a fanatic evangelical, and Beluncle’s nosy mother, all of whom are fine grotesques but little more. None of them rise to the level of a Charles Peacock.

Looking back on his efforts as a novelist, Pritchett admitted he was “really attracted to concision, intensity, reducing possible novels to essentials.” With his quick eye, he was perfectly suited to the coiled tightness of the short story as opposed to the gradual unfolding of the novel. Pritchett’s training as a journalist—he worked on the Christian Science Monitor as a young man in the ’20s, submitting dispatches from France and Spain—honed his mind for the critical essay and the short story, his two virtuoso forms. To Pritchett, a short-story writer was (or was supposed to be) a “mixture of reporter, aphoristic wit, moralist and poet … he is something of a ballad-maker, and in the intricacy of his design is close to the writer of sonnets. He has to catch our attention at once.”

Expert at the precisely rendered oral or physical marker, Pritchett worked in swift, suggestive strokes. Many of his openings have a strangely poetic jangle (and a few require second readings): “Eeles worshipped Lavender, Lavender worshipped Eeles but worshipped Gibbs absolutely—but what is worship? It is not to love.” Not what one would call a polished writer, Pritchett could be eccentric in his punctuation, but his off-kilter rhythms lend his stories a pungent naturalness. Take the bravura first lines of “The Camberwell Beauty,” a story about rival antique dealers: “August’s? On the Bath road? Twice-Five August—of course I knew August: ivory man. And the woman who lived with him—her name was Price. She’s dead.” In the narrator’s telegraphic cadence, one can hear the loud, cutting intonations, the defensive abrasiveness flecked with aggressive pleading.

Ranging freely from first to third person, Pritchett was a startling ventriloquist; yet reading him, one feels that he preferred to watch human beings from a distance and to let them reveal themselves subtly through banter. In the preface to the 1982 edition of his collected stories, Pritchett provides a tantalizing account of listening to a man in Dublin trying to convince a barkeep to give him a dozen oysters for free, an episode that he also used in one of his earliest stories (which, like much of his juvenilia, he later suppressed). In Pritchett’s writing, the way people talk—to their lovers, their husbands, their children, and to themselves—reveals their true character; it explains why they are dominant, or, more often the case, subservient. Though he could describe both country locales and urban settings exquisitely, Pritchett tended to focus on the dynamic of human interaction: a business partnership, an unhappy marriage, an overbearing parent’s influence on a son or daughter. Strained marriages played a big role, inspiring some of his funniest, over-the-top moments: “The Bracketts chased each other around the house, things came out of windows—clothes, boots, anything. Our roundsman [the narrator owns a bakery] said he had once seen a portable radio, playing full on, come flying out, and that it had fallen, still playing, in the roses.”

Pritchett occupied an idiosyncratic precinct in the metropolis of twentieth-century letters. If the Americans and the Irish dominated the modern short story, Pritchett brought a distinctive Englishness to the genre as he was engaged, as James Wood commented, in a “gentle literary struggle—that of broadening, Russianizing, internationalizing English comedy.” As a wildly uninhibited, free-ranging literary journalist, Pritchett, like Edmund Wilson, was one of criticism’s true internationalists. He may have, as he noted with such poignancy in Midnight Oil, spent a lifetime writing his life away and becoming almost nothing, but he left us with a shelf full of essays and stories that grow in power with every reading.

Still, Wood worried Pritchett had drifted into obscurity, while Treglown writes that “if you mention the name V.S. Pritchett today, you have to be careful to distinguish him from V.S. Naipaul, or Terry Pratchett.” One hopes Treglown’s advocacy of this remarkable, humane writer will endow Pritchett’s reputation with a newly minted—and much deserved—luster. Even so, Pritchett himself was never very anxious about where he stood, and the closing lines of Midnight Oil confirm his satisfaction with the toil of a working life: “I have done, given my circumstances and my character, what I have been able to do and I have enjoyed it.”


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