My mother was, no doubt, quoting someone else, but she always used to say “Writers aren’t writers because they’ve chosen to be; writers are writers because that’s just the kind of people they are.” It’s certainly the kind of person V.S. Pritchett was. He loved where he lived and loved traveling, loved his family and his private life and loved the people and strangers he met in passing, and effortlessly shared both the intimate details of this person or that place, and the larger view of how people behave under the influence of whatever culture or environment they’re a part of at the time – a war-torn country, the Amazon rain forest, provincial antique shops, a tavern at midday, suburban gardens. Pritchett had the Europeans’ advantage of an appreciation of the scale of history. When he speaks of Spain, for instance, his writing is informed by his familiarity with ‘Don Quixote’, Goya, the Spanish Civil War, and the centuries that span those subjects. His view of America, from Appalachian craftsmen in 1925 to Saul Bellow’s ‘Humboldt’s Gift’, is always tempered by the initial Puritan ethic instilled in the settlement and founding of the country, and our attempts (both futile and successful) to move past it in our subsequent expansion. Of Great Britain, and the British, he’s preternaturally aware of all that is stuffy, snooty, bawdy, eccentric, exacting, hidebound, charming, effusive, likeable and unlikeable about his fellow countrymen, and the astounding varieties of individuals who reside there, all placed in the larger context of the undeniable truth of human nature overall. He never parades, or draws attention to, his own knowledge or social incisiveness, but it’s all there, informing every phrase, woven into the fabric of some of the most humored, generous, eloquent, and artful prose ever composed.
He’d been a voracious reader when young; apprenticed to the leather trade as a teenager, he soon fled, after coming of age, to Paris, to write. He started out as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor (his father, incidentally, had been a Christian Scientist himself), and traveled to Ireland and Spain as part of his assignments. His later travel writings included the Appalachians, New York, and South America, but his travels to Spain were the standard that set the tone for his travel chronicles. The enormous affection he had for that country, its people and its culture is evident in essays like ‘Marching Spain’ (1928), ‘The Spanish Temper’ (1954), ‘Foreign Faces’ (1964), and his short story ‘The Evils Of Spain’ (1938). In the late 1920’s, he returned to England and started writing fiction. His first successes were short stories – his early novels weren’t initially successful. He continued writing essays, novels, and literary criticism – unpredictably, his own memoirs were probably the most lucrative – but he is most revered, presently, for producing some of the finest short stories ever written.
Pritchett’s output was massive. There are 10 or 12 short story collections alone, as well as biographies, literary criticism, travel collections, novels and memoirs. The Pritchett Century (Modern Library, 1997) is a 700-page brick of a book that presents an enormously satisfying representative sampling of his prodigious oeuvre.
It starts out with an essay he wrote in 1980, aptly titled ‘As Old As The Century’. Having been born in December, 1900, he, indeed, acknowledged this fact to himself at his every birthday. On turning 80, he’s alternately grateful for his career and mindful of the vagaries of human nature that informed it:
“As our tongues wag and our metaphors mix we turn into actors on our conspicuous stage. We are good at pretending to be modest; we refuse to acknowledge we are ever in the wrong or incompetent. A brisk eighty-year-old electrician came to do a job at my house six years ago and serenely drove his drill clean through a hidden water pipe I had warned him of. He turned accusingly on me as the water spouted all over us. Like all us oldies he congratulated himself and boasted he had never done such a thing to a water pipe. He and I still greet each other as we rush by in the street, equals in conceit and folly, and say how young we feel.”
‘A Cab At The Door’ relates tales of Pritchett’s early adolescence, and the misadventures of his loving but entrepreneurially inept father, who moved them from town to town a step ahead of lawyers and creditors. ‘Midnight Oil’ describes his early days in Paris, working a day job at a photographic printer’s plant while fostering his embryonic writing career. His first success, like most, is bittersweet:
“I read and reread this article again and again and then, as happens to writers, I was impatient with it and disliked it. I had my first experience of the depression and sense of nothingness that comes when a piece of work is done. The satisfaction is in the act itself; when it is over there is relief, but the satisfaction is gone. After fifty years I still find this to be so and that with every piece of new writing I have to make that terrifying break with my real life and learn to write again, from the beginning.”
The travel essays begin with ‘The Appalachian Mountains’, and he’s insistent on describing the scale and majesty of the natural surroundings before contrasting it sharply with the modesty and austerity of the region’s inhabitants:
“The hills were at times huddled like sheep, at times scattered and grouped like herds. The sunlight was golden on them, the gold of laden furnaces, but the deep shades sunken between the ridges had the winding, varying blue of turf smoke. The processional hills trended back and down and away; new ones came before old ones had been grasped or regretted. I wished for the power of a King to halt them; and for the gifted hands of a poet to grasp them and pull them into myself. For a mountain is something high and blue within one.”
‘Marching Spain’ chronicles his first travels in that country, ‘marching’, hiking, walking from town to town, and the people he meets along the way. ‘The Spanish Temper’ describes further, later travels, including an appreciation of the Prado, and the artistic kinship he shares with its artists:
“I am not an art critic, but since I live chiefly by the eye, I get more pleasure out of painting and sculpture than any other arts. I have a purely literary point of view; that is to say, when I see a picture I find myself turning it into writing about human nature, habits of mind, the delight of the senses – all that is meant to me by “the pride of life.” As one looks at the paintings of the Spanish, sombre as so many of them are whether they are earthly or religious, one sees what a great volume of emotion these minutely watched figures contain.”
In the excerpt from ‘Dublin: A Portrait,’ Pritchett relates his visit during the 1965 commemoration of the Easter Rising, and the refurbishment of Kilmainham Jail as “a sort of national shrine.” ‘London’ is an appreciation of his home, as detailed, deprecating and ironic a tour as only someone who loves the city That Much could conduct. ‘Amazonia’ describes the almost unfathomable distances one might traverse along the Amazon, and simultaneously celebrates and laments how modernity will accelerate its transformation into…what? “All travelers to South America are staggered by its wealth and its prospects. They are overcome by its beauty. We have had the incredible luck to see a continent at the moment of its awakening.”
The real treasure here, of course is the short stories. It’s hard to describe them simply in terms of plot or character. Pritchett’s real gift is giving us a sense of the histories of the personalities, places and events without overtly explaining it. Like the best writers, he uses the circumstances of the stories to show us, rather than tell us, what’s really going on. ‘A Sense Of Humour’ starts with a chance meeting of a traveling salesman and a comely desk clerk on a rainy night in an empty provincial hotel. Their burgeoning relationship is complicated by a seemingly ubiquitous rival for her affections. But there’s no “will they or won’t they”, no direct conflict or examinations of level of commitment, no second thoughts. Things simply develop organically based on who these three people are in the time and place they’re a part of. Despite the singular series of events that transpire, and the complex behaviors that result, it’s hard to imagine that each thing could have happened differently – the basic truths of who they are in relation to the story is relentless, unyielding. ‘The Evils Of Spain’ describes a tavern dinner among friends and acquaintances, but the richness of each character and the celebration of their common humanity is fascinating. A sample:
“Fernando was a man who waited for silence and his hour. Once getting possession of the conversation he never let go, but held it in the long, soothing ecstasy of a pliable embrace. All day long he lay in bed in his room in Fuencarral with the shutters closed, recovering from the bout of the day before. He was preparing himself to appear in the evening, spruce, grey-haired, and meaty under the deep black crescents of his eyebrows, his cheeks ripening like plums as the evening advanced, his blue eyes which got bloodshot early, becoming mistier. He was a man who ripened and moistened. He talked his way through dinner into the night, his voice loosening, his eyes misting, his walk becoming slower and stealthier, acting every sentence, as if he were swaying through the exalted phase of inebriation. But it was an inebriation purely verbal; an exaltation of dramatic moments, refinements upon situations; and hour after hour passed until the dawn found him sodden in his own anecdotes, like a fruit in rum”.
‘Things As They Are’ is an everyday conversation between two middle-class women in a bar at midday. ‘When My Girl Comes Home’ relates the return of a local-girl-made-good; but is that the truth of it? Where does her honesty leave off and the credulity of the townspeople start? And how much of it is genuinely important to any of them?
My own favorite is ‘The Camberwell Beauty’, a tale of antique dealers – suspicious, competitive, conniving, but not at all as bad as that – and a mysterious girl that effects a seismic shift in the values and affections of two of them. ‘Did You Invite Me?’ is almost more about the dogs the characters own than about the characters themselves. ‘The Marvelous Girl’ is a short tale of coincidence, love-at-first-sight and l’amour fou. ‘The Image Trade’ uses autobiographical bits of Pritchett’s own habits to create a milieu for an eccentric photographer and his put-upon wife / assistant. After viewing the results at a gallery, he concludes that “… a mysterious accident of art had portrayed his soul instead of mine.”
This small sampling of his stories is incredibly dense and involving. I’ve read most of them twice now, and still feel like I’ve only scratched their surfaces. The novelist Reynolds Price is quoted in the introduction to the collection: “An extended view of his short fiction reveals a chameleonic power of invention, sympathy and selfless transformation that sends one back as far as Chekhov for a near-parallel”.
The collection concludes with excerpts from his literary criticism; his admiration for his fellow writers is obvious, even when he upbraids particular examples of their work. Ivan Turgenev is a huge, brilliant dork, held under the sway of his imperious mother. Pritchett describes his infatuation for the noted singer of the day, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, as both slapstick comedy and unrequited tragedy. But the work?:
“Turgenev is the poet of spring who eludes the exhausting decisions and fulfillments of summer and finds in the autumn a second and safer spring. He is the novelist of the moments after meetings and of the moments before partings. He watches the young heart rise the first time. He watches it fall, winged, to the common distorted lot. The young and the old are his fullest characters: the homecoming and death of Bazarov and the mourning of his parents are among the truest and most moving things in literature… Looking back over the novels, one cannot remember any falsified character.”
On Mark Twain:
“Out of the mess which Twain made of his life, amid the awful pile of tripe which he wrote, there does rise one book which has the serenity of a thing of genius. ‘Huckleberry Finn’ takes the breath away.”
On Samuel Richardson:
“That a man like Samuel Richardson should write one of the great European novels is one of those humiliating frolics in the incidence of genius. The smug, juicy, pedestrian little printer from Derbyshire, more or less unlettered, sits down at the age of 50 and instructs young girls in the art of managing their virtue to the best advantage. Yet, ridiculous as ‘Pamela’ is, her creator disarms criticism by a totally new ingredient in the novel: he knows how to make the reader weep. And, stung by the taunts of the educated writers of his time, Richardson calmly rises far above ‘Pamela’ when he comes to the story of Clarissa Harlowe; he sets the whole continent weeping.”
On Sir Walter Scott:
“We read Scott in our childhood and he is not suitable reading for children; few of the great novelists are. Why should a man, writing in his maturity, scarred by life, marked by the evils of the world, its passion and its experiences in his blood, be consigned to the young who know nothing of themselves or the world? The fault is partly Scott’s: this great man, the single Shakespearean talent of the English novel, drew far too often the heroes and heroines which have always appealed to the adolescent and gently reared reader – wooden idealizations, projections of our more refined, sixteen-year-old wishes. At sixteen we are in love with those sexless heroines with their awful school-mistressy speeches. We are in love with those stick-in-the-mud heroes whose disinterestedness and honour pervert the minds of boys with a tedious and delusive idealism. One grows up in the daydream that Scott has generated to discover it is a swindle; and one never forgives him”.
On the humorist S.J. Perelman:
“…Perelman is not an understater who suddenly throws out an almost spiritual blossom. He drops ash into the dessert. Perelman either grew up with burlesque or soon got caught up in it. Immediate action is his need. An idea has to seize him… One gets the impression that English humorists snub the commercials, whereas an American like Perelman regards them as part of the general awful meal that makes us what we don’t want other people to be.”
On Charles Dickens:
“To me it is a perversion of criticism to suggest that you can have the virtues of a writer without his vices, and the discovery of Dickens’s failures does not make his achievement less. I swallow Dickens whole and put up with the indigestion.”
The breadth and depth of Pritchett’s writing is endlessly fascinating. Reading it is like carrying on a conversation with the smartest, most charitable raconteur you could imagine. And he’ll even buy the next round, though he’s got to get home soon to the wife and kids. This is a book you can probably pull out once a year and find entirely new things in every essay, every story, on every page. I suspect that’s what I’ll be doing, even as pages detach from the binding from overuse. He’s one of the best writers I’ve ever run across, and I’m keeping him around from now on.