V. S. Pritchett has had a prolific and distinguished career as a travel writer, novelist, biographer, memoirist, short-story writer, reviewer, and essayist. He has been most highly praised as a composer of short stories and as a literary critic. His stories describe the lives of everyday people subjected to surprising disruptions that show how little they know about their own desires. Seven of his short fiction collections were recently gathered in a 1,232-page tome, Complete Collected Stories(1991).
Complete Collected Essays is a companion volume. Equally massive, it includes 203 essays of literary interpretation that originally appeared in eight works: In My Good Books (1942), The Living Novel and Later Appreciations (1946), Books in General (1953), The Working Novelist(1965), The Myth Makers: Literary Essays (1979), The Tale Bearers: Literary Essays (1980), A Man of Letters (1985), and Lasting Impressions(1990). This definitive collection of one of the English-speaking world’s most distinguished contemporary critics covers English, American, European, and Latin American texts and ranges in time from such eighteenth century writers as Edward Gibbon and Samuel Richardson to modernist authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, Bruce Chatwin, and Salman Rushdie.
Pritchett’s essays concentrate on a writer’s life, era, and works. A shrewd and adroit psychologist who is intensely curious about people, he is quick-eyed, precise, pragmatic, vital, blunt, and generous. He disdains psychoanalytic clichés and elaborate critical methodology. He is remarkably free of jargon, witty, and informal in his tone, thereby dissociating himself from the most influential critical vogues of his time: the New Criticism and the French-led schools of structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction. Nor does he invoke the perspectives of Marxism, Freudianism, or any other dogma. In his urbane and chatty manner, he resembles such nineteenth century literary essayists as William Hazlitt and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, demonstrating that discussion of literature can be pleasurable and stimulating in the manner of sparkling conversation. His nearest American peers are probably Edward Wilson and Gore Vidal, but Pritchett avoids their granitic egotism and score-settling malice.
As himself a writer of fiction, Pritchett approaches his subjects with the sympathy of a fellow toiler. He knows how to convey a narrative synopsis and a sense of character with remarkable encapsulating skill. Describing Benjamin Constant’s confessional novel Adolphe (1816), he talks about the difficulty of dispelling the author’s ghost while reading his work, of life laying its subversive hands on fiction. This book, he states, is “as melodiously and mathematically clear as the phrases of a Mozart quartet.” He pictures a copiously weeping Constant beating his literary omelette so that his wives and mistresses could not unmistakably identify themselves with the characters. Pritchett does not particularly like Constant, deploring his morbidity, narcissism, emotional fatigue, and general weakness of will, yet he is fair-minded enough to admireAdolphe as a great treatment of the intellectual who creates love out of his head only to discover that his heart embraces emotional enslavement.
In an essay on Émile Zola’s Germinal (1885), Pritchett notes important distinctions between English and European novelists. Such authors as Charles Dickens are emotional about characters but averse to ideas about society. English nineteenth century writers were amazingly indifferent to the political and scientific thoughts of their time. Not so French novelists. Zola knew his Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, Pierre Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, the struggle for life and the struggles between classes. He had the temperament, will, and curiosity to write the great working-class novel Germinal. Moreover, adds Pritchett, Zola was free of the fallacy that people who are starved and oppressed are good and noble simply because they are starved and oppressed. His preoccupation with human corruption and its resulting nightmares shows that poverty can lead to degradation, that souls do become exhausted, and that people can form bestial and brutal mobs. Pritchett paints a vivid picture of Zola as a timid and plump bourgeois, fussing with pencil and paper as he documented the lives of miners for six months before writing his book. Zola’s forti- fiying and melodramatic imagination, however, far transcends his powers of factual observation. His belief in the presence of evil in all humans enabled him to make the central labor leader, Étienne, not only an ideologue but also a completely realized person, not only a self-serving exploiter of the miners but also an idealist who, though he does sacrifice the workers’ welfare, seeks to lead them to their socioeconomic emancipation.
Pritchett takes Nikolai Gogol’s unfinished Dead Souls (1842) as a...
(The entire section is 2063 words.)