Lasting Impression

V.S. Pritchett, who likes to describe himself as being “as old as the century,” is a living anachronism—a self-taught generalist and humanist in an age of credentialed, specialized theorists. Ostensibly written as book reviews, usually of biographical or critical studies of the authors who form their subjects, these are really informal essays, almost ruminations. In most cases, readers will have to consult the bibliography at the end of the book to learn what book is purportedly under review. No matter. The occasion for the essay is far less interesting than what Pritchett has to say, which is unfailingly insightful, thought-provoking, and informative. Pritchett calls himself a literary traveler and explorer: The description fits, for he takes us to an astonishing variety of places and returns with provocative reports that makes us want to travel ourselves. This is literary journalism raised to a fine art.

Pritchett’s range is enormous. The twenty-seven essays collected here treat subjects as various as Sholem Aleichem, Alexander von Humboldt, G.B. Shaw, and P.G. Wodehouse. Every reader will encounter unfamiliar names and unread books, but such is the quality of Pritchett’s prose that it hardly seems to matter. Like Pritchett’s inimitable short stories, these essays are written in a swift, athletic prose. No motion is wasted; nothing is done for the sake of show. The verbal and mental pyrotechnics come from intellectual originality and a profound respect for the language. Of Shaw, he says: “He has a manic capacity for endless self-perpetuation as a public fantasy"; of P.G. Wodehouse and those who criticize his world as escapist: “The kingdoms of fantasy and mirth are long-lasting and not of this world; and their inhabitants make circles round our respectable angers.”

Pritchett is not a systematic or analytical critic. His forte is not close analysis or literary theory but informed appreciation. He understands as only a writer can what each author is trying to do. He sees the writer and the work together; history and context for him are never merely background. All this imparts an old fashioned air to Pritchett’s criticism, for he writes as if books and ideas genuinely matter and really touch on everyday life.

LASTING IMPRESSIONS is a book to be sampled and savored, read and re-read.