V. S. Pritchett Essay - Pritchett, V(ictor) S(awden) (Vol. 5)

Pritchett, V(ictor) S(awden) (Vol. 5)

Pritchett, V(ictor) S(awden) 1900–

Pritchett is a British novelist, short story writer, literary critic, travel writer, autobiographer, and man of letters. In his beautifully written, very "English" prose, Pritchett exhibits a Dickensian eye for detail and a fine sense of humor. Walter Allen, noting Pritchett's "unerring instinct for idiosyncrasy that reveals character," calls him "the complete master" of the short story form.

A Cab at the Door [is] the best 250-odd pages of autobiographical writing that I know of by a living author. What makes it so good is that Pritchett is, first of all, a master of the natural, direct style. As with Thoreau or Shaw, open any page and you are immediately in touch with the man. Or, as Pritchett has said of E. M. Forster, when he begins to speak the machine stops.

A Cab at the Door is written with plenty of candor, but it is also written with something even better, which is artistic tact. Reversing the customary procedure in contemporary autobiography, Pritchett places at the center of his memoir a solid and deliciously detailed commentary on lower-middle-class English life in the first two decades of the century, based on his family, educational, and early business experience; meanwhile he modestly lays around the rim the account of his own troubled development as a person and of his inchoate intentions as an artist.

The effect is a beautifully sustained priority of interests in which the depiction of concrete social conditions and forces, of manners and mores, stands by itself as a portrait of an age and a class, while serving as the ground that outlines the formation of his character. This not only places the emphasis where most readers would wish to see it—on the way things were rather than how they felt, on the individual life seen less through its accidents than as common experience—but also enables Pritchett, both as writer and as subject, to exist naturally and unselfconsciously among his interests and feelings. The result is a splendid montage of persons and places fixed in their individual being, casting their representative light, and suggesting the evolving personality of the author through his relations to them. By this kind of artistic strategy, mediating deftly between figure and ground, an autobiography turns into a life. (p. 285)

Theodore Solotaroff, "Autobiography as Art" (1968), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on Writing in the Sixties (copyright © 1968, 1970 by Theodore Solotaroff; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1970, pp. 284-90.

A writer, V. S. Pritchett once explained, "is at the very least two persons. He is the prosing man at his desk and a sort of valet who dogs him and does the living." Few literary lives so genially and thriftily illustrate this peculiar symbiotic relationship as that of Victor Sawdon Pritchett. Two volumes of peerless memoirs (A Cab at the Door [and] Midnight Oil) chronicle his evolution from a shy, working-class English youth (born 1900) to eminence as an international man of letters: renowned lecturer, editor and critic. Pritchett's stories, meanwhile, regularly throb with the same grotesque scenes and sensuous memories as his life, recollected with a comic clarity and shrewd indulgence.

[The Camberwell Beauty] is mainly [a collection of] love stories, and in it life and letters support each other like an accomplished husband and wife team telling a family anecdote….

Pritchett admits he is mainly interested in the spectacle of people "floundering amid their own words, and performing strange strokes as they swim about with no visible shore in their own lives." Yet he is a romantic, a coup de foudre man for whom love strikes like a thunderbolt in the most preposterous ways. Still, it can produce instant chills and fever, practically as long as body draws breath or soul shudders at engulfing loneliness. (pp. E8-108)

Love stories! In the age of Alex Comfort and physical passion catered to almost as a culinary art? Yes, indeed. How does Pritchett do it? With a sharp eye, a fond heart and a lifetime's evidence that whatever silky Venus may insinuate, The Joy of Sex is not what Cupid had in mind at all. (p. 108)

Timothy Foote, "Venus Observed," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), September 16, 1974, pp. E8-108.

Mr Pritchett fashions his stories with the same care as other men collect ferns or the rarer kinds of mollusc, warming them and drying them with his sighs. There is a capacious lugubriousness about The Camberwell Beauty…. Public secrets and private lies can find their ecological niche without discomfort in Pritchett's easy and assured style, a style that is so central to our tradition that it seems transparent, letting tiny objects and tiny people wink and gleam through. (p. 470)

Mr Pritchett creates his fictions in the form we most easily recognise and with the tone we most appreciate—neither high nor low, neither complex nor simple, neither too long nor too short. Recognisable human figures imitate words and actions in a recognisable landscape, and generally represent those sexual and personal bonds which are supposed to bring certain people together and keep others, alas, apart. The heights of the nineteenth century novel have been flattened until they leave only the barest traces, and we are regaled instead with comfortable entertainments which take us beyond ourselves—and into the warm, well lit, if somewhat cramped, purlieus of the suburban soul. (pp. 470-71)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 12, 1974.

The pleasure [Pritchett] takes in writing translates itself into the pleasure one takes in reading him—the opportunity to acquaint oneself with a temperament that is humane, an intelligence that is acute and a technique that is masterly.

He has a supernal responsiveness to the eccentricity of ordinary life. Never conceiving of the story as a form of disguised autobiography or confession, he is never present as himself….

Pritchett has a preternaturally sharp eye and ear, alert to the nuances of speech and behavior out of which the stories effortlessly, persuasively, naturally seem to arise….

Clever he prodigiously is, but that is the least of it, measured against the empathy and unnerving understanding that reveals itself in every story, whether in the third or first person. (p. 22)

William Abrahams, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 19, 1974.

V. S. Pritchett has turned a deft hand to the novel, to criticism, and even to travel writing, but he always outdoes himself in the short story. Few have mastered the form; even fewer can display the irony and balance evident in [The Camberwell Beauty, and Other Stories].

Pritchett's forte is creating eccentric characters and peculiar situations….

Each of these nine stories is about the feelings and forces, exquisitely mixed, that bind men and women: exasperation, contempt, intrigue, lust. There is a hint of the old codger in Pritchett's tone, and his vision of women is not an altogether happy one: they are wistful virgins or bossy mothers, bores, deadly enchantresses, nitpickers. They encounter, rather than interact with, men. When they are young, they become infatuated ("The Lady From Guatemala"); when they are old, as in "The Spree," men are for them just ships that pass in the night. In Pritchett's stories, nothing is ever quite resolved; indeed, having come full circle, his situations seem to dissolve at the very place where they began. Yet, finally, there is a sense that you have come face to face with what is abrupt and unexpected in life, a pleasure that lingers long after you have put the book down. (pp. 28-9)

Susan Heath, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 19, 1974.

Pritchett is a romantic writer in the simplest sense—he writes about love in its happiest aspects, and especially well about the process of falling in love. No one could fail to find his stories [in The Camberwell Beauty and Other Stories] poetic and touching, but I confess that I am not deeply stirred by them. His world is too uncomplicated; in the end almost everyone gets off the hook …; every problem seems to vanish. His women are charming objects, but they are nearly all too fey, and the stories come near to a description. This is the best account I have read of the secret obsessions of antique dealers, obsessions in this case so powerful that they transform everything, including human beings, into antique objects of virtu: thus the dealer's pale and childlike wife, the Camberwell beauty herself, is metamorphosed into a strange mechanical doll blowing a bugle. Perhaps this is analogous to what Pritchett is doing in his fiction: he turns his characters and their surroundings into charming artifacts, the kind of antiques that I admire through a window, but do not want to make part of my life. (p. 32)

Matthew Hodgart, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), March 20, 1975.

Not many authors can have documented their own progress from small boy to Elder New Statesman of literature more completely and delightfully than Pritchett. Almost everything he writes stems from and refers to his family and childhood—his endearingly dotty father, man of strong principles and weak judgments, his scatty, 'put upon' mother, and himself, the young Vic, inheriting his father's skills and energy but transforming them into a craftsmanship that called for the raw material of words, not wood, cloth, leather or ledgers. Wary of his father's cloudy romanticism and absurd aspirations, and therefore in his own work distrustful of dogma, he is always down to earth even when he indulges in fancy. He never divorces sense from sensibility. (p. 5)

New surroundings [he moved to France in 1920] and, above all, a new language intensified Pritchett's almost physical passion for words. It is not an aesthete's infatuation. He is the least precious of writers. He searches not for the rare, the exotic, word, but for the mot juste…. As he walked through the streets of Paris, relishing the new words spoken and displayed around him, he repeated the names of shops: quincaillerie, boulangerie, bouquiniste. 'Language and the sound of words had been my obsession from childhood; the pursed or the open subtlety of French vowels, the nasal endings, the tongue slipping along over silk and metal, the juiciness of the subjunctive, made my own lips restless.' I defy anyone to read that passage without wanting to be transported immediately to a French café and hear those sounds coming at him from every side. Words to Pritchett are tangible, like fabrics. Better still, you can taste them, savour them, like fruit. He is describing accurately, not just with enthusiasm and hyperbole; all those sibilant subjunctives, fusse, eusse, puisse, really do sound juicy, as if they were ripe figs from which double s after double s dribble down the speaker's chin. That was the inspiration (though I am sure Pritchett himself would consider it too grand a word) behind the first pieces he succeeded in getting published—evocative essays in local colour, describing his room in Paris, the bugle at the Champ de Mars and a neighbour's groans. (p. 7)

The best of Pritchett's reviews and criticisms are as enthralling as his short stories. Nothing is either a priori or ex cathedra. He applies no apparatus of preconceived theory. He is to literary criticism what Locke, Hume and Butler were to British philosophy. He observes and describes, simplifies and sympathizes, and finally illuminates by a combination of common sense and brilliant insight. He is excellent—of course—on the French, especially Balzac, Flaubert and Maupassant, from whom he himself had learned 'a sense of the importance of the way things are done, a thrift of the mind'. He has a deep understanding, too, of the Russians, although I can detect no close link between their writings and his. Above all, he has the knack of helping the common reader (e.g. me, from the time when I began reading his articles in the New Statesman nearly forty years ago) to clarify apparent obscurities and discrepancies in an author's work. (p. 10)

Pritchett's own novels are not in the same class as his stories and essays. His stories stay live and demand to be reread. The novels, on the other hand, although they hold you as you read them, relax their grip afterwards and do not ask to be given a second reading. They are genre paintings, flat canvases, static and fixed in their frames, however good the brushwork, however bright the colours. (pp. 10-11)

One's disappointment that the novels have never lived up to Pritchett's other achievements is mitigated by A Cab at the Door (1968) and Midnight Oil (1971). What could he have done in a novel that he hasn't succeeded in doing in these most memorable memoirs? Here are place, plot and people to satisfy the greediest novel-reader. The people, originals of so many of the characters in the stories and novels, are as colourful a gallery of eccentrics as any in fiction…. (p. 12)

John Mellors, "V. S. Pritchett: Man on the Other Side of a Frontier," in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1975), Aprill May, 1975, pp. 5-13.

Asked a few years back to comment on his work, V. S. Pritchett, equally distinguished as a writer of fiction, criticism, essays, biography and travel, confessed to valuing his short stories most. It is not surprising. His marriage to the genre—for it he abandoned even the novel—has been going on for nearly fifty years, and The Camberwell Beauty and Other Stories, the ninth collection to date, shows not only how valuable but how happy and durable the marriage has been.

Like the scores of other stories in his previous collections, those in The Camberwell Beauty—even the few that run a trifle thin—bear the unmistakable mark of Pritchett, a man with a gift for ironic comedy, humane, and endowed with an economical, colloquial style. Pritchett's rhetoric is as good as his sources. Should he happen to waver in invention, he can fall back on his native canniness …, should mother-wit fail, he can buoy up the story with the handy flotsam of detail …; and should all miscarry—as seldom happens—Pritchett saves all with scalpel-sharp incisions into character….

Even when a Pritchett story does not altogether work either as a tidy fictional bundle or as a slice of life, it is generally amusing and instructive. But when all the elements of Pritchett's alchemy are working, he turns the mundane and the eccentric, the normal and the bizarre into something magical. To my way of thinking this happens twice in The Camberwell Beauty: once in the title story (perhaps because it is the longest), and again in "The Lady from Guatemala." (p. 570)

Robert K. Morris, "He Thinks People Are Human," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 10, 1975, pp. 570-72.