Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2226
A Careless Widow and Other Stories was published in the United States almost precisely on Sir Victor Pritchett’s eighty- ninth birthday. Pritchett’s first published story, “Rain in the Sierra,” appeared in 1926, meaning that he has been practicing this most difficult of genres for a period longer than many writers live. Graham Greene, four years Pritchett’s junior, is perhaps the only one of his contemporaries still actively writing. The fact that an author of Pritchett’s age is still producing stories is amazing enough; that the stories are lively, fresh, and genuinely contemporary seems miraculous.
Short story writers, it is often said, do not show the range of maturing and development that characterizes novelists. This generalization, whatever its validity for other writers, is essentially true for Pritchett, whose approach to the story form has changed little since the 1930’s. It was during this decade that Pritchett experimented most actively with various kinds of stories and finally hit upon both his matter and manner in “Sense of Humour,” an intense, tightly written tale of two young people whose affection for each other seems to be based on opportunism and callousness. In it one finds the sharp character delineation, ironic detachment, and paradoxical sympathy toward unsavory characters that have since become the hallmarks of Pritchett’s fiction. Since that time, Pritchett has deviated only occasionally and slightly from his method, but it is a method so flexible and adaptable that it has never degenerated into mannerism or formula. No one has ever parodied a Pritchett short story, and it seems unlikely that anyone ever will. The method is too subtle and elusive.
Pritchett, like H. G. Wells, sprang from the lower middle classes, and his fiction most often deals with people drawn from that social stratum. Perhaps for this reason, he is an author not of ideas or social criticism but of character revelation. In particular, he is fond of depicting people whose lives seem settled, incapable of disruption, and subjecting them to stresses that force the protagonists, in spite of themselves, to discover or reveal some hitherto unknown and unsuspected trait. This is seldom accomplished in the dramatic way of James Joyce’s epiphanies; rather, the revelation is slow and quiet, at times so subtle as to be almost imperceptible.
The title story illustrates this principle admirably. Lionel Frazier is a ladies’ hairdresser of late middle age. A confirmed bachelor of impeccable taste and precise habits, he is horrified to find his annual vacation interrupted by a chance encounter with the careless widow who lives in the flat below his in London. After all, he has chosen this hotel because of its proximity to solitary walks along the rocky coastline of southwestern England; the last thing he wants is the hectic, messy life of Mrs. Morris interfering with his annual escape to solitary tranquillity. Lionel’s fragmentary, detached view of his relations with others is suggested most vividly by his habit of seeing his customers as heads unconnected to trunk or limbs. Like his attachment to things and order, it is a view calculated to exclude ordinary life as far as possible, for “ordinary life always went too far.” Mrs. Morris is particularly upsetting, because her life is disordered and because she is “deep in the belief in the plural quality of the first person singular.”
There is perhaps no more telling sentence in all of Pritchett than this last remark. It is the essence of his view and his method. As he stated in a recent interview, he is fascinated by ordinary, boring talk, because through it he perceives what is barely below the surface—some unsuspected complexity. In Lionel Frazier’s case, the complexity is linked on the one hand to his late mother, whose long hair he would help comb as a boy, and on the other hand to the terrors he encounters on his solitary walks. Significantly, one of these is a formation known locally as “the coffin.” By this subtle juxtaposition, Pritchett shows that Lionel’s retreat into order is an attempt to deny both life and death, as if the process of living could be arrested by an impeccably neat apartment and a life of strict habits and emotional isolation.
The following story, “Cocky Oily,” develops much the same theme, only in this case the attempt to deny life’s messiness is forced on an adolescent girl by her father, a near-caricature of the British retired military man. Pritchett’s skill and decorum prevent the caricature from undermining the father’s credibility as a character, so that although the story progressively illustrates the silliness of his views, one never feels that the father has been set up as a straw man to be easily knocked down. Rather, the protagonist and narrator, having uncritically accepted these views, outgrows them in a fortuitous and revealing encounter with the Short family, the very neighbors whom her father most fears.
At one level, “Cocky Olly” concerns innocence and experience. The adolescent girl at the center of the story experiences in the Shorts’ free and open home an alternative to the excessively ordered and confined life of her father. This discovery, made during an indoor game of Cocky Olly (similar to hide-and-seek), changes her life radically, making her open to new people, experiences, and ideas. At the same time, the dangers of such openness are suggested in the person of Benedict Short, a boy of about her age who teeters on the edge of madness. His eccentric behavior is harmless enough in itself, but it points the way toward chaos. The tension between them is resolved at the end in another game of Cocky Olly, suggesting that freedom is at its best when there are rules to govern behavior without suppressing exuberance and spontaneity.
“A Trip to the Seaside” is one of a number of stories that Pritchett has written over the past thirty years about lonely old men. The prototype for all these characters is almost certainly Pritchett’s father, whose colossal self- delusions profoundly shaped Pritchett’s view of people. The theme of this and many of these stories is the hunger for life that persists among the elderly long after others have written them off as “on the shelf.” In this story, Alfred Morton Andrews, a retired carpet salesman, leaves London for a day’s excursion at a seaside resort. His ulterior motive is to renew acquaintance with his former secretary, for now that he is a widower, he is lonely. As Mr. Andrews’ motives emerge, along with the details of his relations with Louisa Browder, the reader’s view of him changes. What begins as distaste gradually becomes a complex sympathy for a man whose married life was soured by a jealous wife’s insinuations of infidelity. Ironically, had he been unfaithful he might not now be lonely, for it was his rejection of the secretary’s advances years before that led to their separation and her marriage to her present husband. At the end of the story, when Mr. Andrews is unceremoniously put on the London train by Louisa’s suspicious sister, the reader sees a man condemned to loneliness by jealousy and misunderstanding.
“Things” is a domestic comedy with disturbing undertones. Philip and Miranda have recently retired to a seaside bungalow, the first real home they have ever known, because Philip’s work had taken him all over the world. Domestic tranquillity is disturbed by the arrival of Miranda’s sister Rhoda, whose life has been a succession of lovers who exploited her emotionally and financially. Rhoda is the latest in a long line of Pritchett’s fantastics—people who live, as did Pritchett’s father—by their dreams. Ostensibly, Rhoda’s visit is motivated by her plan to return to England from Italy and set up an antique shop, stocked at least in part by things Miranda inherited. When it becomes clear that Miranda has no intention of parting with anything, Rhoda leaves as suddenly as she had arrived. Miranda’s assessment almost, but not quite, summarizes Rhoda’s character and the events of the story: “Miranda thinks Rhoda is like one or two of the old village people here who seem to be made of weather rather than flesh and blood. They live in their fancies and ‘seeings’, trying out their lives in the air, trying their feelings on the market, shrewdly watching the bidders.” Missing from Miranda’s insights are the disturbing implications of clues from Rhoda’s childhood. When the sisters were young, during World War II, their house was used by the military as a temporary headquarters for coastal defenses. What exactly transpired between a Captain Blake and Rhoda is never fully explained. Rhoda still maintains that he merely liked children and that their cuddling was entirely innocent. If so, however, why was Captain Blake disgraced? Perhaps Rhoda’s account of what happened is an example of fancy clouding reality; perhaps the adults involved were too eager to find child molestation where there was only affection. What effect, if any, this incident has had on Rhoda’s turbulent love life cannot be known. Pritchett is too tactful to go beyond hinting at dark Freudian events, but the questions raised suggest that Miranda’s understanding of her sister is incomplete.
In these four stories, Pritchett manages the supremely difficult task of balancing stylistic clarity with subtle suggestion. Pritchett’s prose is never murky or careless; every sentence seems distilled to its essence. In the rhythms of his prose and in the careful arrangement of episodes and dialogue lurk the clues that the reader can reassemble into a significant pattern. Perhaps “A Change of Policy” is too subtle, for while the stylistic qualities are as precise as ever, something seems missing from the events themselves that would link them into a satisfying whole. Most of the narrative is clear enough: Paula, having lost her job on a scholarly journal because of a change in policy, finds herself drifting aimlessly until George, the printer, shows up unexpectedly at her flat, takes her to dinner, and shortly thereafter propositions her. Theirs is an odd relationship, for George is candid about his wife—a woman he loves, who has been lying in a coma for two years following a stroke. Paula, in fact, had worked with her at the institute and even goes to visit her in the hospital.
Improbable as it sounds, the relationship between Paula and George seems to work: Paula feels a mysterious unity with George’s wife and son. In her role as surrogate wife and mother, she once again feels needed. At this point, however, Pritchett’s invention seems to flag, for he contrives George’s death, improbably resurrects Ethel from her coma, and unites the two women in a kind of substitute marriage, with George’s grown son as the titular head of the family. The events seem manipulated and improbable, at odds with the story’s logic.
The final story, “The Image Trade,” is almost certainly at root autobiographical, for the central character, Pearson, is an aging and eminent writer who “depended on seeing people and things as strictly they are not.” He is to be photographed by the famous Zut; having endured many sittings before, he adopts an ironically bemused attitude toward the photographer. Zut, however, is a formidable opponent, and he is neither amused nor deflected by Pearson’s attempts to subvert his art. He poses Pearson in a way that Pearson considers misleading, for he does not write “like that,” but Zut insists and the picture is taken. When it is exhibited, Pearson is outraged, for Zut has captured not Pearson’s soul but his own.
“The Image Trade” is a comic depiction of the distortions of art. Pearson knows that Zut cannot capture all of him. He is, as he assures himself, wise to Zut’s attempts to find the naked truth. What Pearson has not anticipated is that Zut will do exactly what Pearson does—depict his own soul in his ostensible subject. Behind the comic self-deprecations of this story must surely lie a truth about Pritchett the artist or at least about Pritchett’s view of himself. The artist ultimately reveals himself in all that he writes. His characters are aspects of himself. It is this knowledge that lies behind Pritchett’s enormous sympathy for his characters and that makes any artistic communication possible. For if Pritchett’s characters are within him, they are also within his readers. That is why these stories matter: They link the reader sympathetically with the unlovely, lonely, incomplete, quirky characters that Pritchett reveals in story after story.
At one point in the sitting, Pearson looks out the window. What he sees—a solitary leaf fluttering while the rest of the tree is still—is a perfect image for Pritchett himself, alert to subtleties that most people miss, the loner at the end of the branch. Pritchett has pursued this lonely, strangely communicative art for more than six decades. Though it has brought him honor and respect, it has not brought him riches or fame. He remains one of England’s best-kept literary secrets. Readers of this book, however, will discover for themselves, if they have not already done so, that this is a secret that deserves to be shared.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49
London Review of Books. XI, September 28, 1989, p.18.
National Review. XLI, November 10, 1989, p.58.
New Statesman and Society. II, August 25, 1989, p.28.
The New York Times. October 6, 1989, p. B7(N).
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, October 22, 1989, p.3.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, July 28, 1989, p.205.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, September 17, 1989, p.1.
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