A prolific essayist, critic, biographer, travel writer, and novelist, V. S. Pritchett claims in the preface to The Sense of Humour and Other Stories (1956) that short fiction is the only writing that has given him great pleasure. Considering the critical acclaim he has received for his writing in all forms, this may seem an extraordinary statement, but there is no mistaking the care and love that Pritchett lavishes on his short stories. A writer of great subtlety and precision, he crystallizes each story to its essentials and polishes each phrase until the words gleam like precious stones. The result is writing of the utmost lucidity and economy, yet paradoxically of denseness and gravity as each word carries its full weight of significance. This tension between surface lightness and underlying complexity is perhaps responsible for the widely varying critical assessments of Pritchett’s work. Dismissed by some critics as an entertainer, he has been praised by Walter Allen (The Short Story in English, 1981) as the finest British writer of stories since D. H. Lawrence. There are similar dichotomies in the characters about which he writes and the world they inhabit. Typically, his men and women are drawn from the lower strata of the middle classes: clerks, shopkeepers, housewives, pensioners, commercial travelers. They are at first glance ordinary and unremarkable, but beneath their mundane exteriors, nearly all of them are eccentric, slightly obsessed, a bit crazy. Similarly, the world in which they move is the workaday one of ordinary objects described in exact particularity. Suburban bungalows, London apartments, parks, city streets, shops, and gardens are delineated with a naturalist’s precision and objectivity, yet there lurks at the heart of things a seediness and decay that betrays their outward appearance. These dualities result in stories that are at once conventional and entertaining, yet bizarre and deeply disturbing. Like his compatriot H. E. Bates, Pritchett believes that the short story more than the novel is the ideal literary form for the nervous and fractured twentieth century, and while his stories are somewhat limited in scope, it is easy to see why Pritchett feels as he does, for his short fiction offers a report on modern life that is both disturbing and heartening.
These qualities are visible throughout Collected Stories but difficult to illustrate, for Pritchett’s narratives defy summary and brief analysis, so complex and intricate are their inner workings. A tale like “The Diver,” for example, seems at first glance an ironic and amusing look at a young Englishman in Paris between the world wars. In a city that appears to him designed for sex, he maintains an embarrassing virginity, and while his ambition is to become a writer, he can formulate stories only in his head and then exclusively in French. Virginity and inarticulateness disappear finally in the company of the previously intimidating Mme. Chamson, to whom he tells a fantastic and violent lie about his first encounter with a naked woman, the wife of a shopkeeper he claims to have found strangled in her bed. Innocence, violence, danger, and lust unite in illicit passion, Mme. Chamson calling out, “Kill me. Kill me,” as she draws the young man to her. The story has the structure of an elaborate joke, but its real subject is less the seduction of a young man than his discoveries regarding sex, power, and language. The youth creates Paris from the language he uses to describe it as surely as he conjures a fictitious self for Mme. Chamson to seduce. Out of language comes not only perception but also power, for as a young man with a past, he suddenly becomes a person of consequence, no longer the object of pity and ridicule. More contemporary in theme and mode is “The Lady from Guatemala,” which features the editor of an influential newspaper, Julian Drood, who relates only to humanitarian issues and people in abstract masses and cannot connect with individuals. The lady from Guatemala is an ugly, stumpy poetess who follows him from city to city as he lectures, writing him poems, idolizing his bogus compassion, driving him nearly to despair by forcing him to...
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