Complete Collected Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Is it possible that, at age ninety, V. S. Pritchett will finally get his due as one of England’s greatest short-story writers? Certainly reviewers have done their part: commentators as various and distinguished as Margaret Drabble, Frank Kermode, Irving Howe, and Paul Theroux have exhausted their collective store of superlatives in praising his stories. Both The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books devoted long, thoughtful encomiums to his latest volume. Even Pritchett’s publishers have ignored the conventional wisdom about volumes of short stories and essays and have actively promoted Pritchett’s work. Such attention for a writer whose forte is the short story and not the novel is almost unprecedented in publishing history.

Complete Collected Stories brings together the contents of all of Pritchett’s previous volumes except The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories (1930). Sir Victor (he was knighted in 1975) has consistently repudiated this first child of his imagination as unworthy of standing beside his later offspring. Understandable as his attitude may be, he thereby does a disservice to those readers who relish the opportunity this volume provides to follow the writer’s career in the short story as it has developed over more than sixty years. The stylistic uncertainties of those early stories have charms of their own, and there is a dramatic intensity in some of them that Pritchett rarely duplicated in his mature work.

Nevertheless, Pritchett is memorable for the variety and vitality of his characters. Plot in the loose sense may underlie his stories, but characters dominate. Frank O’Connor’s dictum that the short story deals with those on the margins of society applies perfectly to Pritchett’s creations, for even if by social standing and occupation they are part of the mainstream, there is always something quirky and individual about them, something that puts them on the fringe.

Theorists of the short-story genre have sometimes claimed that story writers do not develop and mature as novelists do. Certainly there are accomplished writers of the short story—Rudyard Kipling, Saki, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ring Lardner come to mind—of whom this may be fairly said. Yet it may be that the brevity of the form and the accompanying economies of narration and style do not preclude growth and development so much as make it more subtle and hard to detect. Moreover, like any author, the short-story writer deals in only a handful of themes, and since these focus almost exclusively on people rather than social institutions, there is bound to be an underlying sameness to an author’s collected work. Nevertheless, Complete Collected Stories offers careful readers the opportunity to monitor the development of Pritchett’s art.

The first four stories in this collection demonstrate Pritchett’s early experiments, successful and unsuccessful, “Sense of Humour” is his first fully characteristic and entirely successful story. On one level, it is a simple boy-meets-girl affair, the tale of a courtship between a traveling salesman and a hotel clerk who describes herself as having a sense of humor. Not surprisingly, there is a rival for Muriel’s affections, the tenacious Colin, who dogs the couple’s courtship by following their every move on his motorcycle. Except for the scrupulous economy of Pritchett’s style and the almost abrasive ordinariness of the dialogue, this is the stuff of women’s magazine fiction— until Colin is killed and Muriel’s undertaker father is entrusted with funeral arrangements. Colin’s untimely death leads Muriel prematurely into the narrator’s bed: grief, guilt, sympathy, and sex are inextricably muddled, just as the resulting arrangements for Colin’s funeral are a mixture of convenience, economy, and a decent respect for the dead. This is pure Pritchett comedy, at once searching and sympathetic, tender and ironic.

The other three stories are less characteristic and successful. “A Spring Morning” depicts two teenagers in exuberant horseplay, with barely submerged sexual undertones, atypically Freudian in its psychology. “Main Road” is a 1930’s-style proletarian piece about two starving drifters looking for work but finding crime instead. It prefigures Pritchett’s novel Dead Man Leading (1937) both in its motif of the starving wanderers and in its desperate emotional intensity, but it represents more a blind alley than a harbinger of things to come. Finally, “The Evils of Spain” is a sketch in every sense of the word, as its characters are barely realized and its theme elusive at best. What it does show, however, is Pritchett experimenting with the sort of chaotic, everyone-talking-at-once dialogue that he would later use to such happy effect in a story like “Noisy Flushes the Birds.”

The main line of Pritchett’s development, then, leads from “Sense of Humour” to “Handsome Is as Handsome Does,” and through acknowledged masterpieces such as “The Sailor,” “The Saint,” “The Fly in the Ointment,” “The Wheelbarrow,” and “When My Girl Comes Home,” to more recent successes such as “Blind Love,” “The Skeleton,” “The Camberwell Beauty,” “The Lady from Guatemala,” and “The Accompanist.” This list, of course, is an outline, not a complete catalog of Pritchett’s finest stories. The “main Line” Pritchett...

(The entire section is 2226 words.)