A Man of Letters
V. S. Pritchett began writing literary essays and reviews in the 1920’s when, as a struggling young author, he needed money to put food on the table. Unlike many of his contemporaries, university wits with classical educations and systematic training, Pritchett had nothing to guide him but his own haphazard if voracious reading and his native wit. He has survived through the years on these same qualities, producing an astonishing volume of reviews and essays, in addition to novels, biographies, stories, and memoirs. He reigns as the presiding grand old man of English literature, still a voice to be heard and a presence to be reckoned with. This new selection of his critical essays, his first since The Tale Bearers in 1980, reminds one that the days of the dedicated, humane critic are not yet over, that it is still possible to write cogently and without jargon about literature simply because the written word really matters. In Pritchett’s criticism, the classics are treated as if they were newly published, while the contemporary is given the same serious but unsolemn attention as the classical.
Pritchett’s methods and approach have changed little since the war years when he was given the “Books in General” column for the New Statesman and asked to write a weekly literary essay of eighteen hundred words. With paper rationed and books in short supply, Pritchett, like his readers, was forced to take up again the works of the past, often finding in them an unsuspected contemporary relevance. He has continued to do so ever since, in essays on figures as diverse as Samuel Richardson, Edith Wharton, and Alessandro Manzoni, to name only three of the authors discussed in A Man of Letters, a collection of essays written between 1942 and 1985. At times the reader might think that Pritchett has read everything of significance ever written, but poetry and drama are outside his range. He writes almost exclusively about prose fiction and seems most at home in the nineteenth century novel, which he reads in English, French, and Spanish. He is drawn irresistibly to the Russians in translation, and like all modern short-story writers he owes a debt to Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev. Pritchett’s catholic tastes in fiction mirror his lack of methodology as a critic: He belongs to no school, uses no one’s jargon, and happily ignores the battles in literary theory that have raged around him. What he brings to his task instead of method or ideology is a commitment to literature and a reader’s desire to understand both the form and the substance of what he has read.
He confronts each work on its own terms, explaining and evaluating by its own internal aesthetic. If he uses any recognizable approach, it is the biographical, for many of these and other essays are in part reviews of authors’ biographies.
At its best, Pritchett’s criticism supplies what all good criticism should—a clear sense of what the work under consideration is like, a feeling for its successes and failures, and the motivation to read or reread the work itself. Pritchett always has his eye on the book and its author; he has no desire to parade his own learning or to ridicule the author. The result is criticism that takes the reader into, not away from, the work. These qualities are observable in nearly all of Pritchett’s essays, but in the best they are raised to the level of art. The essay on Laurence Sterne, for example, says more about Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) in a few witty pages than do most academic critics in their ponderous tomes. (American criticism, Pritchett wryly observes, “must begin by stunning its victim with the obvious.”) Pritchett’s lively prose mirrors Sterne’s “eccentric” writing, and his thumbnail descriptions of Tristram Shandy ’s characters have the pith and wit of Joseph Addison’s character sketches. In slightly more detailed analyses, he characterizes Mr. Shandy and Uncle Toby as bores made comic by Sterne’s wit and imagination. He...
(The entire section is 1,482 words.)