The book bears this explanatory epigraph taken from the work of John Gay: “Whence is thy learning? Hath thy toil/ O’er books consum’d the midnight oil?” Indeed, Pritchett’s toil has consumed the daylight as well as the midnight oil all of his life. Here is a record of the struggle of an essentially uneducated boy to become a writer. Along with this principal concern there are marvelous descriptions of scenery in Ireland and Spain; anecdotes with sprightly dialogue about scores of people from landladies to great statesmen; glimpses of the life of the lower classes in Paris in the 1920’s, in Ireland during the early days of the civil war, in Spain under Miguel Primo de Rivera y Orbaneja and later during the Spanish Civil War, in England during World War II; and a few brief recollections of meetings with famous authors. Of all these aspects the first is by far the most important.
Describing the book Pritchett writes:There is a period when a writer has not yet become one, or just having become one, is struggling to form his talent, and it is from this period that I have selected most of the scenes and people in this book. It is a selection, and it is neither a confession nor a volume of literary reminiscences, but as far as I am able I have put in my “truth.”
In setting down his truth Pritchett does not spare himself. He describes his lower-middle-class origins, his lack of university training, his occasional periods of laziness, his dislike of a regular desk job, his ignorance of current literary trends. He does not conceal, in fact he rather revels in, his sexual feelings both as a proud virgin and later. He does not hide his hatred of his father. Having lost his early belief in Christian Science, he ridicules ferociously his father’s use of the “Divine Mind” to excuse all the inexcusable actions of his selfish life.
On the plus side, Pritchett relates his laudable efforts at self-education: He read exhaustively in English, French, and Spanish, sometimes using his lunch money to buy a book. There is a tinge of pride when he tells of how he lived on one-half of a small roll per day for six days rather than ask a friend for a second small loan. When his landlady realizes that he is literally starving, brings him a bowl of soup, and lends him five francs, he is truly grateful. He tells of long hikes over rough terrain and his acceptance without complaint of nights spent in filthy rooms which he shared with as many as seven other people. All of this he recounts without boasting of his endurance, just as he tells of his later life in the English countryside during the war, when he split wood, hauled water, took his turn at watching for fires on the roof of the New Statesman’s building, and tried to find time to continue writing. He simply states facts while minimizing the description of his emotional reactions.
Pritchett’s first biographer, Dean R. Baldwin, in V.S. Pritchett (1987) claims that the two volumes of autobiography leave the reader with only a very sketchy idea of the real character of their author. It is certainly true that the reader wishes to know more about this fascinating man and more about his relations with the great literary figures of the era, yet a careful perusal of Midnight Oil reveals, as promised, the author’s truth.
Approximately the first half of Midnight Oil is devoted to an account of Pritchett’s efforts to learn to write, his lighthearted disregard of editors’ assignments in favor of topics that interested him, in particular scenery and the drama in the lives of common people. He tells their stories instead of his own. When he does reveal personal details, he weaves them into an anecdote or dismisses his feelings in a few words. For example, when The Christian Science Monitor finally fired him, he comments, “I took this as a liberation.” His autobiography is a series of anecdotes, many of which provided material for his short stories once he had discovered where his talent really lay.
The style of Pritchett’s short stories, which has been compared with that of Guy de Maupassant and Ivan Turgenev, is present in Midnight Oil: His prose is simple, straightforward, unadorned. His ear for dialogue is extremely acute and his psychological understanding of the people he introduces is of the same depth as that found in his tales. He displays the same flashes of insight and understanding that make the characters in his short stories so recognizably human. His settings for these characters are established by the perceptive use of a few significant details. His fascination with the quirks and psychological hang-ups of ordinary middle-class people is abundantly evident. The unexpected turn of phrase so prevalent in his stories is also to be found in Midnight Oil.
Occasionally, the autobiographical origin of a later story is told at length; a case in point is “The Diver” in The Camberwell Beauty and Other Stories (1974). This is the tale of Pritchett’s lost virginity and concomitant increase in literary creativity. In another instance, he quotes a remark made to him that became the focus of “Sense of Humour,” thought by some critics to be Pritchett’s best: A chance acquaintance in Ireland mentioned that he sometimes used his father’s hearse to give his girl a ride. Pritchett’s bitter contempt for his father, so evident in Midnight Oil, is softened to a pathetic, almost comic, portrait of an old man in “The Spree.” Midnight Oil is autobiography as art rather than as history: Thirty years of Pritchett’s adult life are completely omitted and most of the information he offers on his later years is superficial. Yet as art, the work is of a very high order.
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