The importance of Midnight Oil lies in its being a record of the making of a writer, one whose accomplishments have earned for him a knighthood, the presidency of the English PEN organization and later of the international PEN Club, an honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and honorary doctorates of literature from the University of Leeds and from Columbia University. V.S. Pritchett is an example of a vanishing species, the man of letters. He has written innumerable essays for, among other papers, New Statesman and The Christian Science Monitor, and a dozen books of literary criticism including Balzac: A Biography (1973), The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev (1977), and The Myth Makers: Literary Essays (1979). In 1969 he delivered the Clark lectures, titled “George Meredith and English Comedy,” and earlier still had collaborated on Why Do I Write? An Exchange of Views Between Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and V.S. Pritchett (1948).
Pritchett’s five novels, although published in both England and the United States, have been less successful than his other work. His numerous travel books, on the other hand, beginning with Marching Spain in 1928, have received wide acclaim. Yet it is his short stories that are his masterpieces, his enduring claim to fame. There are more than a dozen volumes of these gems and many more that have not been collected. These books paint striking vignettes of ordinary people in London, Paris, Dublin, and Madrid, haunting cameos of individuals or groups caught in a moment of crisis. These characters are in sharper focus than their author. Despite his two autobiographies and an article titled “Looking Back at Eighty” in The New York Times magazine, it is not possible to believe that one really knows this very private, very great man of letters.