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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

V.S. Pritchett wrote Midnight Oil in his seventieth year. It is the second volume of his autobiography, a sequel to A Cab at the Door, which was published in both England and the United States in 1968 while he was a visiting professor at Brandeis University. This earlier volume deals with the period between the author’s birth and his twentieth year; Midnight Oil takes up the story in 1921 with Pritchett’s arrival in Paris, armed with twenty pounds sterling and the determination to become a writer. It recounts episodes in his life until after World War II.

The young Pritchett found life in Paris intoxicating; he vowed never to leave. Language and the sound of words had been his obsessions since childhood, and his stilted school French was soon enriched by young acquaintances and fellow workers, for, after fruitless efforts to find a job, he became a photographer’s assistant. For the next two years he read voraciously and talked with people in cafes and in the streets. Then he would sit up late in his inexpensive room in Auteuil and try to write. He concluded eventually that he had nothing to say.

His first published piece was a joke, based on a remark heard in the street, which he had sent to one of the Paris papers. This success taught him that if he had nothing to say, he could at least write about what other people said. The discovery was enormously important: His best short stories are composed largely of conversation.

Looking back fifty years to the youth he was, Pritchett describes with gentle amusement his absurdities, his naivete, his burning ambition. He appears to have total recall and reproduces lengthy conversations with his various acquaintances. Now, years later, he realizes that his isolation kept him from knowing anything about Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald: He had not been aware that he was living at the center of a literary revolution. When he finally heard of Tristan Tzara he was angry because Tzara was smashing up a culture just as he was becoming acquainted with it.

After two years of struggle, Pritchett decided to return to London, where he was finally offered a position by The Christian Science Monitor’s London editor: He was told to describe the daily lives of ordinary people in Ireland as they coped with the civil war. Pritchett knew nothing about politics or journalism. His passion was for the scenery, the theater, and the Irish poets. He was able to talk with William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, and (George William Russell). It was in Ireland that he began to write stories.

Recalled by his paper, he returned to London with an Irish bride and in January, 1924, was sent to Spain as a correspondent. He was captivated by the Castilian landscape but found life in a small dark flat in Madrid cold and cheerless and the city dull. Nevertheless, he says that meeting with agnostics for the first time and with the students and professors of the University of Madrid proved to be some of the most valuable experiences of his youth. He quickly learned the language, made friends, and was introduced to Jose Ortega y Gasset, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Pio Baroja y Nessi. Proud of being an amateur journalist, of not visiting the embassies or making friends with the English or Americans, he missed the big political news and wrote background pieces for his paper. He made many train trips in second-or third-class carriages, talking with the passengers, and he took long walks. His descriptions of the trains, the roads, the inns as they were in the 1920’s present a strong and interesting contrast...

(The entire section is 925 words.)