Victor Sawdon Pritchett is one of the most distinguished men writing in the English language today. Master of the storyteller’s art, he writes in a slightly mannered style that in no way interferes with the pace and texture of his work; in fact, his style enhances his work. Whether writing essays, criticism, or fiction, his style is deceptively simple.
Often likened to such diverse literary figures as H. G. Wells, Charles Dickens, Saul Bellow, D. H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, and P. G. Wodehouse, Pritchett is his own man. Comparisons in his case are not to be confused with lack of originality, for his work bears an unmistakable hallmark as he uses the idiosyncrasies of his characters in ordinary situations to heighten the sense of tragicomedy that is his long suit.
With a finely tuned ear for dialogue and a perceptive eye for detail, he knows how to focus sharply on significant nuances. His prose is a prose of no superfluous words. His early novels he describes as “machines for conveying my characters into a trap.” Be that as it may, he cannot be accused of playing “deus ex machina,” for he works his way around his plots with precision leaving nothing to chance. It cannot be said of Pritchett that he is a lazy author or a careless plotter. Each word is selected for its absolute rightness, each action for its purpose. There is an optimism and light-heartedness about his stories, and he uses the happy ending with more frequency than one experiences in the average short story today. His sense of natural gaiety and cheerfulness underlies much of what he writes. Even the simplest stories, however, have marked Pritchett as a master storyteller who disarms the reader before leading him unexpectedly into a barrage of complexities. For well over fifty years Pritchett has been practicing his craft; his skill has not diminished with age.
This collection of fourteen short stories represents a cross-section of Pritchett’s work written during the past two decades. All but three of the selections have appeared previously in other collections; those three are part of the novel, The Key to My Heart.
The opening story, “The Diver,” is a classic example of Pritchett’s contrapuntal plotting skill. In what appears to be a straightforward narrative, the protagonist is a young Englishman working in Paris, an aspiring writer who cannot write. After an accident he indulges in a spontaneous lie that is pure fiction; but it is a fiction that comes fluently and transforms him into a verbal and suddenly worldly adult with the potential of vigor and violence in his make-up. The next story, “The Wheelbarrow,” is an exquisitely crafted comment, at first reading, of primitive evangelism. However, it is actually the story of two worlds: that of believer and nonbeliever, laborer and gentlewoman, temptation and resistance: two people drawn to each other sexually, yet worlds apart and destined to remain so.
In the poignant story “Blind Love,” Pritchett’s adept use of symbolism to show his characters in search of means of communication, is as clearly seen as it is in “The Diver.” He uses a fall into a pool and a trip across the English Channel to Italy to indicate a plunge into love and communication, and a changed life. In the same work he brings together two imperfect beings in a manner that makes the sum of the parts larger than the whole.
The very short stories, “The Fall” and “The Marvellous Girl,” succeed, but not so well as the longer pieces. The plot, dialogue, and settings are close to the surface, and while they have a measure of depth, they are not so satisfying as the longer ones; Pritchett is at his best in the long short story. “Cage Birds,” “The Skeleton,” and “Camberwell Beauty” are typically solid, multidimensional yarns pointing out the small character traits that loom large in activities of the poor, who have their disabilities brought on by lack of opportunity.
It would be difficult to choose a favorite...
(The entire section is 1,090 words.)