V. S. Pritchett

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V. S. Pritchett Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Two central forces shaped V. S. Pritchett’s artistry: his family and his urge to break away from it. The picture that Pritchett gives of his home life in A Cab at the Door is of a fantastic edifice of dreams, resounding with the words of Walter Pritchett—self-complacent, moralizing, and sometimes angry words. The family life Walter tried to create was a fantasy at which Beatrice chipped away. She wailed jealous complaints and remonstrated; she told stories about dead relatives, dead pets, and dead royalty; above all, she told jokes that ended with her bursting into hysterical laughter, rocking on her chair, and peering out at her audience from behind spread fingers, her skirts hoisted above her knees and her bloomers showing. If his father’s words imprisoned the young Pritchett, his mother’s opened a chink into the world where people voiced their feelings and cried, and where, most important, they laughed.

When Pritchett began to read widely, he discovered fictions other than his father’s and was led to a consideration of the worlds that prompted them. (That he thought there was some literal place where life was better is demonstrated by his early desire to travel.) It is characteristic of his imagination that as a young man going to work in London he was reminded of Charles Dickens, rather than of London when reading Dickens, and that as a septuagenarian, in Midnight Oil, he described himself as two people—the writer, “the prosing man at the desk,” and the other self, “the valet who dogs him and does the living.” For Pritchett, in short, life followed art, and this order of things is important for understanding the writer.

Probably because Pritchett’s interest in literature arose suddenly from his recognition that print is like paint, that it can create pictures that open onto other perspectives, his writing is predominantly descriptive, hisnarrative perhaps more lyric than dramatic. Added to his visual acuity is a good ear for dialect, developed from adjusting his own language to whatever new neighborhood he found himself in as a boy and from speaking French and Spanish as a young man. The mundane world, consequently, is richly evoked in his works. He is not primarily concerned with recording the details of the external world, however, for he is too much of an essentialist in purpose and too richly comic in manner to be preoccupied with strict representationalism. Like the Victorians, he studies characters in social settings; like Dickens and Thomas Hardy, his first-loved novelists, he concerns himself with the social environment as a condition of character. Place and class are important as limiters—of experience, language, and the stuff of fantasy. He evokes them with selected, exaggerated, and often symbolic images, usually visual, and through the words the characters speak. Perhaps no other twentieth century writer is as adept as Pritchett at representing society through these brilliant half-strokes. In the sense of upholding the value—whether mythical, political, or moral—of one class above another, however, he is ultimately one of the least class-conscious of English writers. His authorial position is class-free, his attitude independent.

His real divergence from social realism is most obvious in his characters, who ring true, but not because they are singly imitative of individuals with whom one might rub shoulders in the real world. The eccentrics who populate his books are instead caricatures through which are enacted certain emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic problems. The conflicting versions of the world created by the various characters produce a collision at theclimax that is often understated and ironic, and perhaps it is the frequency of this “silent” climax that has led to the charge by critics that Pritchett’s plotting is weak. Then, too, character and situation above all capture his attention. In a relatively static fashion, one resembling portraiture more than dramatic...

(The entire section is 4,279 words.)