V. S. Pritchett

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Pritchett, V(ictor) S(awden) (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pritchett, V(ictor) S(awden) 1900–

Pritchett is a British novelist, short story writer, literary critic, travel writer, autobiographer, and man of letters. In his beautifully written, very "English" prose, Pritchett exhibits a Dickensian eye for detail and a fine sense of humor. Walter Allen, noting Pritchett's "unerring instinct for idiosyncrasy that reveals character," calls him "the complete master" of the short story form.

A Cab at the Door [is] the best 250-odd pages of autobiographical writing that I know of by a living author. What makes it so good is that Pritchett is, first of all, a master of the natural, direct style. As with Thoreau or Shaw, open any page and you are immediately in touch with the man. Or, as Pritchett has said of E. M. Forster, when he begins to speak the machine stops.

A Cab at the Door is written with plenty of candor, but it is also written with something even better, which is artistic tact. Reversing the customary procedure in contemporary autobiography, Pritchett places at the center of his memoir a solid and deliciously detailed commentary on lower-middle-class English life in the first two decades of the century, based on his family, educational, and early business experience; meanwhile he modestly lays around the rim the account of his own troubled development as a person and of his inchoate intentions as an artist.

The effect is a beautifully sustained priority of interests in which the depiction of concrete social conditions and forces, of manners and mores, stands by itself as a portrait of an age and a class, while serving as the ground that outlines the formation of his character. This not only places the emphasis where most readers would wish to see it—on the way things were rather than how they felt, on the individual life seen less through its accidents than as common experience—but also enables Pritchett, both as writer and as subject, to exist naturally and unselfconsciously among his interests and feelings. The result is a splendid montage of persons and places fixed in their individual being, casting their representative light, and suggesting the evolving personality of the author through his relations to them. By this kind of artistic strategy, mediating deftly between figure and ground, an autobiography turns into a life. (p. 285)

Theodore Solotaroff, "Autobiography as Art" (1968), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on Writing in the Sixties (copyright © 1968, 1970 by Theodore Solotaroff; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1970, pp. 284-90.

A writer, V. S. Pritchett once explained, "is at the very least two persons. He is the prosing man at his desk and a sort of valet who dogs him and does the living." Few literary lives so genially and thriftily illustrate this peculiar symbiotic relationship as that of Victor Sawdon Pritchett. Two volumes of peerless memoirs (A Cab at the Door [and] Midnight Oil) chronicle his evolution from a shy, working-class English youth (born 1900) to eminence as an international man of letters: renowned lecturer, editor and critic. Pritchett's stories, meanwhile, regularly throb with the same grotesque scenes and sensuous memories as his life, recollected with a comic clarity and shrewd indulgence.

[The Camberwell Beauty] is mainly [a collection of] love stories, and in it life and letters support each other like an accomplished husband and wife team telling a family anecdote….

Pritchett admits he is mainly interested in the spectacle of people "floundering amid their own words, and performing strange strokes as they swim about with no visible shore in their own lives." Yet he is a romantic, a coup de foudre man for whom love strikes like a thunderbolt in the most preposterous ways. Still, it can produce instant chills and fever, practically as long as body draws breath or soul shudders at engulfing loneliness. (pp. E8-108)

Love stories! In the age of Alex Comfort and physical passion catered to almost as a culinary...

(The entire section is 2,491 words.)