V. S. Pritchett

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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 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. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Walter Sullivan

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[V. S. Pritchett] … has been writing good short stories for many years. He is … no longer at the top of his form, but the leading story in The Camberwell Beauty is quite equal to work he did in his prime. One of Pritchett's great advantages as a writer—and one which is becoming rarer as our cultures become more fragmented—is his ability to create a variety of backgrounds: he is not tied, as so many writers are, to a single and usually restricted world. "The Camberwell Beauty" takes place among antique dealers, the best imaginable milieu for the development of its Jamesian theme. Pritchett convinces us that dealers are collectors before they are businessmen: each has his specialty, porcelain or silver or rare miniatures: buying and selling furniture is simply a means toward an avaricious end. The Camberwell Beauty is a girl, loved by a young man who wishes to marry her, but she is collected as an object, first by a disreputable dealer named August and later by the richer and more respectable Pliny, who never touches her sexually though she becomes his wife.

To put the story in such blunt terms is to rob it of its beauty but at the same time to demonstrate the dependence of the characters and the plot on the skill with which Pritchett makes his enclave of collectors come to life. Other stories in the volume have equally convincing backgrounds, but there is never quite the same perfect marriage of setting to myth. (pp. 540-41)

Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Summer, 1975.

B. L. Reid

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V. S. Pritchett's first volume [of reminiscences] A Cab at the Door, takes its title from the family's habit of moving lodgings after each new failed enterprise: "A cabby and his horse would be coughing together outside the house and the next thing we knew we were driving to an underground station and to a new house in a new part of London, to the smell of new paint, new mice dirts, new cupboards." (p. 263)

The rootlessness of the Pritchetts' London life, coupled with a native hostility to rote learning, made a shambles of Victor's formal education. (p. 265)

When he is not yet sixteen the lad is abruptly removed from school and sent to work as an office boy in "the leather trade" at a large factor's in Bermondsey. Here he remained for four years. It is characteristic of Pritchett's sane realism not to treat the long interval as a waste nor to recall it with condescension or self-pity. (p. 266)

Pritchett is very frank and funny about adolescent sexuality, which torments him unbearably throughout these years. (p. 267)

It is a long serious illness in the postwar influenza epidemic that finally separates him from the leather trade and frees him to leave England and his family. His fortune consists of twenty pounds—enough, his father estimates, to keep him in Paris for a month…. On the train to Paris he tastes wine for the first time and finds it vinegary; but he is "committed" to liking it. The little transitional experiences are to be taken...

(This entire section contains 1874 words.)

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as premonitory.

So ends A Cab at the Door, about which one's feelings have been locally powerful but confused in sum, suspended. It is an effect, one supposes, of Pritchett's own feelings about the quality of his life in childhood and youth. The dominant impression is that of a hectic busyness, humming, hivelike, without clear direction or clear lines of emphasis: evidently the life was like that. The book like the boy is dominated by the family, and the family is dominated by the schizoid father, a small man driven by a need to be big: vain, unrealistic, tyrannical, totally undependable. The cab appears at the door too many times. It is a life without order or delicacy, in a family where, as Pritchett put the case in his second volume, "manners were unknown, where everyone shouted, and no one had any notion of taste, either good or bad. We lived without it." Yet the life has style of its own peculiar kind: the hive, especially young Victor, buzzes with energy and talent that seeks a vent and a way to work. The hive of the family is set inside the larger hive of lower-middle-class London, likewise elbowing, raucous, deprived, making do. One watches Victor defining his own nature and painfully, with heaves and lurches, pulling it free.

Pritchett writes of these matters in a style that is admirable for the level of feeling he means to allow expression. His mode is direct, clear, energetic, undecorated, dry: a sharpshooter's or perhaps a sniper's language. The vision at work is attentive and retentive, deprecatory—especially of the self, amused but sardonic, not particularly forgiving. What it sees is a comedy but not a jolly one, an ironical comedy that encloses a lot of suffering—yet the suffering is underplayed, by no means exploited. The language, the vision, one is tempted to call heartless, but that would be both uncharitable and inaccurate. Pritchett's manner is not heartless, but it is remarkably cool: call it emotionally underspecified.

The thing that is missing in the narrative is important: love. The word, or even the idea, is rarely mentioned in A Cab at the Door, and almost never in association with the family or any member of it. Like taste, love appears to be a thing the Pritchetts "lived without." It is only in middle life, and then with the help of another's insight, that Pritchett comes at last to see, for example, that his absurd vainglorious father had been a man tortured with affection and anxiety for his children. No doubt it is partly English reticence in personal narrative that makes Pritchett so wary of emotional commitment in his autobiography. But the matter seems more personal and peculiar than that; and one feels that the tendency is not only an effect of style but a fact of life, something in the man.

By ordinary literary-critical standards Pritchett's second volume, Midnight Oil, is a denser, finer, more "valuable" book than his first. Its essential subject is vocation: V. S. Pritchett making a beginning as a writer, finding direction by a mixture of purpose, accident, and necessity, reaching an established position. In all senses it is a professional book. It is full of matter and of wisdom. Within its set limits, it is actually more open, freer, warmer in expressed emotion than A Cab at the Door. Especially in its unpretentious way of presenting the self and its wise and straight way of talking about the craft of writing, it is a very winning book and an instructive one. Yet in turning professional Pritchett has become curiously less interesting. Perversely one finds oneself missing the very thing that had got on one's nerves in the first volume: the remorseless herkyjerky tension of the domestic comedy-drama. Pritchett by himself, turning literary, finding success, is a less involving figure than Pritchett beating his wings frantically in the hive of the family. The second book lacks the hectic vitality of the first, and the gain in serenity does not altogether compensate. (pp. 267-69)

Midnight Oil begins in a touching, gravely humorous way, with V. S. Pritchett at seventy years contemplating two photographs of himself. One is contemporary and shows a bald aging man writing on a pastry board …; the other shows the same man as a youth of twenty sitting on a table in Paris: he looks vague, shapeless, cocky, histrionic. Pritchett says it is the "embarrassment" he feels at that early image that forms the subject of his book. He is trying to make peace with that image, and to make sense of it: to understand, so to speak, how he got from there to here. He writes, as he puts the matter movingly, out of the general mystification of age and experience: "One is less and less sure of who one is"; and from the point of view of the cumulative anonymity, the evacuated persona of the artist: "The professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing." (p. 270)

The comedy of Midnight Oil extends and matures that of A Cab at the Door: it is gayer, more affirmative, less embarrassed and wounded. (p. 273)

The main impressions a reader takes away from his two volumes are those of courage, vitality, clarity, reserve. Those are properties of both subject and style; one need not labor to document them: they are audible everywhere in the language. Both subject and style, furthermore, are properties of temperament. One is impressed both by what is there and by what is left out. Pritchett strikes me as a very tough and intelligent man who survived a long deep wounding. The wound and the bow: he has been to hell and come back to tell about it—up to a point. In his first thirty years Pritchett took on a great deal of scar tissue, and I suspect he chose to treat it as a protective second skin. (pp. 283-84)

[Few] writers can have been so utterly self-made. Pritchett learned to write by reading and writing. No master, no old boys, pulled him along. The whole process, in life and art, left him tight-lipped—in art: that we do not really learn how he is in life is precisely the problem. Pritchett's reticence is English but it is also profoundly personal, exceptional even for an Englishman. It strikes me not as stoicism but as a strongly developed instinct for privacy, not less prickly for being unstated. We hear, unstated, a gritty murmur: "Certain things are none of your damned business."

Revolted by the vanity and self-pity that make so much of current fiction, poetry, and even criticism unreadable, one is embarrassed to complain of reticence when it occurs. But the "laconic," the "definite," so rare and ordinarily so admirable, can turn into a dangerous virtue when the subject, inescapably, is the self. We don't need any more egos but we can use any number of lives, if they have been useful ones, like Pritchett's, and if we are allowed far enough inside to understand the working of motive and feeling. Pritchett does not allow us very far inside. His very reticence, when frankly applied to a permitted moment of emotion, such as the death of his mother, can create a stunning little point-blank effect: "She lay, a tiny figure, so white and frail that she looked no more than a cobweb. I stood there hard and unable to weep. Tears come to me only at the transition from unhappiness to happiness; now I was frozen at the thought of her life. She had been through so much and I had been so outside it." It bothers one, however, that the effect is in a significant degree an effect of style, a triumph of withheld climax allowed to shock an established reserve, taking much of its power from its rarity.

I do not think Pritchett is hostile or immune to strong feeling; but it is hard to be sure, and that is exactly the difficulty I have with the matter. Late in Midnight Oil he remarks almost in passing: "It is pretty certain that the effect of the violent quarrels in my childhood home was to close my heart for a long time." Perhaps these and other traumas in the hardship of his life really did freeze Pritchett's heart. I do not think so; I think his heart simply got so sore that he did not want to talk about it; but I do not know, and my uncertainty makes me uncomfortable. In another of his dense little throwaway lines he speaks of "the supreme pleasure of putting oneself in by leaving oneself out." One knows what he means, and honors it; but in autobiography it does make a problem. Pritchett trusts us too far to find the self in the understatement and the withholding. We come to know a personality but not really a whole person. I prefer Frank O'Connor's way of letting his heart hang out, so long as he does not caress it too much—as he does not.

None of this makes me think Pritchett's books less than superb. Nobody in years has talked so clearly and wisely about the craft of writing and what might be called the moral psychology of the writer. What he does choose to give us of his life is so rich in texture and so sharp in specification that we are glad to forgive him a willed reservation. (pp. 284-85)

B. L. Reid, "Putting in the Self: V. S. Pritchett," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Spring, 1977, pp. 262-85.

Irving Howe

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[In "The Gentle Barbarian"] V. S. Pritchett evokes the characteristic Turgenev novel—that story of unfulfilled affections, political disappointments, human wrenchings. Delicate, short-breathed critic with delicate, short-breathed author: a happy match. Nothing in this book is "heavy," nothing analyzed into the dust of boredom, nothing stretched on the wrack of literary theory. Mr. Pritchett has written a work of cameo refinement, yielding pleasure from start to finish. (p. 1)

Mr. Pritchett has written a frail, elegant, loving book. It lacks the solidity of Isaiah Berlin's study of Turgenev's intellectual background, "Fathers and Children"; it does not have the magisterial completeness of Joseph Frank's recent biography of the young Dostoyevsky. But as we read this book we quickly realize that we are in the presence of an artist in criticism, a virtuoso of lucid evocation and precise judgment. For some four decades V. S. Pritchett has been giving us pleasure with such criticism, and everyone who loves the word will want to send him a salute of gratitude. (p. 39)

Irving Howe, "A Happy Match," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 22, 1977, pp. 1, 39.

Michael Irwin

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For all the praise [Pritchett] has won, his work has never been fashionable in academic circles, and it is interesting to spectulate why.

In several respects his manner of writing harks back to an earlier period. He has probably long been wearied by respectful comparisons with Dickens or Wells; but he recalls these writers repeatedly in the vivid precision of his appeal to the eye and ear. Each of his major characters is distinctly visualized….

To the fastidious critic, there may be something unnerving in Pritchett's very gusto. His characters are a dubious bunch, notably deficient in the conventional brands of dignity. In fact, many of them are seedy, tipsy, sly, raffish, or randy. Yet quite clearly their creator likes and relishes them all with cheerful impartiality. He writes like a frequenter of pubs and clubs who finds ordinary people of any class or condition endlessly entertaining.

To read this collection [Selected Stories] is to be reminded that many of our best contemporary short story writers are characteristically glum. They excel in chronicling small defeats…. A typical story by V. S. Pritchett, however, celebrates a victory. His characters are survivors. Somehow, against the odds, an unlovable person finds love, an old loyalty is rekindled, lost self-respect is retrieved. This implicit optimism may not lend itself to exegesis, but it is far from facile. The tentative victories that Pritchett records are a tribute to a great variety of human qualities: resilience, jauntiness, nerve, inventiveness, cheek. His tales make life seem worth living because they repeatedly show how interesting, how various, how resourceful, the most mundane people can be.

If there is a weakness in his approach it is that his taste for gamey personalities and high jinks makes some of the stories too highly flavoured, a little overripe. In this collection the rather more sober narratives, "The Wheelbarrow", "Blind Love", "The Skeleton", and "The Spree", seem to come off best. There is in general a tendency for the predominant zest and sharpness both in description and in dialogue to crowd out the more subdued passages which the narrative needs: "It was always quiet up at Heading. Through the trees by the house you could see the stars, and the grey stone was lit by them. There was a smell of cows and woodsmoke, and there was a touch of frost in the air." The reader who has attuned his ear to the broader, more vigorous effects of the tale may miss such interludes, and with them part of the complexity that the author is striving for. Altogether these stories need suppler, more sensitive reading than they seem at first glance to invite.

My only other reservation relates to the several stories that are told in the first person. The narrator, gifted with all V. S. Pritchett's narrative skills, tends to be difficult to place. This is particularly true of "The Camberwell Beauty", perhaps the least assured work in the collection, where the style of the opening sentences, and the narrative context that they imply, are simply abandoned. But these are cavils. Here is a volume full of energy, shrewdness, and good humour. If Pritchett's stories have been academically undervalued it may be merely because they are so straightforwardly and unfashionably enjoyable.

Michael Irwin, "Tentatively Victorious," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 12, 1978, p. 517.

Eudora Welty

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[Any] Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language.

Pritchett himself has said that the short story is his greatest love because he finds it challenging. The new collection ["Selected Stories"] makes it clear that neither the love nor the challenge has let him down.

As ever, the writing spouts with energy. Dialogue, in constant exchange, frisks like a school of dolphin. These are social stories: Life goes on in them without flagging. The characters that fill them—erratic, unsure, unsafe, devious, stubborn, restless and desirous, absurd and passionate, all peculiar unto themselves—hold a claim on us that is not to be denied. They demand and get our rapt attention, for in their revelation of their lives, the secrets of our own lives come into view. How much the eccentric has to tell us of what is central!

Once more, in the present volume, the characters are everything. Through a character Pritchett can trace a frail thread of chivalry in the throatcutting trade of antique collecting. Through a character he finds a great deal of intrigue in old age. The whole burden of "The Spree" is grief and what his character is ever to do with it. Paradox comes naturally to Pritchett, and he has always preferred, and excelled in, the oblique approach; and I think all these varying stories in today's book are love stories. (p. 1)

Of these 14 stories—chosen from four volumes published over the last nine years—"The Diver" is not the only one here to suggest that, in times of necessity or crisis, a conspiracy may form among the deep desires of our lives to substitute for one another, to masquerade sometimes as one another, to support, to save one another. These stories seem to find that human desire is really a family of emotions, a whole interconnection—not just the patriarch and matriarch, but all the children. All kin, and none of them born to give up. If anything happens to cut one off, they go on surviving in one another's skins. They become something new. In fact, they become storytellers.

In "Blind Love," when Mr. Armitage employs Mrs. Johnson, two people have been brought together who have been afflicted beyond ordinary rescue…. After they reach and survive a nearly fatal crisis of ambiguous revelation, the only possible kind, we see them contentedly traveling in tandem. "She has always had a secret. It still pleases Armitage to baffle people." But they are matched now in "blind love": They depend on each other altogether.

"The Marvelous Girl" is a double portrait. One side is blind love, love in the dark. The obverse side is a failed marriage in clear view….

We read these stories, comic or tragic, with an elation that stems from their intensity. In "When My Girl Comes Home" Pritchett establishes a mood of intensification that spreads far around and above it like a brooding cloud, far-reaching, not promising us to go away. We are with a family in England 10 years after the last World War as they face the return of a daughter, gone all this time, who is thought to be a prisoner of the enemy….

In the shock of reunion, the whole family—several generations and their connections—sees appearing, bit by bit, the evidence that all of them have been marred, too, have been driven, are still being driven and still being changed by the same war. Alone and collectively, they have become cal-loused as Hilda has been….

None of the stories is livelier than these new stories of Pritchett's written of old age. Old bachelor clubman George is militant, astringent, biting, fearsomely grinning, in training with his cold baths, embattled behind his fossilized anecdotes, victoriously keeping alive ("he got up every day to win")…. (p. 39)

What wins out over George is not the East wind or the Arch Enemy but the warm arms of a large, drinking, 40-year-old woman with a kind disposition and a giggle for his indignation, who "drops in" ("What manners!") out of his past that he had thought safely sealed behind anecdotes. She was the woman the old man had admired once "for being so complete an example of everything that made women impossible."

It is thus that he faces "the affronting fact that he had not after all succeeded in owning his own life and closing it to others; that he existed in other people's minds and that all people dissolved in this way, becoming fragments of one another, and nothing in themselves…. He knew, too, that he had once lived, or nearly lived."

Of all the stories of desiring, and of all the stories in this collection, "The Camberwell Beauty" is the most marvelous. It is a story of desiring and also of possessing—we are in a world of antique-shop keepers—and of possessing that survives beyond the death of desiring. (pp. 39-40)

The young man is left "with a horror of the trade I had joined." He abhors "the stored up lust that seemed to pass between things and men like Pliny." It is not long before "the fever of the trade had come alive in me: Pliny had got something I wanted." The end is unescapable—for all, that is, who are connected with the trade.

"The Camberwell Beauty" is an extraordinary piece of work. Densely complex and unnervingly beautiful in its evocation of those secret, packed rooms, it seems to shimmer with the gleam of its unreliable treasures. There is the strange device of the bugle—which, blown by Isabel, actually kills desire. All the while the story is filled with longing, it remains savage and seething and crass and gives off the unhidable smell of handled money.

Most extraordinarily of all, it expresses, not the confusion of one human desire with another, not sexuality confused with greed, but rather the culmination of these desires in their fusion….

Each story's truth is distilled by Pritchett through a pure concentration of human character. It is the essence of his art. And, of course, in plain fact, and just as in a story, it is inherent in the human being to create his own situation, his own plot. The paradoxes, the strategems, the escapes, the entanglements, the humors and dreams, are all projections of the individual human being, all by himself alone. In its essence, Pritchett's work, so close to fantasy, is deeply true to life. (p. 40)

Eudora Welty, "A Family of Emotions," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 25, 1978, pp. 1, 39-40.

Sarah Pratt

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Pritchett notes his debt to … other scholars at the outset [of The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev]. But he also brings two crucial gifts of his own to the work. First, he shows an unusual ability to draw the reader back into a world distant both in time and in space without allowing that world to deaden into a literary museum: The Gentle Barbarian is not only the kind of portrait with eyes that follow the viewer around the room, but a portrait so effective that its subject becomes a living part of the viewer's consciousness. Secondly, Pritchett, a writer by profession, shows himself to be a master of English prose style. This combination of fine portraiture and verbal mastery makes the book a great pleasure to read.

Much of the power of the portrait stems from Pritchett's skill at filling in the outlines of Turgenev's life with conjecture while avoiding lapses into the hazardous realm of fictionalized biography….

Judicious conjecture also marks the narration of Turgenev's relation to Pauline Viardot. While he works his way to the inevitable conclusion that one cannot know the physical bounds of the relationship (Viardot seemed to be happily married and Turgenev was generally on good terms with her husband), Pritchett offers a lively portrayal of its waxing and waning and demonstrates its pervasive influence (often negative) on Turgenev's creative life.

The book's generalizations about Russian literature occasionally spill into the realm of overstatement. For example, the assertion that Turgenev was a "founder and innovator" because "there was no established tradition of story telling or novel writing in Russian literature," or that "Pushkin sought to replace French influence by the influence of German and English—by Goethe and Shakespeare," can be bombarded with counter arguments. But at the same time, the book's generalizations about Turgenev's work without reference to Russian literary history are often full of insight…. (p. 295)

On one hand, it seems unfortunate that The Gentle Barbarian lacks the scholarly apparatus of footnotes, or at least an index. Statements about important figures like George Sand, Tolstoy, Bakunin, Belinsky, and an interesting story about a relationship Turgenev is said to have had with the wife of the poet Tyutchev all remain in an area of limited use because one can neither verify the original source of the information nor locate the relevant passage again without thumbing through the whole book. But on the other hand, Pritchett's refusal to admit the added weight of such scholarly baggage may well be one of the factors that has allowed him to create such a thoroughly life-like and, in its own way, informative portrait. (p. 296)

Sarah Pratt, in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1978 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Summer, 1978.


V. S. Pritchett World Literature Analysis


Pritchett, V(ictor) S(awden) (Vol. 15)