V. S. Pritchett Pritchett, V(ictor) S(awden) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(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 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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)

Irving Howe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Eudora Welty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Sarah Pratt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 455 words.)