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

Introduction

(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, Vols. 5, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

A. S. Byatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sir Victor has, throughout his long career as a reviewer and critic, been able to find and describe accurately what he calls, in The Living Novel, 'the new point in life from which any given novel started.' He likes to take the great, the outstanding, the enduring book and isolate the qualities that make it so. If biography helps, he tells us what we need to know; if political or cultural history is more useful, we have that; if perfectly chosen examples of style and pace are required, he provides them. He is supremely tactful, and never superfluous.

The Myth Makers contains essays on European, Russian and South American novelists: the title comes from the essay on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose quality as a myth maker is succinctly defined as a capacity to depict

the inordinate character—not necessarily a giant or saga-like hero, but someone who has exercised a right to extreme conduct or aberration. Such people fulfil a new country's need for legends. A human being is required to be a myth, his spiritual value lies in the inflating of his tale.

Pritchett's descriptions of Marquez's 'inordinate' tales The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, One Hundred Years of Solitude and the recent comic and terrible Autumn of the Patriarch, show how farce, brilliant description, excess and wisdom go to create a sense of the whole life of an...

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John Gross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

V. S. Pritchett is not much given to quarreling with other critics, but at one point in his new collection of essays ["The Myth Makers"] he does allow himself to rebuke a professor who has been going in for some particularly jaw-breaking jargon, subjecting Flaubert to a barrage of "velleities" and "volitations." Literary criticism, he insists, "does not add to its status by opening an intellectual hardware store." Nor, one might add, by dealing in pseudoscientific fancy goods, or peddling unnecessary new systems of classification, or confining its activities to a structuralist boutique.

Pritchett himself, it need hardly be said, has never set up in the hardware line, while alongside the latest generation of pundits he can look as hopelessly old-fashioned as Hazlitt or Sainte-Beuve. An incorrigible journalist, he brings us the news about literature, whetting our appetite for unfamiliar authors, sending us back to books we thought we knew already (or, as often as not, to ones we have always been meaning to read and never quite got round to). His manner is informal, conversational, urbane; he defines literary effects by describing them; he can make an image or a strategically placed adjective do the work of a whole paragraph of exposition. And he generalizes no less freely about a historical epoch or a culture or a social type than he does about the author in hand. (p. 1)

Pritchett long ago established himself as a master of his craft, and in "The Myth Makers" his mastery remains unimpaired. Half the secret lies in a style which does not only illumine or take on the color of its surroundings, but which provides its own satisfactions as well. It is as satisfying to come across the right words in the right order in a critical essay as it would be anywhere else…. (pp. 1, 50)

Much of Pritchett's writing has the vivacity of caricature, though a form of caricature which concentrates rather than distorts…. Again, he has the...

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John Harvey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The qualities evident in the essays which comprise The Myth Makers] are a catholic enthusiasm for literature, a clear, level-headed and pithy style, a versatile sympathy, and a complete freedom from jargon, cant, bullying, pirouetting and wisecracks—a combination of qualities the more impressive when one considers that this generosity of interest continues unnarrowed and fresh in an author almost in his eighties.

The disadvantages, as at least they must seem to the uninvited academic or 'serious' reader, are also those of the first occasion: much retelling of stories and lives in proportion to the comment on them; a too-ready acceptance of the going rate as to reputations (Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Marquez, Borges all 'great'); and especially a willingness—it seems to me at once the life and the limitation of the book—to let all the purposes of criticism be served by the telling anecdote and the thumbnail sketch. Both authors and works are represented chiefly by snapshots….

The details are often touching, and they certainly show the short-story writer's eye for the telling and piquant moment; but, cumulatively, they have somewhat the effect of turning authors and novels alike—and authors and novels who are far from alike—into ironic short stories of a similar cast. Perspective and scale are lost; it is hard to see the vine for the vignette….

The book is perhaps strongest where...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As I infer him from his books, V. S. Pritchett must be one of the most pleasant men in the world….

I only wish I could like his short stories, which have become his chief claim to fame. After reading them, I feel sad and somehow disappointed in myself. They, too, are generally pleasant in their way, and haphazardly piled with humanity.

Should stories be so pleasant? I ask myself in the absurd way one is forced to write about Mr. Pritchett. Is John Cheever pleasant? Or John Updike? Bernard Malamud? Was Faulkner pleasant in his stories?

Perhaps the word should be disarming. Mr. Pritchett's stories are disarming. But again one asks: Should a story disarm? Shouldn't it rather arm us with whatever it is we need to know in the interests of our vulnerability?

He fiddles while literature burns, and one wants to say "Good for him"—but is it good for us? What is one to do with this improvised benignity, this sunny mellowness that only occasionally rises into art?

If one gave Mr. Pritchett the benefit of the doubt, if one assumed that his untidy stories cohered in some roundabout way, what then? Even if they worked, they would not be enough.

"On the Edge of the Cliff," the title story and probably the author's favorite, is about a "seventyish" professor and his 25-year-old mistress. "When young girls turned into women," Mr. Pritchett writes about...

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Jonathan Penner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most of [the nine stories in On the Edge of the Cliff] are love stories. Most of the love concerned is adulterous. Yet one is struck not by similarity but by variety: central characters of all ages and both sexes; narration in first and third person; differences in length, in complexity and in quality.

There are, of course, prevalent virtues and faults, as one would expect in pieces from the same pen. First and most often, one is struck by a sharpness of eye, a resourcefulness of phrase, that are frequently startling…. (p. 1)

Sometimes the observation is original almost to the point of becoming nonsense, depending not on sense but on an acute intuition….

The shortcoming of most of these stories is an aversion for the jugular. They are done in daubs rather than strokes. Gestures, not passions, are held at the focus of our attention, and too often we are unsure of what's at stake.

For example, consider the title story. Harry, "seventyish," lives with Rowena, 25, his lover. The point of view shifts between them, analyzing their relationship, which appears to be comfortable enough. Some complication is obligatory, and one appears: at a local fair, Harry and Rowena run into Daisy Pyke, a woman from Harry's distant past. Daisy, like Harry, now has a young lover.

Given this tangle, something seems likely to happen—but nothing does. There is a plein air scene of too-symbolic cliff-walking….

Are there really any cliff-edges here? Does even mortality count for much? The events of the story seem scarcely to matter to the characters, which limit how far they can matter to us.

By contrast, the best of these stories, "A Family Man," involves an encounter that matters desperately….

Different as they are, these two stories barely begin to suggest the variety of the collection….

Like the duller animals in a zoo, some of these stories seem to be here chiefly for the sake of plenitude. But their diversity, if not quite that of creation, still promises that each reader will find, scattered among the pens, those creatures that will speak to him. (p. 9)

Jonathan Penner, "Glimpses of Illicit Love," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), November 18, 1979, pp. 1, 9.

Carole Cook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Age has its prerogatives, excellence being foremost among them. We bow to V. S. Pritchett. Nearing 80, he is at the top of his powers, and he is writing at white heat.

These nine new stories [in On the Edge of the Cliff and Other Stories] outshine his recent Selected Stories. Love was their theme, but passion is the operative force here; and the contrast between the often submerged longings and the manners of his English subjects makes these intrigues doubly intriguing. Such is their economy that you have to read them twice, at least, to be sure.

Pritchett's characters are more British than the quirky British themselves…. [The] heart of the book is contained in a single still moment that impresses itself almost physically on the reader: the image of the amorous septuagenarian of the title story, bird-naked, arms uplifted, poised to dive from the cliff into the icy waters below.

Pritchett … has gotten every trick in the book down pat. He embodies the tradition of English literature, with a few Russian and French turns thrown in for good measure. The collection evokes Hardy here, Conrad or Greene there. Pritchett is their peer and their student—a preeminent modern master of the realistic style. He can peek and tell with the best of them. His hallmark is the airy gentleness of his touch as he lifts the veils. A sly fox, yes, but also a lover of mankind.

Carole Cook, "Books in Brief: 'On the Edge of the Cliff and Other Stories'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 24, December, 1979, p. 58.

Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although varying in quality, [the stories in On the Edge of the Cliff] are written with a quiet confidence in their own powers of evocation. One need only look at some opening lines to realize how imperturbable a draftsman is at work, capturing the essence of places or situations with a few deft strokes: "The sea fog began to lift towards noon. It had been blowing in, thin and loose for two days, smudging the tops of the trees up the ravine where the house stood. 'Like the cold breath of old men,' Rowena wrote in an attempt at a poem, but changed the line, out of kindness, to 'the breath of ghosts,' because Harry might take it personally."…

What we have in Pritchett is a belief that words are natural forces, activating rather than merely acted upon….

Pritchett's uniqueness is the creation of a relaxed atmosphere, one that combines a penetrating acumen with a tendency to benevolence. There are fools aplenty rattling around these stories, yet they are judged lightly, perhaps because the author more often than not aligns himself with the impulses that lead his characters astray. This aspect of Pritchett works best when he creates an air of muddled eros or confounded intentions, where wit and compassion vie with each other almost within the same sentence…. (p. 12)

Sometimes, however, Pritchett's stories fall short of the compellingly idiosyncratic and degenerate into mere whimsy—"The Worshippers" and "The Vice-Consul," for instance. These stories lack the resonance his perspective ordinarily entails, and without that resonance Pritchett can begin to seem a bit soft, a bit blurry round the edges. Interestingly enough, "The Worshippers," which is about mutually deluded small businessmen, and "The Vice-Consul," about tomfoolery in the tropics, are the only pieces in the collection that do not feature women. Mixed company, it would seem, brings out the glitter in Pritchett's eyes.

His most successful stories—"A Family Man," "The Wedding" and "The Fig Tree"—invoke a highly-developed sense of the ridiculous…. [Pritchett] is as sly as he is saintly. In fact, it is precisely his bemused appreciation of the crookedness of the heart and the willfulness of fancy that makes him such a delightful translator of ourselves to ourselves. Long may he thrive. (p. 13)

Daphne Merkin, "Polished Performances," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 25, December 31, 1979, pp. 12-13.∗

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pritchett writes as one who has been nourished rather than inhibited by his literary forebears. Though the tradition to which he belongs has shown signs of enfeeblement in recent years, with its writers too often manifesting a weakened grasp, a contracting range, Pritchett himself is able to confront Mrs. Thatcher's England with an almost Edwardian assurance of his right to move at ease among its phenomena, to seize upon what he wants, and to do so without apology or self-consciousness. He displays an undiminished faith in the existence of a substantial, knowable world external to himself—a world full of quirky types with whose perplexities his imagination can play. (p. 25)

Pritchett is the...

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