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

A. S. Byatt

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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 undefined culture and world….

Two topics which seem to me to recur in Sir Victor's essays are his novelists' capacity to organise and describe facts and things on the one hand, and their interest in what he calls, speaking of Stendhal, the 'self-invention' of the characters (and indeed of the authors). In some of the earlier novels he treats, exactness and self-invention go easily together….

His later myth makers, except maybe Marquez, have a very ambivalent relation with the Ideal. They celebrate bittiness, eccentricity, and privacy as an escape from Ideals they don't care for: Dostoievsky's outworn Christian Russia, the Marxist State and other orthodoxies. Sir Victor made me admire Dr. Zhivago more than I had ever been able to do—partly by exhibiting that (as I suspected) I had read a purple and lurid translation—but partly by demonstrating that the novel was a myth of the survival of the incomplete gesture, the private. Pasternak 'conveys that cataclysms observably remove meaning from people's lives without leaving them futile.'…

As everywhere throughout The Myth Makers, Sir Victor has been decorously concerned to preserve a discourse which avoids the jargon (and habit of mind) of critical systems—structuralist, formalist, Marxist, psychoanalytic. He does not preach, but the message is clear. And he ends by claiming Borges as a myth maker of his kind, in company with Chekhov and Flaubert, and with a warning: 'The risk is—and there are some signs of this already—that criticism of Borges will become an accretion that will force us to see his stories as conceits alone.' Because this is indeed so, we need critics like Sir Victor.

A. S. Byatt, "The Greedy Reader," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 97, No. 2513, May 18, 1979, p. 724.

John Gross

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V. S. Pritchett...

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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 knack of renovating old truths, restoring their force and freshness….

But he is not really an aphorist. He is too suspicious of cut-and-dried explanations, too aware of the margins and intermissions and inconsistencies of experience; he knows that, like Chekhov's characters, "we live beyond any tale we happen to enact." And it follows that isolated quotations of any kind can give only a very limited idea of his particular strength. What they are unable to convey is the movement and tempo of his thought, the flow of a prose at once ruminative and succinct, close-packed and compressed without being congested. Some of his essays are quite short, but none of them sounds hurried.

Time itself is a recurrent preoccupation in "The Myth Makers"—the sense of time as it varies from one artist (or personality, or mood) to another. With Dostoyevsky, we have "a sense of bursting, continuous instants"; in Pushkin, "we are defined and re-defined as the days melt and remake us." Few critics can equal Pritchett in suggesting the pace of a work of art, the way in which a novelist or a storyteller imposes a rhythm no less than a vision.

Myth, as the book's title makes clear, is an even more conspicuous theme. Or rather, since the title is an uncommonly accurate one, the eternal propensity to myth, the need to construct ideal selves and imaginary worlds, which is both the source of fiction and one of its great permanent subjects. Less interested in the fantasy than in the fantasist, Pritchett is at his happiest exploring the winding paths of self-dramatization and self-contradiction, the uncertain territory between what men and women are, what they think they are, what they wish they could be. He is no mere stripper-away of illusions, however. His judgments are firm and shrewd, but he lacks the true censorious note, and if he ever feels outright contempt, he keeps it to himself. (p. 50)

John Gross, "He Brings News about Literature," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 3, 1979, pp. 1, 50.

[In "The Myth Makers"] Mr. Pritchett shows a marvellous acquaintance with literature as both a body of works and a branch of professional activity, and he walks among the mighty spirits with the benign authority of an investigating angel, taking puckish notes…. Mr. Pritchett's ease in the ballrooms of history is absolute. He greets each master by the hand and, while seeming to make small talk, elicits from all the essence of their personalities; for García Márquez, he sees, "life is ephemeral but dignified by fatality," and the nineteenth-century Spaniard Perez Galdos is complimented: "The fact is that Galdos accepts human nature without resentment." Criticism this humane, precise, and unpedantic freshens the classics like a morning breeze. (p. 163)

"Briefly Noted: 'The Myth Makers'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 17, June 11, 1979, pp. 162-3.

John Harvey

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[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 the wish to commend goes to some extent against the grain, as with Genêt, and the deliberately plain and downright prose, meeting difficulties, shines a quick but sharp torch on them. (p. 92)

The question of myth, announced in the title, is chiefly raised in the penultimate essay on Marquez. The magical fantasy in Marquez's stories is not only poetic and beautiful, but also robust with its joint sources in dream, folklore and village gossip. But is that fantasy myth? It never has been fully made clear how the term 'myth', with its associations of ritual and the supernatural, should be applied to such a form as the novel; but one would perhaps expect a novel that is a myth to tell a large story, strong and clear in outline, setting before us and confirming our most important transactions. And I don't think it is clear that Marquez's novels do have in the centre of their scattered marvels that kind of story. In any case one wants to ask—as one does also of the novels of Thomas Pynchon, with their far-flung systems-building of metaphor and their Monty Python characters—however poetic a novel, can its characters really move in a world of myth, if the escape from realism has followed fancy so far that the intuition of human motive has gone cranky, grotesque or fey? (p. 93)

John Harvey, "Vines and Vignettes," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of John Harvey), Vol. 102, No. 2620, July 19, 1979, pp. 92-3.

Anatole Broyard

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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 the professor, "They lost his interest: he had always lived for reverie." (p. 538)

[The story, however,] is too simple. The measure of a story is the complexity of its promise or threat. There just isn't enough dimension here….

"The Spanish Bed," "The Worshippers," "The Accompanist" and "Tea With Mrs. Bittell" are so unabashedly contrived, so remote from any possibility of relevance, that one can only stare at them. In their odd way, they are extraordinary achievements, wonderful practical jokes….

Frank Kermode calls Mr. Pritchett "the finest English writer alive," and Irving Howe says "no one alive writes a better sentence." I'm not sure about his sentences—I could quote a few—but he certainly is, as these gentlemen say, alive. So, long live V. S. Pritchett! (p. 539)

Anatole Broyard, "'On the Edge of the Cliff'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 31, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 11, 1979, pp. 538-39).

Jonathan Penner

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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

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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

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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

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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 least snobbish of English writers, a clear-eyed but amiable democrat who treats his characters [in the collection "On the Edge of the Cliff"] with sublime fairness, playing no favorites, settling no scores. They are created substantially, with strong, sometimes eccentric outlines. Often their behavior is droll. But they are by no means "humors" characters in the manner of Dickens and his predecessors, for they have not been allowed to harden into crustacean-like rigidity; instead, they are presented as capable of sudden insights and moral qualms, of sudden reversals of course that suggest complexity and depth. Essentially Pritchett is a psychological realist who permits his characters to keep their options open while sparing them that diffusion or dissolution of ego so common in our psychologizing age. In this respect they seem more distinctively, more "archaically" English than American….

Like most of the stories in the collection, "On the Edge of the Cliff" is shrewdly constructed, though not at all, in the accepted sense, "well made." While full of twistings, the narrative line is sinewy; the surprises—and there are many in a good Pritchett story—never seem arbitrary. The play of language in the stories is also full of odd turnings, with a freshness of imagery that is sometimes startling and nearly always a source of delight….

Containing only one story ("The Spanish Bed") that I would consider a relative failure, On the Edge of the Cliff may well be his strongest collection to date. In both his vision and his craft, Pritchett has currently no equal as a short-story writer in England—and only a few elsewhere in the English-speaking world. (p. 26)

Robert Towers, "Fair Play," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, February 7, 1980, pp. 25-6.


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


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