Other Literary Forms

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V. S. Pritchett’s sixty-year career as a writer, apart from his many short stories, produced several novels (not well received), two autobiographies (A Cab at the Door, 1968, and Midnight Oil, 1972), several travel books (the noteworthy ones including The Spanish Temper, 1954, and The Offensive Traveller, 1964), volumes of literary criticism, literary biographies (George Meredith and English Comedy, 1970; Balzac, 1973; The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev, 1977), essays (among them New York Proclaimed, 1965, and The Working Novelist, 1965), and journalistic pieces from France, Spain, Ireland, and the United States that remain in the literary canon, so well are they written.

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Achievements

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In his long and distinguished career, V. S. Pritchett, who prefers the abbreviation V. S. P., produced an impressive number of books in all genres—from novels and short stories, on which rests his fame, to literary criticism, travel books, and journalistic pieces written for The Christian Science Monitor when he covered Ireland, Spain, and France. His most successful genre was the short story, which resulted from his razor-sharp characterizations of all classes, both in England and on the Continent, his focus on the moment of epiphany, his graceful writing, and his ironic, bittersweet wit. Pritchett has the uncanny ability to select a commonplace moment and through imagery, wit, and irony lift it to a transfiguration. He focuses on the foibles of all people without malice, anger, or sentimentality but rather with humor, gentleness, and understanding. In his preface to Collected Stories, Pritchett states that although some people believe that the short story has lost some of its popularity, he does not think so: “[T]his is not my experience; thousands of addicts still delight in it because it is above all memorable and is not simply read, but re-read again and again. It is the glancing form of fiction that seems to be right for the nervousness and restlessness of contemporary life.”

Other literary forms

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V. S. Pritchett (PRIHCH-iht) is recognized above all as a master of the short story. His stories rely less on plot than on character—character revealed principally through dialogue. Many of Pritchett’s stories were first published in magazines; they have been collected, however, in more than a dozen volumes.

Pritchett is also widely known as a travel writer and a literary critic and biographer. As the former, he produced several works, among which The Spanish Temper (1954) was perhaps most highly praised. The Offensive Traveller (1964; also known as Foreign Faces) is a collection of numerous previously published travel essays. Pritchett’s literary biographies include Balzac: A Biography (1973), The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev (1977), and Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (1988). His criticism ranges across more than four decades, from In My Good Books (1942) to A Man of Letters (1985). Two autobiographical works by Pritchett, A Cab at the Door (1968) and Midnight Oil (1972) are regarded as classics of the genre.

Achievements

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During the second half of the twentieth century, V. S. Pritchett’s readership and influence in the United States grew considerably. After the 1950’s, his stories appeared frequently in The New Yorker, and selections of his reviews appeared yearly in The New York Review of Books. He was the Christian Gauss Lecturer at Princeton University (1953), writer-in-residence at Smith College (1966), Beckman Professor at the University of California at Berkeley (1962), and visiting professor at Brandeis University (1968). His fiction and criticism alike were enjoyed and praised by American critics—his fiction for its social comedy, acute characterization, and subtle manner, his criticism for its focus, lucidity, and balance. As a “literary journalist,” he has been compared to Edmund Wilson, and his sentences, whether in fiction or nonfiction, are thought to be among the best written in English in the twentieth century. In England, he was an elder statesman of letters, many times honored. He was the Clark Lecturer at Cambridge University (1969) and was awarded a D.Litt. by Leeds University (1972). He served as president of the British Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) in 1970 and of the International PEN Club in 1974. He was the recipient of two awards for nonfiction, the Heinemann in 1969 and the International PEN Club in 1974. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1969, he was made a Commander of the British Empire, and in 1975, he was knighted.

Discussion Topics

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Since V. S. Pritchett is skilled at depicting relationships, an important element in the novel, what limitations in his long fiction keep it from being as effective as his short stories?

What does Pritchett’s “When My Girl Comes Home” reveal about the effects of a war upon civilians?

What are the implications of Pritchett’s use of a title seemingly based on a cliché, “Blind Love”?

Is Pritchett condemning the collecting of antiques or any particular aspect of collecting in “The Camberwell Beauty”?

Cite several instances of Pritchett conveying a sense of dignity in characters whom he has introduced comically.

Bibliography

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Angell, Roger. “Marching Life.” The New Yorker 73 (December 22-29, 1997): 126-134. In this biographical sketch, Angell contends that although Pritchett was called First Man of Letters, the title never fit properly because he was neither literary nor a stylist, and he liked to say he was a hack long before he was a critic.

Baldwin, Dean. V. S. Pritchett. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This slim book of 133 pages contains a superb short biography of Pritchett, followed by a clear-cut analysis of his novels, short stories, and nonfiction. One caution is to be noted: Baldwin says there is no article analyzing any of Pritchett’s short stories, yet the Journal of the Short Story in English, an excellent journal published in Angers, France, devoted an entire volume as a special Pritchett issue. It may be that Baldwin’s book was already in the process of publication when the journal issue was completed.

Johnson, Anne Janette. “V(ictor) S(awdon) Pritchett.” In Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by James G. Lesniak. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. This article includes general material on Pritchett’s life and work, with a wide range of critical comments by magazines and literary journals such as The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Republic. Contains a listing of Pritchett’s writings divided into genres and biographical and critical sources, especially those articles that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. Geared for the general reader, with the variety of quotes appealing to a specialist.

Oumhani, Cecile. “Water in V. S. Pritchett’s Art of Revealing.” Journal of the Short Story in English 6 (1986): 75-91. Oumhani probes the immersion motif in the pattern of water imagery in Pritchett’s short stories, especially in “On the Edge of a Cliff,” “The Diver,” “The Saint,” and “Handsome Is as Handsome Does.” Oumhani believes that Pritchett’s views about sensuality can be intuited from the stories she analyzes. The article will appeal to the introductory reader of Freud.

Pritchett, V. S. “An Interview with V. S. Pritchett.” Interview by Ben Forkner and Philippe Sejourne. Journal of the Short Story in English 6 (1986): 11-38. Pritchett in this interview reveals a number of salient details about writing in general and the influences of people like H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. He talks at length about the Irish predilection for storytelling and the Irish ideas about morality and the art of concealment. Pritchett reveals his penchant for the ironic and pays homage to Anton Chekhov, one of his models. He believes that the comic is really a facet of the poetic. The interview is written in a question-answer style and is a straightforward record of Pritchett’s views.

Stinson, John J. V. S. Pritchett: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introduction to Pritchett’s short fiction. Suggests that Pritchett’s stories have been largely ignored by critics because they do not have the symbolic image pattern favored by formalist critics. Provides interpretations of a number of Pritchett’s stories. Includes Pritchett’s own comments on writers who have influenced him, as well as essays on his short fiction by Eudora Welty and William Trevor.

Theroux, Paul. “V. S. Pritchett.” The New York Times Book Review 102 (May 25, 1997): 27. A biographical tribute, claiming that Pritchett was probably the last man who could be called a man of letters; notes that Pritchett worked slowly and with confidence.

Treglown, Jeremy. V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life. New York: Random House, 2004. An admiring and engaging biography of Pritchett that examines both the breadth of Pritchett’s literary production and the highs and lows of his personal life.

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