V. S. Pritchett

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Victor Sawden Pritchett (PRIHCH-iht) was a master of the short story. He was born near London of lower-middle-class parents. Owing to his father’s lack of business sense, the family moved constantly from house to house, from one set of relatives to another. The father, who usually worked as a traveling salesman, dominated his undernourished wife and children, and his conversion to Christian Science caused frequent family quarrels. At school, Pritchett was a mediocre student except in shorthand, French, and German. His hopes of attending a university were shattered when, just before his sixteenth birthday, he was abruptly taken out of school and made an apprentice in the leather trade. His long-smoldering ambition to become a writer led him to abandon his job and move to France in 1921.

In Paris Pritchett lived meagerly and mingled with modest working people. In his leisure he walked indefatigably, read voraciously, and tried to write. Eventually he had some articles accepted by The Christian Science Monitor, which could not pay him because of its financial troubles in Boston. After nearly starving to death, Pritchett returned to England. The newspaper’s London editor promptly sent him to Ireland to write a series of articles on the civil war. Since he knew nothing about politics, he indulged his passions for the countryside, the theater, and Irish poets. As a correspondent, he was later sent to North Africa and the United States.

After being dismissed by The Christian Science Monitor and returning to London in the late 1920’s, Pritchett resolved to walk across Spain. The resulting book, Marching Spain, although not a great success, marked Pritchett’s transition from journalist to freelance writer. He supported himself by writing book reviews and travel sketches, but his real interest was in fiction. Between 1930 and 1940, he published thirty-six short stories. This work represents some of his best writing. He claimed that the improvement was the result of his second marriage. (His earlier marriage to an Irish woman had been the cause of much unhappiness.)

During his three years at American universities (1962, 1966, and 1968), Pritchett had the leisure to compose his two autobiographies, both of which are regarded as classics. By 1970, he was an admired man of letters and had received many awards, culminating in his 1975 knighthood for his contributions to British letters. Although long past the normal age for retirement, Pritchett continued to write.

Of this lifetime of writing it is generally agreed that, apart from the autobiographies, Pritchett’s short stories represent his most enduring claim to fame. In his many volumes of short fiction, written over five decades, certain characteristics remain constant. Generally, the focus is on character rather than on plot. The reader senses that Pritchett sympathizes with the sad, lonely, frustrated people he depicts, no matter how ridiculously they may behave. If they are eccentric, that is proof, according to Pritchett, that they are true to life. The action in each story serves only to explain the characters; it involves the interaction of individuals. Painstaking craftsmanship is evident in each story, and the setting is evoked magically, with great economy. Pritchett does not explain what his characters are feeling. Instead they reveal their emotions in dialogue.

Pritchett’s writing has attracted more admiration than it has critical study, possibly because he offers readers few interpretive hints. Pritchett never entirely divests characters of their dignity; a critic, therefore, finds it difficult to pronounce judgment on them. Furthermore, Pritchett’s work is difficult to categorize because it features an astounding variety of characters. They are drawn from the middle and the working classes, ranging in age from childhood to the elderly. They are male and female, usually but not always British, and they populate at least six different decades. Although the rich literary...

(The entire section is 1,570 words.)