Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.
—V. S. Pritchett on Edward Gibbon

“The Age of Criticism,” Randall Jarrell called the literary life of his own day, in an essay of that title written in the early 1950s. Jarrell used the phrase in derogation: there was too much criticism, from his point of view, and too much of it was extravagant in its pretensions. From the standpoint of today, however, that age is beginning to look more and more admirable. At the time T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, F. R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling were working at the critic’s trade; so were John Crowe Ransom, William Empson, Yvor Winters, and Randall Jarrell himself, and to these one could, without too much strain, add another score or so of fairly impressive names.

Although born in 1900, and very much in his prime at the time of Randall Jarrell’s essay, V. S. Pritchett’s is not a name that many people would have included among the important figures from the Age of Criticism. For one thing, he didn’t have a job at a university—he hadn’t, come to that, even attended a university. For another, he had no interest in the theoretical or even disputatious aspects of literature: he wrote, that is to say, without an argument or a case to make. And for a third, he made his living from his writing, publishing (most frequently in The New Statesman) two-thousand-or-so-word book reviews every week, supplementing these with a steady production of travel books, fiction, and biographical literary studies. In the Age of Criticism, Pritchett would have been called, with a slight air of put-down, a reviewer, or, only a touch more generously, a literary journalist.

Perhaps Pritchett’s problem had to do with the fact that writing criticism, as practiced at the highest levels, is in some quarters regarded rather like making love: it is not thought quite proper to do it for money. V. S. Pritchett is a professional writer. At an earlier time, he would have been known as a man of letters, and John Gross, in the afterword to the new edition of his Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, remarks that “no living man of letters had a better claim to be included” in his book than V. S. Pritchett. In fact, Pritchett was still very much in full sail when the first edition of Mr. Gross’s book appeared in 1969. A Cab at the Door, the first of Pritchett’s autobiographical volumes, had only just been announced—he would later write a second such volume, Midnight Oil— and much Pritchettian prose would flow under the bridge between then and now. The fluvial metaphor is perhaps allowable, since V. S. Pritchett has himself become something like the Ol’ Man River of contemporary English literature: now in his early nineties, he jus’ keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin’ along. In the recently pubished second volume of his autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, Anthony Burgess mentions seeing “an ancient but thriving Victor Pritchett.” To put Pritchett’s age in perspective, it helps to know that he read Virginia Woolf’s books when they were just out.

To commemorate his achievement, perhaps also to mark his endurance, Pritchett’s publishers, both in England and in the United States, have recently issued two thick volumes of his work: the Complete Collected Stories[1] and the Complete Collected Essays;[2] the latter, more precisely, turns out to be the collected literary criticism. Taken together, these two books run to nearly 2,500 pages and weigh in, on our family French cook- ing scale, at just over seven pounds. These books, neither of which comes with an introduction or a prefatory word from their author or anyone else, are clearly meant as a tribute and one that provides the occasion to consider the now all-but-rounded-out career of a remarkable writer.

V S. Pritchett is both a throwback and an oddity. He is a throwback to a time when, in England, one could write about literature with the assumption that there was no need to teach or preach to your readers, but as if one were merely holding up one’s end in an intelligent conversation. The assumption behind this seemed to be that your readers had of course read the same books you had; and that, if a new book was under discussion, they would soon read this book, too. Criticism in America has generally had more to do with teaching one’s readers: introducing them to new subjects, straightening them out on old ones. An element of unspoken condescension often entered—and continues to enter—into the transaction. Criticism written by Americans has tended to be more thorough, that written by Englishmen—or at least by some Englishmen—more charming. V. S. Pritchett may be the last Englishman to have worked under the splendid assumption that his readers knew quite as much as he, were interested in pretty much the same things, and operated at the same level of sophistication.

Victor (after Queen Victoria) Sawdon (his grandmother’s maiden name) Pritchett is an oddity—just how odd is explained in his autobiographical volumes—in not being in any way to the manner of literary culture born. To begin with a stark short-story writer’s fact that he supplies, he grew up in a home without a dictionary. His was a family, he wrote in Midnight Oil, “where manners were unknown, where everyone shouted, and no one had any notion of taste, either good or bad.” His father, a failed small business man, had greater powers of fantasy than of imagination, and his mother’s idea of jolly sport was changing the living-room furniture around. By the time he was twelve, the family had moved something like a dozen times, each move necessitated by his Micawberish father’s having fallen from yet another financial tightrope. Living on the economic edge, the family worked without a net. The cab was all too often at the door.

Along with these discouragements, Pritchett’s father became an earnest Christian Scientist. Pritchett describes this religion, to which as a boy he was himself an adherent, as “notoriously a menopause religion,” and one that, doubtless owing to its abstractness, “sounded better in German.” Later in life he would describe it as “an enfeebled form of Emersonian metaphysics.” In a story titled “The Saint,” Pritchett remarks that “indeed our religion taught us never to believe what we saw”—not exactly the best training for a writer in the making. A religion of optimism, at least Christian Science didn’t weigh a young man down with heavy notions of original sin. When he was young, Christian Science also provided Pritchett a social life through its Sunday school. In Paris, beginning to write, he early published in a Christian Science journal. He claimed that what finally allowed him to slip away from the religion was family egotism: “From our mother we had inherited an eye and ear for comedy; from our grandfather and father, a gift for irony and sarcasm.”

Pritchett should by all rights have ended his days at a clerkish job of some sort—in a bank, perhaps, or a minor government department—for, as he says in the first volume of his autobiography, his grammar school was “intended to supply clerks for the boys who were going to public schools.” He was a sometimes passionate but highly uneven student. He failed the one examination that might have provided him a chance to go to university. Had he not done so, he feels, he probably would have gone on to become a teacher or an academic. “I had had a narrow escape,” he laconically notes. His grandfather, whom he describes as “looking like a sergeant major who didn’t drink,” upon one day inquiring after young Victor’s age and being told he was fifteen, flatly stated to his father, “Put him to work.” The sentence came down like the thump of a gavel. “My boyhood,” Pritchett sadly remarks, “was over.” He was sent out, wearing a bowler hat, to work in the leather trades.

How did Pritchett slog on through to achieve such considerable renown for literary achievement: from benighted to knighted in one generation, for he is now Sir Victor? As with many another writer, his natural disadvantages were a help. He hated dull work, he suffered from ennui, he had neither the taste nor the talent for making money. On the credit side of the ledger, he had an instinctive admiration for skill in any form; an aptitude for language, French and German being two subjects he had done well at in school and the sound of words being an obsession of his from childhood; and he felt a yearning toward art and culture and, to go along with it, a usefully nagging sense of his own inferiority. “Would I ‘catch up?’” he asked himself, daunted as a boy by the books in a friend’s father’s library. (Decades later he would write: “I am appalled by the amount I have read.”) Finally, his own homelife had distanced him from the world, and the seven years he would later spend in France, Spain, and Ireland made him feel a stranger at home and a foreigner even in his own country. What we have here, seen in retrospect, is the perfect combination of elements for a writer: a young man of intelligence, energy, and curiosity, mildly disaffected, and unfit to do anything else but write.

After a spell working in the leather trade in Paris, during which he attempted to paint, Pritchett began writing in earnest. His first publication was a joke he sold to The New York Herald, about which, in Midnight Oil, he notes: “It taught me one thing. If one had nothing to say one could at any rate write what other people said.” (Writing what other people said—sounds rather like the perfect job description of the literary critic.) One minor publication led to another; soon he set to work on a travel book. He made a mistaken first marriage. (All Pritchett’s subsequent books are dedicated to his second wife, Dorothy.) He worked as a correspondent in Ireland and then in Spain, a country with which he fell in love. (His dearest friend was Gerald Brenan, author of The Spanish Labyrinth.) As a writer, he preferred to use the initials V. S. because he liked the impersonality of it, and, besides, “to have added the ‘t’ of Victor to a name that already had three [t’s], and was already made fidgety by a crush of consonants and two short vowels, seemed ridiculous.”

Pritchett’s first book, Marching Spain, a travel book, was filled, as he allowed more than forty years after having written it, with “exhibitionist prose” and errors of fact, but also with touches of originality and vigor. Not least among V. S. Pritchett’s gifts is his ability to apprehend his own literary qualities. It is part of his talent for getting outside himself; a rare skill, it makes him in some ways his own best critic. In scattered comments in Midnight Oil, he limns his strengths and weaknesses, proclivities and antipathies with a nice detachment fitting to a writer who claims that “to strain after the essence of things has become a mania with me.”

“I am no thinker or philosopher,” Pritchett avers, truly enough. He knows that such truths as are available to him come through the impressions experience makes on him. He claims to have had a “vulgar instinct for survival.” He also believes that “any originality in my writing is due to having something of a foreign mind,” even though he is usually described as a traditionally English writer. “I have talent,” he writes, “but no genius.” That may well be true, but it has always seemed to me that the English language is deficient in not possessing a word that lies between the two; it would be a word that described how far talent, honed under the pressure of unrelenting hard work, can take one. This missing word would, I think, apply nicely to V. S. Pritchett.

Pritchett began writing for The New Statesman in 1928, when Clifford Sharp was editor and the charmingly indolent Desmond MacCarthy, who was rarely to be found on the premises, was literary editor. The weekly was dedicated to Fabian Socialism, but always allowed itself lots of latitude in the back of the book, as the pages given over to books and culture were called. Although his was a generation whose politics were formed by the Spanish Civil War, Pritchett reports that his own experience with so all-embracing a religion as Christian Science made it impossible for him to swallow Marxism, whose totalitarian consequences were repugnant to him. Besides, as he writes, “I was constitutionally a non-believer. Rarely have the active politicals had a deep regard for imaginative literature.” And the political, it is true, has never been anywhere near the center of Pritchett’s own writing, either as a critic or a storyteller.

Pritchett kept up his connection with The New Statesman through the years, all the while writing for other papers, but it was during World War II that the nature of his book reviewing there changed. Until then he wrote about new books, but, with the paper shortages owing to the war greatly curtailing the production of new books, and many other contributors to the paper off fighting the war, he was now called upon to write the leading literary article for each week’s issue. It was usually an article dealing with a re-reading of one of the classics. At a length of not more than two thousand words, he kept a flow of these articles coming: “one week the subject might be Walter Scott, the next Dostoyevsky, after that Benjamin Constant, George Fox, Zola, Gil Blas, and so on.” This turned him from a reviewer with highbrow tastes into something much closer to a critic.

As Pritchett notes in Midnight Oil, he not only had no university training in any branch of literature, but “I had no critical doctrine —a shock later to the platoons of New Critics and later regiments—for critical doctrine is of little interest to the novelist, though it may mean something to the poet.” He did avail himself of a few core notions: one was that the historical situation of the writer was always of interest; another that, as a practicing novelist and short-story writer himself, he often had keen and useful insights into the means and methods with which novelists worked; and yet another was that “literature grows out of literature as much as out of a writer’s times,” by which he meant nothing so arcane as Professor Harold Bloom’s “the anxiety of influence,” but, as he puts it in an essay on Goncharov, “literature had a double source: one in life, the other in literature itself.”

Although early in his career Pritchett produced a few novels, and he wrote more than one complete book on Spain, his reputation today rests on his work as a literary critic and as a short-story writer. Lucky is the writer who has found his forms, and these have been Pritchett’s. “I have had to conclude,” he writes in Midnight Oil, “that I am a writer who takes short breaths, and in consequence the story and the essay have been the best forms for me.” I have called Pritchett a literary critic, but the term “literary essayist” perhaps makes a better fit. Unlike the great literary critics, Pritchett does not write out of a moral or cultural program. Approaching the work of a writer, often a writer of well-established reputation, Pritchett seems instead keenest to understand why this writer exerts the powerful interest he does and whence his power derives. The placement of a writer in his tradition and a judgment upon his work finally do emerge in a Pritchett essay, but they tend to do so subtly, by the way, almost as matters of subsidiary interest.

About his literary essays Pritchett has written: “I see myself as a practicing writer who gives himself to a book as he gives himself to any human experience,” which is reminiscent of Anatole France’s remark that “the good critic is he who relates the adventures of his soul amongst masterpieces.” Pritchett has not written about poets. (In A Cab at the Door, he claims that the forms of Protestantism in which he was brought up fertilized neither sensibility nor the poetic imagination, but in prose he “found the common experience and the solid worlds where judgments were made and in which one could firmly tread.”) He occasionally writes about but is less than satisfactory on books of limited subject (Malraux on Picasso), or books about a single event or incident in literary history (the murder of Lorca), or a historical work (Ladurie’s Montaillou). He has written preponderantly about novelists, where he is at his best, and he is especially good when presented with an opportunity to biograph, or draw a portrait of the novelist through his work.

V. S. Pritchett is a critic without anger. He shows some mild animus against academic criticism, with its penchant for barbed-wire jargon, and in one of his essays notes that “literary criticism does not add to its status by opening an intellectual hardware store.” He is also quite without snobbery, and can be amusing on other people’s snobbery. Of Evelyn Waugh’s autobiography, A Little Learning, he writes: “Prep school, public school, university: these now tedious influences standardise English autobiography, giving the educated Englishman the sad if fascinating appearance of a stuffed bird of sly and beady eye in some odd seaside museum.” Only rarely is he autobiographical in his criticism, and when he is, he is rather touchingly so: “The last time I wept over a novel was in reading Tess when I was 18. Fifty years later Fortunata [a character in Peréz Galdós’s novel Fortunata and Jacenta] has made me weep again.”

That Pritchett would weep over the fate of a character in a novel is revealing of his method as a critic. For Pritchett takes characters in novels very seriously. He will write, devastatingly, of the characters in Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, that Butler “chose them for their mediocrity and then cursed them for it.” Of Middlemarch, Pritchett writes that “the most moving thing in the book—and I always think this is the real test of a novelist—is given to the least likeable people.” Characters do seem to have a life of their own for Pritchett, and part of the mystery of fiction is that novelists can on occasion create characters much more interesting than themselves. As a case in point, he adduces Oblomov so much more fascinating than the rather dull state official who was his creator, Ivan Goncharov. “From what leak in a mind so small and sealed,” writes Pritchett, “did the unconscious drip out and produce the character of Oblomov, the sainted figure of non-productive sloth and inertia; one of those creatures who become larger and larger as we read?”

Pritchett’s interest in both writers and the characters they create spares him, in most cases, the sleep-inducing burden of most critics of fiction, which is tedious plot summary. Writing about established masterpieces, Pritchett seldom has to take his readers by the hand and summarize the plot for them. At the same time, he understands that criticism, if it is to have a reasonably long life—and it is striking how readable so much of Pritchett’s own criticism remains —must tell a story. The story that his criticism tells is about writers—their struggles, their creations, their uniqueness—so that, as Derwent May, writing in the TLS, has said, in a Pritchett essay we have not just the story of the novel but “the story of the writing and the reading of it as well.” What Pritchett does, then, is tell us a story about the story.

Appreciation is at the heart of V. S. Pritchett’s criticism. Appreciation provides a severe limitation on a critic, making him only as good as the work he is appreciative of. Perhaps this is why Pritchett seems best on nineteenth-century fiction, especially Russian and French fiction. He seems to me weakest on American writers: Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, John Updike, S. J. Perelman, all of whom, with his customary impulse toward appreciation, I believe he overrates. Part of his problem with these writers is that they haven’t created strong characters of the kind that are best for Pritchett’s particular kind of criticism or that are memorable for more than their muddle; or, to put it more precisely, their muddle, unlike that of the characters of Italo Svevo, a writer whom Pritchett adores, is without redeeming charms. It may well be that the quality of a nation’s fiction during any particular period is best measured by the number of memorable characters that fiction collectively yields. American fiction of the past thirty or so years does not score high by this test.

Impressive though I remember many of V. S. Pritchett’s essays being when I first encountered them in The New Statesman, these essays seem even more impressive when read in bulk. One of the reasons for this is that one discovers that Pritchett has the ability to write freshly on a subject one might have thought had already been quite exhausted through having been critically over-mined in the work of academics—strip-mined might be the better term. George Bernard Shaw qualifies as such a subject. In a few neatly formulated sentences, Pritchett can reinvigorate interest in him. Shaw’s “own addictions,” he writes, “were the Irish addiction to words and the Puritan’s to work.” A few paragraphs on, he adds: “The Irish are almost always shy, almost always trying to conceal, and they have notoriously been apt to produce a stage personality to do so.” True, it seems to me, not only of Shaw but of Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and every other strong Irish writer.

Reading Pritchett in bulk, one is also reminded of his appetite for generalization and, what often comes to the same thing, aphorism. The generalization and the aphoristic formulation are the natural tools of the critic seeking essences. From the Complete Collected Essays, one could almost scrape out a slender volume of Pritchett’s Unfamiliar But Damn Good Quotations. Allow me to offer a handful: “Travel is one of the great rivals of women.” “Literature is made of the misfortunes of others.” “There is more magic in sin if it is not committed.” “The principle of procrastinated rape is said to be the ruling one in all the great best-sellers.” “The peculiar power of American nostalgia is that it is not only harking back to something lost in the past, but suggests also the tragedy of a lost future.” “The ecstasies of sexual sensation are no more to be described than the ecstasies of music they resemble.” “Remove the vices of a novelist and his virtues vanish too.”

In Pritchett’s searching for writers’ essences, his essays strike many such generalizations and cut many fine distinctions, while his own wide reading has given him the power to make endless comparisons between writers and between centuries and between national literatures. This is, after all, what a literary critic does, even though fewer and fewer practitioners are up to the job. But toward what end does he put on this display of a subtle and well-stocked mind in action? It is a pleasing enough game—and, for those of us who have a taste for it, splendid to watch—but when is the trophy awarded?

The answer, which will not come to everyone as good news, is never. Not only is there nothing definitive, nothing of the last word about any of Pritchett’s criticism, but it is unlikely that he ever expected there would be. Reviewing a collection of Graham Greene’s essays, Pritchett remarked that, in this particular book, Greene was “before anything a novelist-critic—that is to say he writes to discover something for his purposes which might not be ours. His reviews are an artist’s raids.” There is something of this quality in Pritchett’s literary essays, too, except that he is interested in what we all ought to be interested in: the mysteries of literary creation and what writers can tell us about human nature.

Pritchett joins the overwhelming majority in not being able to say with precision what human nature is, but he does greatly admire those writers who accept, as he says the novelist Galdós does, “human nature without resentment.” One of the reasons Pritchett is so taken with Italo Svevo is that Svevo had the courage and the comic gift not only to investigate the contradictoriness of human nature but come up laughing at what he found. Although he appreciates much, Pritchett admires above all those writers, Jane Austen and Henry Fielding among them, “who face life squarely.” Of them he writes:

They are grown up. They do not cry for the moon. I do not mean that to be grown up is the first requirement of genius. To be grown up may be fatal to it. But short of the great illuminating madness, there is a power to sustain, assure, and enlarge us in those novelists who are not driven back by life, who are not shattered by the discovery that it is a thing bounded by unsought limits, by interests as well as by hopes, and that it ripens under restrictions. Such writers accept. They think that acceptance is the duty of a man.

Pritchett has written vast quantities of both criticism and fiction, but his personality comes through much more clearly in his criticism. He is, as usual, quite aware of this fact, even though he reports that writing stories has given him greater pleasure than writing criticism. “In my criticism, perhaps even more than in my stories, I am self-portrayed. When I reread those essays written in such number over the last thirty years, I am surprised to see how much they are pitted with personal experience, and how much reaction to life itself, either nettled or expansive, has been packed into an epigram or an aside.” One of the problems with other critics who have written fiction—Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling come to mind—is that they sound quite the same in their fiction as they do in their criticism, so that fiction becomes, like war and diplomacy for Clausewitz, chiefly criticism by other means.

Nothing of the kind is true of Pritchett. Only rarely is the storyteller in him likely to be mistaken for the critic, so differently do the two sound. While a V. S. Pritchett literary essay has its author’s fingerprints all over it, I am not so sure that I could recognize a V. S. Pritchett short story without its author’s name atop it. “The creative writer must know his own mind,” Desmond MacCarthy once remarked, “the critic must also know the minds of other people.” As a storyteller there is something ventriloquistic about Pritchett. Voice, the current cant word in university creative writing programs to describe the distinctive way a writer sounds, is not strong in Pritchett’s fiction. He does many voices: he does the lower-middle and working classes in a hundred different voices. His own sometimes gets lost in the cacophony.

Is this a bad thing? Does it matter if there is nothing distinctively Pritchettian about a V. S. Pritchett short story? Isn’t the main thing that a fair number simply are good stories—and the hell with their fitting a pattern or dovetailing into something sufficiently uniform to be called an oeuvre? Writers of great contemporary reputation— Eudora Welty, William Trevor, Robertson Davies—have weighed in with testimonials about the pleasure Pritchett’s stories give and compare them with those of Joyce and Chekhov. One understands their having done so; one wants to admire Pritchett’s stories.

Something about the quietly sedulous way Pritchett has written his fiction is immensely attractive. There is an admirably selfless quality to his storytelling. For one thing, he has, in his fiction, taken up a people forgotten by literature: the English lower-middle class of shopkeepers, salesmen, dentists, minor manufacturers, publicans, clerks, antique dealers, and wives whose beauty and dreams have faded too quickly. What Pritchett once wrote about Gissing, may, in good part, also be said of him: “[His] discovery that in all character there sits a mind, and that the mind of the dullest is not dull because, at its very lowest, it will at least reflect the social dilemma into which it was born, is arresting.” The point is connected with Pritchett’s general view, set out in his criticism, that fiction ought not to disparage its characters or be written as if by foreigners living in their own country, which he believes a good deal of English and American fiction appears to have been.

Much of the program for Pritchett’s own fiction seems to have been announced in his criticism. Apropos of Isaac Babel, Pritchett writes that “short story writers are poets,” and that what the short story sets out to achieve is “an insight.” Apropos of Borges, he notes that, “in the writer of short stories as in the poet, a distinctive voice, unlike all others, must arrest us,” and he adds that the test of the artist is whether he can make his ideas walk, which is to say, come alive. Apropos of Kipling, he adds that the short story is “a form which depends on intensifying the subject, stamping a climate on it, getting at the essence of it.”

Many of Pritchett’s own stories exemplify these aesthetic axioms. Poetic though he may think the short-story form ultimately is or ought to be, his own vast output of stories includes almost every variety known to the form, and in my opinion his longer stories tend to be better than those in which he goes after more strictly poetic effects. “A short story,” he writes in an essay on Flannery O’Connor, “ought to be faultless without being mechanical. The wrong word, a misplaced paragraph, an inadequate phrase or a convenient explanation, start fatal leaks in this kind of writing which is formally very close to poetry.”

If Pritchett has a serious fault as a story- teller it is in his own impulse toward the poetic, which shows up in occasional small but disturbing touches. In one story a man sticks his hands in “his optimistic pockets”; in another a woman is wearing a “capable skirt”; another woman has “the disorder of a story”; a man is “as conceited as a gravestone”; another man has “an unreasonable chin and emotional knees”; yet another man stands “like a touchy exclamation mark”; and several clerks have “dejected buttocks,” for which perhaps trousers with “optimistic pockets” ought to be recommended.

The stories are also sometimes studded with occasional aphoristic bits reminiscent of V. S. Pritchett’s criticism. The narrator of “The Sailor” remarks: “Actually, I am in favour of snobbery, it is a sign of character. It’s a bad thing to have, but it’s a bad thing not to have had. You can’t help having the diseases of your time.” In the same story, the same character announces that “the secret of happiness is to find a congenial monotony.” There are also numerous little touches straining after poetry and achieving it, such as a clergyman, in one story, comporting himself “like the actor walking in the sun of his own vanity”; or the man who, moving different parts of his body separately, “danced, as it were, in committee.” Pritchett can be relied upon to have done his homework. If he writes about antique dealers, or window-washers, or bakers, he is always careful to get the niceties of these lines of work right. He often penetrates well beneath the surface of details to understand the drama playing there, a drama that is inseparable from a knowledge of such details. In “The Camberwell Beauty,” a story about the obsession of antique dealing, Pritchett writes:

Mrs. Price—August’s woman—was living with a man exactly like the others in the trade: he hated customers and hated parting with anything. By middle age these women have dead blank faces, they look with resentment and indifference at what is choking their shops; their eyes go smaller and smaller as the chances of getting rid of it become rarer and rarer and they are defeated. Kept out of the deals their husbands have among themselves, they see even their natural love of intrigue frustrated. This was the case of Mrs. Price, who must have been handsome in a big-boned way when she was young, but who had swollen into a drudge.

If a poet can hit the gong six or seven times, leaving behind that number of great poems, his claim to immortality, it has been said, is assured. The same ought perhaps to be true of storytellers, except that, as has been noted countless times, not least by V. S. Pritchett in his criticism, “how little a novelist’s [or short-story writer’s] choice of story and character widens or changes between his first book and his last.” This seems to be true, too, of Pritchett’s own stories, eighty-two of which are included in his Complete Collected Stories, with the added oddity that one of his best stories, “Sense of Humour,” is also among his earliest. Of these four-score and two stories, six or seven really are splendid. Among them I would include, along with “Sense of Humour,” “It May Never Happen,” “The Saint,” “The Camberwell Beauty,” “The Sailor,” “The Skeleton,” and “The Necklace.” For really splendid stories, that’s a lot.

In his fiction, Pritchett is thought to be a comic writer. “Class is a funny thing,” says a character, double-entendrically, in the story “Noisy Flushes the Birds,” and though Pritchett wrings much humor out of the sometimes extreme social limitations that are locked in by social class in England, his stories are more often striking in their darkness. Loneliness is the condition of so many of Pritchett’s characters, who must make do with a life that has disappointed expectations, where expectations even existed in the first place. “There is a loneliness in fat,” he remarks of the two fat men in one of his stories. An elderly homosexual, after tea and toast in the morning, “looked eagerly to see what was annoying in the papers—some new annoyance to add to a lifetime’s accumulation of annoyances.” “The Two Brothers,” another tale of loneliness, ends on the following sentences: “He took out a razor and became absorbed in the difficulty of cutting his throat. He was not quite dead when the Guards broke in and found him.” Life, in Pritchett’s stories, twists and breaks people apart.

The final story in the Complete Collected Stories, “The Image Trade,” which feels very autobiographical, is about an elderly writer named Pearson who is being photographed by a fashionable photographer named Zut. As the photographer is setting things up, the writer thinks:

Dozens of photographs of me have been taken. I could show you my early slim-subaltern-on-the -Somme-waiting-to-go-over-the-top period. There was my Popular Front look in the Thirties and Forties, the jersey-wearing, all-the-world’s-a-coal-mine period, with close-ups of the pores and scars of the skin and the gleam of sweat. There was the editorial look, when the tailor had to let out the waist of my trousers, followed by the successful smirk. In the Sixties the plunging neckline, no tie. Then back to collar and tie in my failed-bronze-Olympic period. Today I fascinate archaeologists—you know, the broken pillar of a lost civilisation. Come on, Zut. What do you want?

Later, when Pearson is presented with the finished photograph, he claims to see in its high-ceilinged, book-filled room not a room at all but “a dank cistern or aquarium of stale water. No sparkling anemone there but the bald head of a melancholy frog, its feet clinging to a log, floating in literature.” Quite an arresting, not to say devastating, little image, that, suggesting that a career soaked in literature can turn a man at the end of a long life into a saddened frog. Must be something to it, viewed from within, or else Pritchett would not have thought of it.

And yet how different Pritchett’s career looks from outside that room! Brick by brick, essay by essay, story by story, he has over the years built a modest yet quite sturdy literary edifice. Writing for a small and probably diminishing audience, he has never lowered his standard or sullied his integrity. In an essay on the novelist Ada Leverson, Pritchett claimed that her career proved that one could be both a minor novelist and yet a considerable artist. To bring this off, he felt, one required a freshness of view without borrowing the courage of anyone else’s convictions; skill in construction and distinction in style; and a delight in one’s own limits, so that even when one was dealing only with what seemed the surface of life one’s seriousness and life-enhancing quality shone through. Pritchett might, of course, have been writing about himself—a doubtless minor writer, but a true artist who has written an uncommonly high number of essays and stories built to last.

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  1. V. S. Pritchett: Complete Collected Stories; Random House, 1,220 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
  2. V. S. Pritchett: Complete Collected Essays; Random House, 1,139 pages, $35. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 7, on page 19
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