A Deceptively Mild-Mannered Man

The genial brilliance of V.S. Pritchett

The Pritchett Century: A Selection of the Best of V.S. Pritchett
Selected and with a forward by Oliver Pritchett
Modern Library; 800 pages; $23

English culture can be a hall of disguises: Ambition is masked by practicality, and intensity is dressed as laughter. V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997) was a man in disguise. He is the best English short-story writer since Rudyard Kipling and the most serious critic since Virginia Woolf, but his literary temperament was so mild, so surrendering, and so sly that people were induced to accept his pose as a mere genial bookman, a pipe-smoking remnant of the old days. He died earlier this year, but he had disappeared while still alive into a vague posterity. He had become cloudily venerable. In Britain and America he has his large admirers–Gore Vidal, Eudora Welty, Martin Amis–and his small readership.

His son, Oliver, has assembled an anthology of his father’s fiction, travel writing, and essays. That V.S. Pritchett succeeded in hoodwinking his own family can be seen from Oliver’s cozy introductory remark that he has chosen many of the essays “simply for the pleasure they have given me and for the way he has always made literature unintimidating.” But there is no reason to be unintimidated by Pritchett. He is alarmingly good. He is one of those writers, like Coleridge and Woolf, who, under cover of their Englishness, go out to ransack other literatures for their own use. Coleridge borrowed German idealism, and Woolf stole Proust. Pritchett took from the Russians–and from everyone else.

V.S. Pritchett left school at the age of 15 and spent the next 10 years traveling through Europe. Like Woolf, he was a fiend of self-education–almost certainly the only English writer since her who had read all of Sir Walter Scott. In 19th-century Russian fiction, especially in Gogol and Chekhov, he found characters who float on the cushions of their own fantasies–people whose most intense relations are not with others but with themselves. He had seen this in Dickens, and once wrote memorably that Dickens’ characters were all “solitary pronouncers … people whose inner life was hanging out, so to speak, on their tongues, outside their persons.” But Dickens played such people cartoonishly, saw them from the outside as vivid blots of “color.” Pritchett realized that, by contrast, the Russians did not obscure but rather expanded pathos through comedy. They saw their characters from deep inside those characters’ minds.

He started writing short stories in the 1930s and continued for 50 years, but the landscape hardly changed. He located the equivalent of Chekhovian fantasy in a petty bourgeois England of bad teeth and cocky salesmen, velvet-lined pubs and sherry-fed courage. He saw with precision and forgiveness the little surges of enthusiasm, the potted excitements, the respectable fevers of the class into which he had been born and from which he had escaped. His is an art of great subtlety. In “When My Girl Comes Home,” a story from the late 1930s included in The Pritchett Century, he has a paragraph about a London park on a summer evening. Here are the young couples lolling and kissing on the grass, and Pritchett notices that “every now and then a girl would sit up and straighten her skirt at the waist, narrowing her eyes in a pretence of looking at some refining sight in the distance.” The gentle comedy of that sentence is all in the word “refining.”

He Russianized English character, finding a kind of Russian madness or instability in what appeared to be mere English eccentricity. (Eccentricity, he once wrote, is “practical madness.”) In mild disguise himself, he was alert to the broken disguises of others. “The Fall” (1936) is typical. In a drab provincial hotel, a group of accountants is meeting for its annual dinner. One of them, Charles Peacock, would be a nonentity were it not for his famous brother, who is a movie star. Peacock has a trick, which is that he can mimic perfectly his brother’s celebrated stage fall. Early in the evening, Peacock performs this trick a few times to the strained amusement of his colleagues. But he gets drunk, and persists, accosting complete strangers. Each time he falls, he stays a little longer on the ground. By the end of the evening, he is alone in the hotel’s ballroom, falling again and again. The pathos of the story flows from Pritchett’s determination to see things simultaneously from outside and inside Peacock’s head. We see how boring and foolish Peacock has become, but the story makes us stay with him when all the guests have left. We are always on Peacock’s side, and at the end we join him on the carpet with his toppled yearnings.

Pritchett’s quality as a story writer lies in his humility. In the 13 stories selected for this anthology, he forces nothing on his subjects, preferring to absent himself. He lets his characters drift in the wake of his withdrawal. That humility is also one of the virtues of his essays, of which 21–chosen from at least 300–are gathered here. Perhaps this is why he is not better known: In criticism, humility can seem like the absence of qualities. The unhumble Edmund Wilson, his nearest rival–they exchanged polite, edgy letters–is obviously ambitious, and canonical where Pritchett is a reader’s secret. Compared with Pritchett’s, Wilson’s essays have a vigorous alienation from their subjects. They chew through books to the cardboard, and often seem grimly intent on the same universal mastication, whether the subject is Dante or Dickens, Poe or Pushkin. Pritchett, by contrast, approaches fiction gently, seemingly anxious not to overwhelm the form with strong comprehension. (Unlike Wilson, he writes only about prose, and generally about fiction.)

This gentleness is partly temperamental, of course. But Pritchett is a writer-critic, as Wilson, despite his own fiction, was not. His tact is a writer’s. There is a tradition to which Pritchett belongs, that of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, James, and in this century, Woolf–that is, the tradition of poet-critics, at least until the beginning of the modern era. All of them have a certain competitive proximity to the writers they discuss, a competition registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage. Pritchett’s essays are marvels in this regard, full of aphorism, metaphor, and shining adjectives.

Discussing Russian nationalism in that country’s fiction, he sparks, “We are moved by it because of the strangeness of meeting a nationalism rooted not in pride but in humility.” On fictional life: “One of the reasons why bad novels are bad is not that the characters do not live, but that they do not live with one another.” And this, in a small essay on the minor Victorian novelist George Gissing: “The great Russian novels of the nineteenth century arose from the failure of a class, whereas the English sprang out of their success.”

Aphorism is common enough in English criticism, but it is rare for a writer to mix aphorism and metaphor as well as Pritchett does. In an essay on Ford Madox Ford, Pritchett argues that Ford was too brilliant, too facile and self-conscious to be a great novelist: “He never sank into the determined stupor out of which greater novelists work.” In two words–“determined stupor”–Pritchett achieves the paradoxical idea of an artist having to will himself into sleep. (Woolf once complained, in similar vein, that E.M. Forster was like “a light sleeper,” always coming into the next room to interrupt his characters.) Metaphor–and this is vivid in Pritchett’s essays–is the critic’s language of forceful evasion. Forceful, because original; evasive, because it allows the writer-critic to touch every spot on the fictional form except the fiction itself, which is untouchable. As a way of writing about literature, metaphor is the opposite both of contemporary theory (which is hostile to metaphor, seeing it as rhetoric) and of Wilsonian plain-speaking.

When Pritchett’s Complete Essays appeared in 1991, the scope of his critical achievement, which is greater than the fictional achievement, was clear. In 1,300 pages, over several hundred long essays, Pritchett moves through the entire novelistic traditions of America, Russia, England, France, Italy, and Spain, with an excursion to Portugal (his beloved Eça de Queiroz). His calendar is Rabelais onward; Salman Rushdie was the last appointment. There is nothing quite like it in literary journalism, except perhaps Woolf’s ambitious criticism, currently being edited in one massive volume after another.

Yet despite all his brilliances, Pritchett is not as great as Woolf, neither as a critic nor as a writer of fiction. He suspected that his humility was an impediment to the largest, wildest genius. Writing about George Eliot in an essay selected here, he notes that to be a great novelist, “a wide and single purpose in the mind is the chief requirement outside of talent; a strong belief, a strong unbelief, even a strong egoism will produce works of the first order.” Unlike Eliot, he had no strong unbelief. Unlike Woolf, he felt no urge to make manifestoes. His fiction adds to the tradition, but it reads like the logical product of enormous reading, not the confounding of that reading. He did not obsess over one single form. In this anthology, there are extracts from his autobiography; from two critical biographies (Turgenev and Chekhov); from essays, fiction, and travel writing. Having so much talent, he had to pour it into different vessels; lacking the fiercest genius, he was not inclined to smash them.