Secrets of the Shell

The Myth Makers: Literary Essays

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 190 pp., $8.95

Thirty-three years ago in a preface to The Living Novel, V. S. Pritchett described how it was that he came to be the “critic” that he is. I put quotes around the word critic because that is what he himself does when, with characteristic modesty, he tells us how he stopped writing novels and short stories during the Second World War and turned to criticism. “Without leisure or freedom to write what I wanted, I could at least read what I wanted, and I turned to those most remarkable men and women: the great novelists of the past, those who are called the standard novelists.” As he read, he made notes. These notes or reports or reviews were first published in the New Statesman and Nation; then collected in The Living Novel. Since 1946 he has continued to report regularly on his reading, and The Myth Makers is his latest collection of literary essays.

It is interesting to read what Pritchett had to say in 1946 about the impression made on him by “what are called the Standard Novelists [who] have the set air of an officially appointed committee. We had fallen into the error of believing that they were written for critics, for literary historians, for students or for leisured persons of academic tastes; and people who read only the best authors usually let one know it. We had easily forgotten that the masters, great and small, remembered or neglected, were the freshest, the most original, the most importunate and living novelists of their time; that they stood above their contemporaries and survived them, because they were more readable, more entertaining, more suggestive and incomparably more able than the common run of novelist.”

There are certain truths so true that they are practically unbelievable.

“We have only to glance,” Pritchett continues, “at the second-rate novelists to see how they differ in this sense [of contemporaneity] from the masters. The second-rate are rarely of their time. They are not on the tip of the wave. They are born out of date and out of touch and are rooted not in life but in literary convention.”

One thinks of all those busy teachers of English whose spare time is devoted to re-creating yet another version of dead Finnegan and his long-since celebrated wake; or of the really ambitious teacher-writer who wants so much for literature to achieve the pure heights of music (an aside, by the way, not a goal of Joyce); or of the would-be master of the two cultures who wants to encompass within a construct of narrative prose all the known laws, let us say, of thermodynamics. Our universities are positively humming with the sound of fools rushing in. The odd angel bleakly hovers; casts no shadow.

During the last third of a century, V. S. Pritchett has continued to be the best English-language critic of…well, the living novel. How does he do it? And what is it that he does? To begin with, unlike most critics,…

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