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An Ideal Critic

The Living Novel and Later Appreciations

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 467 pp., $6.95

The publication of a new collection of essays by V. S. Pritchett serves as a reminder of the degree to which educated readers are in his debt. The present volume combines a welcome reprinting of the thirty-odd essays of The Living Novel, first published in 1947, to which the author has added twenty-seven new pieces, written and published, presumably, during the interim. These pieces, like their predecessors, first appeared in the columns of the New Statesman. Pritchett is not merely a fixture (and director) of this institution; in retrospect, the distinction of its famous “back of the book” appears, as a practical matter, to be inseparable from the distinction that Pritchett can claim as his own. However imprecise or unfair it may be to both parties, one thinks of the two in the same breath; and both, one may add, have been enhanced by the association.

In the title of this volume, Pritchett refers to these pieces as “appreciations.” In another place he calls them “essays.” Most of them seem to have been in fact written as reviews, yet one feels a certain hesitation in continuing to think of them as “mere” reviews, since most of them effortlessly transcend the form as it is commonly regarded. A similar ambiguity exists in Pritchett’s relation to his office or function. To think of his writing essentially as journalism does honor to the trade, not to him. He is of course a critic, but his essays have neither the weight, ambition, nor presumption of most modern criticism, nor do they seem to provide the occasion for that special kind of spiritual anguish by which modern literary criticism characteristically announces itself, and through which the modern literary critic recognizes himself and his brothers-in-blood. Pritchett’s pieces are all “re-views” in the simple radical sense of the word: they are general surveys and conspectuses of a field; they cast a glance once again over an author’s writings or a genre; they sum up what is to be said in short compass about a particular subject. As much as he is anything else he is a reviewer; and how often has one caught oneself thinking of him as an “ideal reviewer.”

In order to be an “ideal reviewer,” however, one has to be other things as well. Pritchett is both a man of letters in the older sense of the term, and a writer. He has spent a lifetime with literature, and is the master of all English prose fiction. He has read just about everything, and is particularly inward with the range and possibilities of the English novel. And he has the gift of communicating to the reader the continuing and unalloyed pleasure he finds in the act or pastime of reading. His essays on minor English novelists are models of their kind. In his pieces on Arthur Morrison or J. Meade Falkner or Sheridan LeFanu he does the rare thing—he discusses unimportant works one has not read with such warmth, lucidity, and interest that one wants to go out and read these books at once. He adds, in other words, to our possibilities and our experience; no work or writer that he undertakes to consider is not augmented by Pritchett’s discussion. In this general enlargement of both his subject and his readers Pritchett fulfills the traditional role of the man of letters.

No one who has read Pritchett’s work can fail to have been impressed and charmed by his skill as a writer. Only rarely do we find him faltering. He writes of George Eliot: “Hers is a mind that has grown by making judgments—as Mr. Gladstone’s head was said to have grown by making speeches.” Here his gift for epigram has become mere epigrammatism, a bit of belle-lettristic superiority in the lesser tradition of English weekend reviewing. For the most part, however, the freshness, vigor, and directness of his mind prevent him from such self-indulgences. When he says of E. M. Forster that “he has indeed been a haunting absence in the English novel,” we feel that the truth and edge of the epigram have not been gained at Forster’s expense, that the compression and wit of the statement do not exist apart from its substance and weight. Another of his essays typically begins: “The English humorists! Through a fog compounded of tobacco smoke, the stink of spirits and the breath of bailiffs, we see their melancholy faces.” Here again the energy and gaiety of the prose are directly connected with the perception of a real object. Much of the time, in addition, we are aware of the fact that this distinguished reviewer of fiction is a writer of fiction himself, and that his critical essays are often as much “composed” or “observed” as they are “thought out.”

For, east of Aldgate [he writes in his essay on Arthur Morrison], another city begins. London flattens and sinks into its clay. Over those lower dwellings the London sky, always like a dirty window, is larger; the eyes and hands of the people are quicker, the skins yellower, the voices are as sharp as scissors. Every part of London has its smell, and this region smells of little shops, bloated factories, sublet workrooms and warehouse floors; there is also the smell of slums, a smell of poverty, racy but oftener sour; and mingling with these working odors, there arises an exhalation of the dirty river which, somewhere behind these streets and warehouses and dock walls, is oozing toward the flats of the Thames estuary like a worm.

Yet these extracts of description and epigram do not sufficiently convey the general, unorganized intelligence and the disciplined powers of perception that illuminate with a kind of random regularity every one of his essays. If we feel that such a remark as “the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century arose from the failure of a class, whereas the English sprang from its success,” loses by its not being located in an adequate context of qualification and elaboration what it gains by its ease and facility of statement, we can always balance it against such a telling formulation as the following. “The price of progress may be perversion and horror, and Wells is honest enough to accept that. Shaw appears to think we can evade all painful issues by a joke, just as Chesterton, the Catholic optimist of his generation, resolved serious questions by a series of puns.” The depth of reference to a whole literature which such remarks indicate has its counterpart in Pritchett’s hard-headed view of experience and of the society which the English novelists both represent and exemplify. “The acerbity of a novelist like Mrs. Wharton,” he writes, “is mondain before it is intellectual; it denotes a positive pleasure in the fact that worldly error has to be heavily paid for spiritually. Her sense of tragedy is linked to a terrifying sense of propriety. It is steely and has the hard efficiency of the property market into which she was born.” On the other hand, his critical parsimony does not lead him to demand from literature what it cannot possibly give. “One thing scientific culture has done for us,” he writes in his excellent essay on Dostoevsky’s minor novels, “is to give us a desire for order and for intellectual propriety, and I hope we are beginning to see again that egging readers on to personal conversion is not one of the functions of the novel.” Yet he will also write of Gorky that he has “a memory, we say, that allows the world to have existed to the full, without first having to ask a tacit moral or intellectual permission from himself.” Every one of Pritchett’s essays is lit up by such insights, and the depths to which they penetrate are often disguised by the lightness with which they are thrown forth and the unobtrusive corners in which they are, almost literally, dropped.

The casualness with which Pritchett offers his insights makes clear his difference from the major contemporary critics—from, say, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, or F. R. Leavis. In this connection, his use of the modest term “appreciations” to describe his writings is altogether precise and just. His essays are not merely brief, but they have no discernible analytic structure, and often almost no argument. His gifts have not developed in that direction which leads toward the logical organization and deployment of large masses of material. It is one of his virtues as a reviewer that he brings no pre-formed critical theory to the novel; but it must be added that he also takes none away from it. Although his powers of generalization are evident in his natural epigrammatic style, he almost never rises to a large, outgoing, or quasi-systematic generality of statement. And if he is happily innocent of ideology in his criticism, it should also be noted that he is not interested in ideas in the fierce, distinctive modern way. His chief talent is for rendering up the immediate workings of his own mind, for laying out before us the finely connected tissues of his educated sensibility as it takes new material into it and handles it in a fresh but familiar way.

Such absences—in particular the absence of analysis—lead to the observation that on one side Pritchett does not respond to literature as modern criticism has taught its readers to do. He does not regard literature as a mode of cognition; he does not see in it some implicit form of metaphysical or ontological structure which can claim for itself the intellectual autonomy of the other humanistic disciplines. He largely responds to literature in terms of its moral and social force or efficacy. At its best, his essays say, literature reminds us of what we know and tend to forget; it keeps us morally vivid and prevents both boredom and meretricious excitement by putting us again in touch with what is most human in us. These considerations are in a direct line with DeQuincey’s “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.” And though Pritchett’s essays have all been brought forth by specific literary occasions, they are in the direct tradition of the general English essay as much as, if not more than, they are in the line of more recent developments in literary criticism. One need only compare them to those most overrated volumes of modern writing, Virginia Woolf’s Common Readers, to gain a clear sense of their eminence as examples of this form. It is, therefore, no accident that Pritchett’s most favorable references among other modern essayists are to E. M. Forster and George Orwell. In both, as in his own writing, one hears once again the firm, vigorous, personal—and in Orwell and Pritchett, masculine—voice that is a touchstone of the genre.

For all their looseness of form, their reliance upon sensibility, impression, and association, Pritchett’s essays do in fact make reference to a coherent body of opinion, to a set of intellectual coordinates and a tradition. His judgments are grounded in a deep-seated preference for the eighteenth century, that time which seems to him, as it does to so many other Englishmen, a center, a norm, to which literature and life and the judgment of both can be referred. “Man is not yet trapped in our later prefixes and qualifications,” he typically writes. “He is not yet industrial man, economic man, evolutionary man, civilized man, mass man or man in transition. He is simply himself, a wonder ordained, like a tree watched in a garden…when we look back upon that world we cannot but suspect that half our present miseries date from the dissipation of the common feeling and philosophy that ensured the sanity of the age.” When he wants to praise a later writer he often thinks of him as a kind of refugee or displaced person from the Enlightenment. He compliments Samuel Butler by calling him “a throwback to the eighteenth century,” and says of H. G. Wells’s “best narratives” that they “go back to the literary traditions of the eighteenth century, the highest traditions of our narrative literature.” And he sees in this period of English history and literature “a coherent and integrated mind, a mind not deeply divided against itself.” We cannot be certain from these statements whether Pritchett is endorsing the ideals of the eighteenth century or whether he is saying that during the eighteenth century these ideals were actually realized. In certain other passages there is a similar uncertainty of specification: one is never quite sure whether he is not identifying the ideal or idea of a norm for literature and life with the notion that such a standard was in fact realized. One of the consequences of such an error would be a tendency to regard all later developments in history as deviations from that hypostasized ideal. It seems to me that Pritchett does fall into this error, but his remarkable tact and feeling for all literature of any age prevents him from commiting the barbarities of judgment that such a logic, if he really followed it, would commit him to. In any event, what he finds in the eighteenth century is a combination of notions, standards, or values to which he can give his personal allegiance: the skepticism, empiricism, humanism, and feeling for comedy that he takes away from the Enlightenment are by no means the wrong equipment for a literary critic.

Pritchett’s tastes in prose fiction follow a corresponding arc of development. His favorite writers are Fielding and Swift, and he remarks and emphasizes again and again in his essays the feeling of the great novelists for “normality” and “sanity.” For example, he praises Arnold Bennett for “his patient and humane consideration of the normal factors of our lives: money, marriage, illness as we have to deal with them. Life, he seems to say, is an occupation that has been forced on us, not a journey we have chosen, nor a plunge we have taken. Such a view may at times depress us, but it may toughen us.” He is most at home with “the accents of the brusque and off-hand sanity” which is for him “in the central tradition of English comedy.” Yet he can also say that although at first we define Trollope as “one of the masters who enables us to recognize average life for what it is,” on second thoughts “we change the phrase: we recognize that he has drawn life as people say it is when they are not speaking about themselves.” The brusqueness and sanity of the tradition have also expressed themselves in such a judgment.

That line of growth in the novel which Pritchett most regularly thinks of is what he calls “the masculine comic tradition.” Here is one of his characterizations of it.

It is intelligent rather than sensitive: it is prosaic rather than poetic; it is sane rather than extravagant. It is egocentric and not a little bullying. It has a manner, and that manner is ruthless and unkind. To stand up to the best manners of English society one has to be rude, exclusive and tough. One must be interested in behavior, not in emotions; in the degree to which people hold their forts—and how much money the forts cost—not in what human beings are. The tradition begins with Fielding: it is there, minus the animal spirits, in Jane Austen. Its values are bound to the social class the writer belongs to…Hard-headed, often gifted, snobbish—for the most part—appreciative of other people’s disasters and evasive about their own, self-oppressed and taking it out in horseplay and liberatinage…[the] characters are a sort of club. They can listen unexhausted to gossip about each other, but their faces become suddenly masked if an outsider comes up. Their privacy is phenomenal.

This is of course a wonderful passage of prose. It should be added that Pritchett is the master of this tradition of the English novel, that he moves about in it with incomparable familiarity and expertness, and that, locating himself within it, he does indeed encompass a good part of the range of English fiction.

But something else has to be said. For it seems unlikely that a critic with such a group of preconceptions might respond fully, sympathetically, to the modern world and its literature. It is a measure of Pritchett’s disinterestedness of mind that he does, that his presuppositions do not interfere to any seriously disabling extent with his openness and susceptibility to what currently comes before him. He does not, to be sure, deal at any length with the major modern figures, and one of the more striking things about this volume, which is after all about the novel, is the sparsity of references it contains to Joyce, Kafka, Gide, Proust, Mann, Hemingway, and Faulkner (and even to Lawrence, though Pritchett devotes an ambivalent essay to him). Sometimes he misses the boat altogether, as when he inveighs against certain unspecified “modern tough writers,” who “lose their effect because they are tough all the time. They do not allow us to have the homely, frightened, law-abiding emotions. They do not allow us the manly fear, and they lose the interest of moral conflict.” There is, I am afraid, a good deal of self-defensive bluster in such a statement; yet when Pritchett subsequently compares this literature with that of an earlier period, which could pierce one “with human fear and horror, without once cutting adrift from probability and an identifiable daily life,” we see the point in a new light.

His great skill lies in his dexterous assimilation of contemporary literature to the tradition of which he has so firm a grasp. Occasionally, he uses a writer from the past in order to comment critically on the current state of fiction—as he does in a superb essay on Vigny’s The Military Necessity. Most of the time, however, he regards contemporary fiction as falling naturally within the context of an enduring and cintinuing convention. He can thus write easily, shrewdly, and without troubled second thoughts about such writers as Anthony Powell and Lawrence Durrell. In my opinion he overestimates both of these novelists, but whether I am correct or not, such overestimation is part of the appreciator’s art or gift. For it is just such endowments of interest and sympathy which permit Pritchett to make the minor Victorian novelists live for us in his essays; and his pieces on Powell and Durrell discuss these writers as if they were what indeed they are—minor figures of curious interest. Pritchett’s critical view, then, is naturally a very far-sighted one, and sometimes he is rewarded handsomely for this distance—as in his remarkable essay on Dostoevsky, in which he turns the great modern icon inside out by emphasizing Dostoeveky’s “realism and sanity,” and remarks on how his major works are “festive with experience of human society.”

The long view has its limitations, naturally. And when Pritchett derides the “modern alibi” of saying “it is beyond the power of the imagination to grasp,” he is doing more than scolding contemporary sloth or puncturing a fashionable cliché. He reveals at such points his unresponsiveness to the radical unstructuring of experience which is contemporary literature’s obsessive subject. Similarly, Pritchett deals with the novels of Samuel Beckett by connecting them with the Irish tradition of talk, of interminable garrulity. This assimilates Beckett to something we understand, and in this measure Pritchett does very well by him. At the same time, one must remark that such a service also tends to underestimate the radical break with tradition that such writing represents, or that the break is its intention and raison d’être; it is more alien to the literature of the past, even of the Irish past, than Pritchett indicates. Yet this particular absence of indication lies at the very center of Pritchett’s strengths, his command of the traditional and his generous impulse to extend it and to assimilate to it even the most aberrant contemporary efforts. If the modern seems slightly tamed by such a critical procedure, it should also be added that to tame and make accessible has always been regarded as one of the tasks of humane civilization.

Finally one must mention a quality that does not fall within the logical terms of this discussion—Pritchett’s natural gift of critical temperament, and its remarkable persistence in time. V. S. Pritchett was born with the century and is still going strong. He remains not merely generous and open-minded in his attitudes toward literature, but he has managed to stay genuinely interested in things outside himself without going soft or becoming cranky. Although he has through years of performance and achievement earned the right, so to speak, of being self-insistent or idiosyncratic, he has become nothing of the kind. He does not play the power game of cultural generations; and his literary tastes, preferences, and judgments never become the nasty instruments of snobbery, moral superiority, or personal domination. The closest he comes to self-praise is his essays in celebration of E. M. Forster, and to this we can add that Pritchett’s virtues and accomplishments are in their own way and place analogous to Forster’s, as is, all differences being allowed for, his intellectual temperament. Perhaps the best way of celebrating this highly estimable writer and critic is to say that he too can be looked to as an example.

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