A Sort of Life
Perhaps The New York Review of Books is not too austere to allow me to begin with a simple-hearted reminiscence. Some years ago I had lunch with these two writers in London’s most congenial restaurant.1 They are about the same age, and are old friends. Greene’s face had a touch of kippery cosmopolitan tan; Pritchett’s whiteness, the color of the loup de mer on the menu, spoke of the midnight oil, and perhaps of London, too. They were like mellow old soldiers who’d seen service in the literary wars, but who were neither boastful nor vengeful in the manner of many such veterans. Old-world words—“good-natured,” “mischievous”—come to mind to describe how they seemed: an impression which these books confirm.
Greene’s book tells how at a bad time—when the success of his first novel had been followed by years of frustration—the worst appeared to have happened when he landed up in a telephone kiosk, on the long-distance line to his publisher, editing out of the proofs of Orient Express certain resemblances—alleged by J. B. Priestley and unintended by Greene—between Priestley and a character in the novel. Having read an advance copy, the great man was threatening to sue. Would the novel ever be published? The point is that Greene is able to recall the occasion without acrimony, and that it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which either he or Pritchett would have sued or threatened to sue.
Both men soon realized that they wanted to be writers, and in those days, if that’s what you wanted to be, you went to Paris. I calculate that they were both in the city at the end of 1923, Greene on a first flying visit, Pritchett completing a two-year stay, during which, ignorant of Gertrude Stein and the Lost Generation, he took jobs and, burning quantities of authentic midnight oil, read his way through the library he’d acquired. He also “ate” his way through it, when he was forced to sell his books for food. This library was Pritchett’s substitute for a university. At Oxford, Greene drank rather more than he read.
Pritchett was born in 1900, and what led him to seek his salvation in Paris is related in A Cab at the Door.2 This and Midnight Oil are two parts of an autobiography, and each is alight with the really wonderful histrionic preposterousness of his parents. His father was a Micawberish businessman, a convert to Christian Science; his mother, skeptical, sly, chattering and disheveled, coped with Micawber. The cab at the door was the cab of catastrophe, forever bearing them off, as the bailiffs and the writs converged, to a fresh start and a shabbier house.
The family and their connections have a vitality which owes a lot to their exceptional visibility: surfaces and appearances are seen with the intentness of the painter Pritchett also fancied becoming. At the same time, this family album consists of narratives that succeed in evoking the development of a society. The Northern countryside persists as a hinterland to the slums and sects and denouncing ministers of the industrial cities, and is contrasted with the successive Londons of Dickens (a strong presence in the earlier book) and of Gissing and Wells. All this encloses the grand primal drama and fantasy of the parents’ fecklessness and muddle, to which this self-confessed literary “muddler” is dazzlingly responsive and which runs on richly into the sequel. Midnight Oil reaches a climax with the deaths of his father and mother, though it also recounts nothing less than the rest of the author’s own life: he finished the book at seventy.
These are books about himself which are also, and equally, books about his parents. They are an act of loving piety and of parricidal candor, works that seem to depend on the premise that childhood, and parents, are decisive in more ways than is often supposed: so that, for example, “when one falls in love with a face, the reason may be that one saw such a face, perhaps of an old woman, that excited one in childhood.” Pritchett “inherits” traits and muddles; bad things happen at the outset which “poison” his life. The autobiography departs from his childhood, but it never departs from his parents, eager though he was to get away from his father’s ploys, impostures, and domineering. And as it departs from his childhood, there is an attenuation of incident: less and less happens. As he learns his craft—with newspaper features, stories, novels, copious reviewing—his craft appears to swallow what is otherwise active or external in his life.
The decisivieness Pritchett imputes to his childhood has produced a work that is childhood-oriented, cone-shaped. The first things are also the last things. Britain is a nation of cones and taperers, which has given rise to a welter of cone-shaped, regressive, school-struck autobiographies. But Pritchett is far from school-struck, and his allegiance to his origins is deep and engrossing. His autobiography can compete with that other account of a parent’s domineering righteousness, Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, whose wing-collared photograph is glanced at in Midnight Oil.
Pritchett remains a traveler throughout his life, but after a while he says less and less about his travels. Nevertheless it’s quite plain that his exiles are essential to him, and to the shape of his autobiography: if childhood is decisive, these may be re-enactments of his original flight from his father’s house and its many mansions—of his early refusal to be a “victim.” He needed to go, and he kept on going. This, perhaps, is what lay behind his “passion” for “identifying myself with people who were not my own.”
His first exile, in France, is the sweetest and most memorable. He worked in a shop that sold photographic equipment, and in the glue and shellac trade; he fell among expatriates and went to bed with a gloomy, thesis-writing Danish girl; he tramped the countryside in Stevensonian style. Comedy, he thinks, is militancy, yet the comedy here is achieved without malice and without strain. He does not wear a funny hat, and the Danish girl is funny without being a comic character. So is a gloomy Scot, the boss-baiting sultan of the photographic shop:
One lunchtime when we were at the bistro and he was talking to the barman about some horse race or other, one of his women (who could not get a word in) became annoyed. She made a dart at his fly and pulled his cock out. The Scot turned slowly to her with admiration. He buttoned up, and our procession marched back to the shop. Mac went straight to the boss, and in the sad manner of some old Scots preacher he told the boss what had happened.
“I thought it might be advisable to warn you about the bistro,” he said, “in case you should find yourself in a similar situation.”
Pritchett feels that he doesn’t go in for “characters” or “cards,” and certainly the restraint with which he tells this story is a familiar element in his work. But what about Shaves, Midnight Oil‘s subsidiary Micawber? And some others I could name?
During his stay in France he contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, which sent him to Ireland. The treaty of independence had been signed, and Irishmen were killing and mutilating other Irishmen in the manner that Senator Edward Kennedy finds so moving in Ulster now. After that, he was sent to Spain. The slaughters of that civil war were still to come, and he played the part of a not very strenuous donkey-accompanying, inn-remembering, essay-writing Edwardian foreign correspondent. He had married an Irishwoman, but the attention that some would have given to the progress of the marriage (it did not go well) is lavished instead on the stasis, the unalterableness, of Spanish life—which was convulsed, but perhaps not changed, by the civil war.
The exiles appear to cease, and Pritchett settled to a literary life in England, living in the country. He weathered the Second World War in Wiltshire, by now happily married to a second wife, and a father himself. The people he meets tend more and more to be other writers. Wells remarks that the lower middle class could not supply a writer with “serious” characters. This helps to explain Pritchett’s aversion to “characters,” which was what you were left with in this area: English literature had long contented itself with lower-middle-class comic turns. The occasions he writes about now are more and more concerned with the assertion and refinement of a talent for words.
When he was young, he reckons, his “passion for words” betrayed him. He suffered from the “mistaken notion that one could write as a painter painted.” He goes on: “I was beginning to suspect the tameness of my matter, and in a rather shady way was trying to make it more important than it was. I was ‘covering up.’ ” He is talking, in a precise way, about a lack of precision. People who have doubts about his work—the ones I know are generally philosophers—might object that the same fault is apparent in his later critical writings. He is said to guess and improvise too much, to be too elliptical and impressionistic. It is as if he were being told what his parents indignantly told him when he wrote a single-sentence essay at school: “You made this up. You’re not telling the truth.”
In Midnight Oil Pritchett says that he gained from France “a sense of the importance of the way in which things are done, a thrift of the mind.” The elision here, the slide from “way” to “thrift,” making you think of some stylish miser, is striking but a bit obscure, and perhaps this is the sort of thing that is objected to. He points out that muddles are a family failing. He has inherited his father’s “dislike of fact.”
Pritchett was not a man to be greatly affected or afflicted by the rational and doctrinal emphases that entered literature in the Thirties, when it was hoped that criticism could be a science, run according to rules and theories. He stood apart from this as from other orthodoxies—from the Moderns in Paris, and from Bloomsbury. He actually lived in that neighborhood, when he was shy and poor, but he did not become what has been called a Bloomsbury groupie. In view of the fact, however, that criticism never did manage to be a science and that its rules were mostly modes, thrifts of the mind or thereabouts, it isn’t obvious that he should be blamed for abstaining, or even for making the science of criticism look like a branch of Christian Science. He has his own precisions, which include the capacity to know and account for his short-comings. The vivid sense of assent and recognition which his writings continually afford can hardly be inconsistent with accuracy and truthfulness. The trouble (for some people) is that these are not the precisions of a regulated and generalizing critic but of an imaginative writer for whom singularities and surfaces and surmises are not only admissible and delightful: for whom they are part of the truth.
As a critic, Pritchett is a pagan in an age of theologians. His mother was a pagan too, and a maker-up of tall stories. These very funny and very serious books are a rebuke to comedy as it is normally practiced, and their precisions are a rebuke to the devotees of precision.
Coincidentally, Greene’s book is cone-shaped too, showing an attenuation of incident once his youth is over and his books have begun, an attenuation that seems to be expressed, with a sigh, in the title, A Sort of Life. In the memoirs of both these men the early years are of consequence in a way that nothing else is, except for their books. But Greene’s memoir doesn’t so much taper as peter out. It ends in middle age, in a haze of Siamese opium smoke, with the future Companion of Honour confiding to a failed friend that his own life, and any other writer’s, is full of failure. Failure, of course, is cone-shaped.
In one of his essays Greene writes: “There are certain writers, as different as Dickens from Kipling, who never shake off the burden of their childhood.” But his autobiography can’t be said to live up to its shape by justifying that proposition, any more than it justifies another statement of his, to the effect that no books have as powerful an influence as those read in childhood. Children’s books figure prominently here, as they do in his Collected Essays, but their influence remains problematical.
Greene’s childhood does not seem to have been a very great burden at the time. His father was headmaster of Berkhamsted School, which he duly attended, and this caused a conflict of loyalties; but his parents, though remote, took an affectionate interest in him. He was surrounded by a tribe of friendly kinsfolk. Truancies and escapes occurred. But traumas? I notice in the newspapers that he still considers himself a restless man, but there is no way of seeing his later exiles as a flight from the family. A psychiatrist was consulted when he was an adolescent, and he classifies that earlier self as manic-depressive, but the clinical evidence is slender. To alleviate boredom, he took to playing Russian roulette in the woods near the school—an episode that is oddly boring to read about.3
He seems almost well-adjusted by the time he is married and in journalism. His wife is a Catholic: he has become one too. The casualness with which he tells the story of his life touches criminal negligence when he says: “With the approach of death I care less and less about religious truth.” In fact, he means doctrine here, not truth. Even so, there’s a tremendous amount of tapering in that “care less and less.” Greene’s apologia will convert few to the Catholic Church, though it may drive some into the arms of Mary Baker Eddy.
It is puzzling that so pleasant a book should be indifferent to so much. It won’t assist anyone to understand his fiction. It will not explain, for instance, the foresight displayed in The Quiet American, which was reviewed in America as crassly anti-American, but which could have told its readers something about the Vietnam war before it was fought. For long stretches of A Sort of Life he seems barely politically-conscious.
What is agreeable is its frankness and bluntness—unusual in authors. Greene comes to the point—when he cares to. What is strange is that this frankness is matched with a rather mechanical version of the dandyish attitudinizing which he has gone in for, and which has attracted countless pastiches in the literary competitions of weekly papers. Bluntness is blunted by self-parody and is caught up in the whirl of Russian roulette.
“The first thing I remember is sitting in a pram at the top of a hill with a dead dog lying at my feet.” That dead dog is a dead duck. He has a Mass said for his father’s soul: “The priest asked me for a sack of rice for his poor African parishioners, for rice was scarce and severely rationed, and through my friendship with the Commissioner of Police I was able to buy one clandestinely.” The odor of sanctity, the whiff of corruption, the clandestine thrill: it’s all too rude to be true.
Pritchett is eloquent about rudeness of that kind: it is an Edwardian child’s kind. Rudeness is things that are delicious and scandalous and forbidden; it has a thousand faces; it is your mother’s knickers waving in the air, it is the corpse laid out in another room, and so on infinitely.
Elsewhere Greene writes wickedly about school rules: “On Sundays we would go for walks, by order, in threes, and the names had to be filled up like a dance program on a list which was hung up on the changing-room door. This surely must have had some moral object, though one which eludes me today when I remember how deftly the ‘Emperor’s Crown’ used to be performed by three girls at once in a brothel in Batista’s Havana.” The cryptic reference to the brothel is more than a flashing of the Greene persona. Can he still be shocking his parents? There must be better ways of proving that the wishes of childhood are ineradicable.
A Sort of Life can be exasperating and indifferent, but it is boring only when he reaches for his revolver. On the other hand, it will not make you accept what it appears to believe about childhood. There are a number of clues—like that durable wish to be rude and shocking. But perhaps the clearest sign of the persistence of what happens at the start of a life is provided by the fact that he still thinks that a desultory account of his dicings with death is likely to be interesting. Graham Greene has added a new terror to death. It was always rude. Now he has made it dull.
The Etoile, in what survives of Bloomsbury.↩
Random House, 1970; Vintage Books, 1971.↩
In the British reviews the matter of his flirtations with suicide occasionally seemed to drift out of belles-lettres and into ballistics. Admonished by some sort of gunsmith in my own paper, The Listener, one critic wrote: "I maintain that Mr. Greene was safer than he intended to be. I had no wish to impugn his courage, or question the intensity of his boredom."↩
Greene’s Meaning August 31, 1972
The Etoile, in what survives of Bloomsbury.↩
Random House, 1970; Vintage Books, 1971.↩
In the British reviews the matter of his flirtations with suicide occasionally seemed to drift out of belles-lettres and into ballistics. Admonished by some sort of gunsmith in my own paper, The Listener, one critic wrote: “I maintain that Mr. Greene was safer than he intended to be. I had no wish to impugn his courage, or question the intensity of his boredom.”↩