Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Midnight Oil

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 271 pp., $6.95

A Sort of Life

by Graham Greene
Simon & Schuster, 224 pp., $6.95

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. 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. 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 …

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Letters

Greene’s Meaning August 31, 1972