In the Thirties those who came from the upper middle class and who had been to Public Schools and the old universities were easily drawn toward communism because of the discipline, the training for leadership, the team spirit and elitism at those places. To some Marxism was for a time a scripture, and not having met anyone in the working class up till then, they tried guiltily, masochistically, and idealistically to get in touch with them, often making absurd declarations of feeling inferior. I was brought up very differently. I had been to school with working-class boys and girls. My parents and relations, my grandfather the bricklayer, my eccentric great uncle the cabinetmaker, my mother the shop girl, and my father the errand boy and shop assistant in Kentish Town, had belonged originally to this class.
Marxism as a dogma could have no appeal to me, but as a way of analyzing society and of presenting the interplay of class and history, it stimulated. The fundamentalism and the totalitarian consequences of Marxism were naturally repugnant to one like myself who had been through this mill in a religious form. It would be impossible for me to become a communist or a Roman Catholic after that; and, in any case, I was constitutionally a nonbeliever. Rarely have the active politicals had a deep regard for imaginative literature. Writers are notoriously given to ambivalence and live by giving themselves to the free mingling of fact and imagination.
So although when the Spanish Civil War came I was ardent for the Popular Front, I was much less interested in the “People” than in the condition of individual people. I was particularly concerned with their lives and speech. In their misleading sentences and in the expressive silences between would lie the design of their lives and their dignity. Sometimes ordinary speech is banal, and it is always repetitive, but, if selected with art, it could reveal the inner life, often fantastic, concealed in the speaker. This was the achievement of Henry Green in novels like Living and Back, and in Hemingway’s best stories. Up till now in English literature the “common” people had been presented as “characters,” usually comic. I had a curious conversation with H. G. Wells about this. I asked him to tell me about Gissing, who had taken his working-class and lower-middle-class people seriously, so that to my mind he was closer to the Russian tradition than ours. Wells began, in his sporty way: “The trouble with Gissing was that he thought there was a difference between a woman and a lady, but we all know there is no difference at all.”
But when I asked if it were possible to present, say, a lower-middle-class man or woman seriously and not as a comic character, he reflected and said “No.” My opinion was and is that it is, of course, possible; and that the essence of comedy is not funniness but militancy. I have rarely been interested in what are …
Copyright © 1972 by V. S. Pritchett.
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