The fourteen stories in this collection are all later than the Collected Stories of 1956, and presumably represent V.S. Pritchett’s choice of his work since that date or a little later. The jacket copy is uncommunicative about the exact provenance of the stories, and the biographical matter provided by the publishers is an inadequate and slightly garbled version of the copy written for their edition of Blind Love (1969). A similar unwise frugality has apparently restricted proof correction, but in view of the state of the texts in which we are obliged to read more than one major novelist, this could have been meant as a subtle compliment to Sir Victor.
If so, he has earned it over the past half century. His early stories tended to be of a dozen or so pages, but then he was also writing novels; now he seems to enjoy most, and do best, the longer story; the finest in this book are of thirty to fifty pages. Pritchett was born in 1900, and when he was starting out the short story was a popular and decently rewarded form. Now there is hardly anywhere to place a story in England, and the US market is shrinking; perhaps the movies, the radio, and television provide people with alternative narrative fodder, and we may be observing one of those sociological changes that mark the extinction of a literary genre. But a writer may still be deeply committed to the short story, as Pritchett is; that it has grown less marketable does not diminish its appropriateness to a talent shaped and nurtured before the change was far advanced. The exact cultivation of a particular genre is very much his style; as a critic he made himself master of the difficult 1450-word English “front”—the lead review-essay exemplified by the New Statesman‘s “Books in General”—and there, too, he has not been surpassed.
Pritchett brings to the short story all the equipment and all the craft an author was expected, in his formative period, to acquire. He is, in the best sense, very knowing—when he writes about antique dealers he knows about antiques and he knows about dealers and their specialized acquisitiveness; he is immensely fascinated by avarice and treats it as one of the important passions. He always knows how people speak, with their bodies as well as their tongues.
Yet it seems wrong to say, as people do, that his primary concern is with the progressive unveiling of character. The first story of Pritchett’s I can remember reading, in the early Forties, was called “The Saint”—it was in Horizon, and I have never forgotten it. Mr. Timberlake, a missionary of a Canadian religion called the Church of the Last Purification, goes punting on the river with the youthful narrator. Dislodged by a willow, he is slowly deposited into the water. Later he refuses to remove his wet clothes, and lies steaming in a buttercup meadow; and when he gets up …