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A Modern Master

Selected Stories

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 332 pp., $10.00

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 his navy blue suit is covered with buttercup pollen. He is golden, transfigured, a saint. This literal transfiguration of the commonplace seems to be Pritchett’s central theme.

In “The Cage Birds,” which is in this collection, a poor and also avaricious woman is for a moment glorified by the wonderful yellow dress she gets from a profligate sister; but she sells the dress, and meanness resumes its sway. And on the basis of another story in the present batch, the story that leads it off, I’m inclined to translate this into a larger claim: fiction is what transforms the commonplace world and also the commonplace man who becomes a writer. The “I” of this complex little anecdote is a timid young Englishman working for a firm of leather merchants in Paris. He is knocked into the Seine by accident; a woman lends him clothes. In a moment of embarrassment, quite cornered, he tells her a lie, a beautifully circumstantial fiction. When she reads too much into it he becomes her demon lover, a strangler with cruel hands. He has gone directly from virginity and a total inability, when he tries to write, to think of anything to say, to wicked potency and fluent fiction.

So this is what the right, enthusiastic lie can do to the world. It is not implied that only writers can tell it; Pritchett often recurs to various manifestations of religious enthusiasm, mostly of the shabbier kind. It turns up here in “The Wheelbarrow”; and I think his interest is precisely in its subversion of commonplace cultural norms. It represents the small madnesses or crookednesses or lies that transform mean lives and make people into orators, hypocrites, conmen, or penitents.

To show the commonplace transfigured you must first register it as commonplace. Pritchett’s craft is to do so with care, with an accuracy of notation that leaves nothing to be desired, and yet to set, even within his sentences, small local surprises, tiny transfigurations, so that the story itself seems surprised and pleased at its nonconformity. Here, I think, he is closest to Arnold Bennett, and especially to Riceyman Steps, a short novel on a theme that might just as well have been Pritchett’s: the withering away of an avaricious antiquarian bookseller and his wife, while their oppressed and penniless maid grows fat. Bennett’s book is set in a very specific bit of London, and London is Pritchett’s center, where he is as much at home as Joyce was in Dublin, and to which he brings his traveled eye; faced by the familiar detail, he at once defamiliarizes it, as Bennett at his best also did. For both of them the preferred mode is comic, though capable of uncomic effects; and the least satisfying of Pritchett’s stories are, I think, those that give fullest rein to comedy or farce, like the sequence of three, here reprinted, that have the general title “The Key to My Heart.” They are good, of course, with a funny “card,” a maniacal motorist and sponger; but lacking the tiny transfigurations because lacking the commonplace, which is whirled away by farce.

Like Bennett, Pritchett enjoys “cards,” and there is one in the longest of these stories—almost the best he ever wrote—“When My Girl Comes Home.” Hilda, the girl, is a female card, a raffish person who left her humble London home to marry an Indian doctor (“Mr. Singh spoke a glittering and palatial English—the beautiful English a snake might speak—that made a few pock marks on his face somehow more noticeable”). Later she marries a Japanese, and enjoys his protection during the war; but on her homecoming it is announced in the press (the plot expertly explains the twisted truth) that she has spent Four Years in a Japanese Torture Camp. Loaded with loot from new lovers, she is reunited with her family, extended, four-generational, commonplace. Every member is given his own speech habit, his own preoccupation and enthusiasm; they are stupid, shrewd, daft, or funny in their own ways. The mere registering of their manners is beautiful.

The press knocks inopportunely at the door while the celebration of Hilda’s homecoming is still in its first, happy stage, before the astounding revelation that she had married a Nip; and the grandmother (who has the place of authority, in accordance with the findings of the sociologists) makes “one of her growls from the belly of the history of human indignation. ‘We are,’ she said, ‘in the middle of our teas.’ ” What is there poetically exact is the plural, “teas.” There is nothing extraordinary about an English working-class family calling its evening meal “tea,” anybody could tell you that; but “teas” is really from the inside. Or, note both the detail and the accent of this:

The landlord at the Lord Nelson, the butcher, anyone who met old Mrs. Johnson as she walked by like a poor, decent ghost with her sewing bundles, in those last two years, all said in war-staled voices: “It’s a mother’s faith, that’s what it is. A mother’s faith’s a funny thing.”

This is an idiom, even a poetry, of impoverishment. Sometimes it affects the narrator: “She got up and started clearing away the tea things. I will say this for her, she didn’t let herself be waited on.” Of recent writers only Henry Green has this exactness of ear and will let his narrative speak in this way, like old women gossiping over a fence, yet keep intact its right to poetry, to the unfamiliar and surprising. Mr. Johnson, Hilda’s father, was a railway employee, and the narrator’s family looked down on him because he worked “on the line”:

I remember the old man’s huge crinkled white beard when I was a child. It was horribly soft and like pubic hair. So I had always thought of Hilda as a railway girl, in and out of tunnels, signal boxes and main line stations, and when my older brother was “chasing” her as they said, I admired him. I listened to the quarrels that went on in our family—how she had gone to the convent school and the nuns had complained about her; and was it she or some other girl who went for car rides with a married man who waited round the corner of Hincham Street for her? The sinister phrase “The nuns have been to see her mother,” stuck in my memory. It astonished me to see Hilda alive, calm, fat and walking after that, as composed as a railway engine.

The narrator is an assistant librarian, on his way up; hence his knowledge of the commonplace, and of its transfiguration. “Her face was vacant and plain,” he says. “It was as vacant as a stone that has been smoothed for centuries in the sand of some hot country.”

These are mere instances. And of course the story is not so much of Hilda’s “character” as of the possibilities of poetry in this mean culture, its spontaneous variety, the freaks of enthusiasm which alleviate its pathetic oppressions. There they are, each with his ruling passion, his idiolect, making a world which we can, in the strong raffish light of Hilda, and the uncertain lyricism of the teller, perceive as being unlike any other.

In and out of such worlds moves the sharp benign observer, he who, in the autobiography, found the proper registrations for his father, and for the Paris of his youth. He belongs to London, with its overlaps of class, the streets that begin rich and end poor and are not so full of oddities as they were for Dickens, yet still copious in providing them. There are flicks of phrase that go straight back to Dickens: a thin man, sitting down on a sofa, folds up “like a small piece of human trellis.” Dickens would have enjoyed Hilda’s metamorphosis into a railway engine, and the premise that enthusiasm of some kind may strike the lives of the poor. But Pritchett patrols the boundaries of class with more dispassion. He looks for borderline experiences: the meetings, on some ground prepared by loneliness or sex, of master and man, or mistress and man. There he himself works.

A sense of the arbitrariness and even the fluidity of such boundaries is one of the qualities that distinguish Pritchett from such a writer as Arthur Morrison, whom he admires. The poor have different living conditions and eating habits, are more exposed to a torrent of trivial misinformation and so less able to discriminate the true and the false; they come to accept contradictories as both true, so that Hilda both was and was not a starved prisoner of war. But just as there are equivalent disabilities, deceptions, senilities, and stupidities, among the rich, so too there are evidences of spirit, and of communication between spirits, as in the early story “Sailor,” and the later “Wheelbarrow” in this book. And to the story of a sly Welsh handyman preaching apocalypse, or to that of an ailing movie producer’s troubleshooter, Pritchett brings an eye informed by a rare enthusiasm for the fiction of the whole world, as to the back streets of London he brings a sense of the streets of Paris, Dublin, New York. He is a proof that an older tradition could survive the importunities of the modernist Twenties and stay modern, respond finely to the world as it is.

It may be true that his ideal landscape is of the Thirties and the postwar years, where “When My Girl Comes Home” belongs; and nothing in this volume except possibly “The Chain-Smoker,” the movie story, needs to be thought of as falling much later than that. But this merely reminds us that we live in the sequel, and should be happy to have this remarkable survivor on hand to make the necessary connections for us.

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