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Secrets of the Shell

The Myth Makers: Literary Essays

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 190 pp., $8.95

Thirty-three years ago in a preface to The Living Novel, V. S. Pritchett described how it was that he came to be the “critic” that he is. I put quotes around the word critic because that is what he himself does when, with characteristic modesty, he tells us how he stopped writing novels and short stories during the Second World War and turned to criticism. “Without leisure or freedom to write what I wanted, I could at least read what I wanted, and I turned to those most remarkable men and women: the great novelists of the past, those who are called the standard novelists.” As he read, he made notes. These notes or reports or reviews were first published in the New Statesman and Nation; then collected in The Living Novel. Since 1946 he has continued to report regularly on his reading, and The Myth Makers is his latest collection of literary essays.

It is interesting to read what Pritchett had to say in 1946 about the impression made on him by “what are called the Standard Novelists [who] have the set air of an officially appointed committee. We had fallen into the error of believing that they were written for critics, for literary historians, for students or for leisured persons of academic tastes; and people who read only the best authors usually let one know it. We had easily forgotten that the masters, great and small, remembered or neglected, were the freshest, the most original, the most importunate and living novelists of their time; that they stood above their contemporaries and survived them, because they were more readable, more entertaining, more suggestive and incomparably more able than the common run of novelist.”

There are certain truths so true that they are practically unbelievable.

We have only to glance,” Pritchett continues, “at the second-rate novelists to see how they differ in this sense [of contemporaneity] from the masters. The second-rate are rarely of their time. They are not on the tip of the wave. They are born out of date and out of touch and are rooted not in life but in literary convention.”

One thinks of all those busy teachers of English whose spare time is devoted to re-creating yet another version of dead Finnegan and his long-since celebrated wake; or of the really ambitious teacher-writer who wants so much for literature to achieve the pure heights of music (an aside, by the way, not a goal of Joyce); or of the would-be master of the two cultures who wants to encompass within a construct of narrative prose all the known laws, let us say, of thermodynamics. Our universities are positively humming with the sound of fools rushing in. The odd angel bleakly hovers; casts no shadow.

During the last third of a century, V. S. Pritchett has continued to be the best English-language critic of…well, the living novel. How does he do it? And what is it that he does? To begin with, unlike most critics, Pritchett is himself a maker of literature. He is a marvelous short-story writer; if he is less successful as a novelist, it is because, perhaps, he lacks “the novelist’s vegetative temperament,” as he remarks of Chekhov.

At work on a text, Pritchett is rather like one of those amorphic sea-creatures who float from bright complicated shell to shell. Once at home within the shell, he is able to describe for us in precise detail the secrets of the shell’s interior; and he is able to show us, from the maker’s own angle, the world the maker saw.

Of Dostoevsky: “Life stories of endless complexity hang shamelessly out of the mouths of his characters, like dogs’ tongues, as they run by; the awful gregariousness of his people appears simultaneously with the claustrophobia and the manias of their solitude.” Plainly, Pritchett’s negative capability is well developed. He has a remarkable affinity for writers entirely different from that tradition of comic irony which has produced most of the best of English literature—including his own—and quite a lot of the bad. It is eerie to observe with what ease Pritchett occupies the shell of a writer who “is a sculptor of molten figures…. If anyone took up alienation as a profession it was [Dostoevsky].” Finally, “Dostoevsky’s style: it is a talking style in which his own voice and the voices of all his characters are heard creating themselves, as if all were narrators without knowing it.”

The first job of a critic is to describe what he has read. This is a lot more difficult than one might suspect. I have often thought that one of the reasons why there have been so few good American literary critics is that those Americans who do read books tend to be obsessed with the personality of the author under review. The politics, sex, class of the author are all-important while the book at hand is simply an excuse to discuss, say, the anti-Semitism of Pound, the homosexuality of Whitman, the social climbing of James. Since the American character is essentially tendentious and sectarian, the American critic must decide in advance whether or not the writer he is writing about is a Good Person; that is, one who accepts implicitly all the going superstitions (a.k.a. values [sic]) of the middle class of the day. If the writer is a GP, then what he writes is apt to be good. If he is a BP, forget it.

In the Forties, the New Critics faced up to this national tendency and for a time their concentration on the text qua text provided a counterweight. But these paladins of the word have long since faded away, and the character of the United Statesman seems immutable. Or as the founder of The Nation put it more than a century ago: “The great mischief has always been that whenever our reviewers deviate from the usual and popular course of panegyric, they start from and end in personality, so that the public mind is almost sure to connect unfavorable criticism with personal animosity.” Today, our critics either moralize ad hominem or, most chillingly (an “advance” since Godkin’s time), pretend that the art of literature is one of the physical sciences and so in desperate need of neologisms, diagrams, laws.

The personality of a writer obviously has some relevance to what he writes, particularly if he is dead and the life has been publicly examined. But it takes great tact to know how to use gossip. Pritchett seldom loses sight of the fact that he is writing about writing, and not about writers at home. In a review of a life of Tolstoy, he observes, “Like the Lawrences and the Carlyles, the Tolstoys were the professionals of marriage; they knew they were not in it for their good or happiness, that the relationship was an appointed ordeal, an obsession undertaken by dedicated heavyweights.” This is personal; this is relevant…at least when discussing a book about the life of a major novelist. Pritchett rarely judges a living writer whose character cannot be known for certain, as opposed to his literary persona which is fair game.

Pritchett’s only American Lapse occurs in his discussion of Jean Genet, a writer whose luminous stupidity put Sartre in mind of saints. Pritchett remarks that the brilliance of Genet’s prose is often undone by the “sudden descents into banal reflection and in over-all pretentiousness” while “the lack of charity is an appalling defect and one rebels against the claustrophobia.” But then he remarks that “there are scarcely any women in Genet’s novels and although this is due to his homosexuality, which is passive and feminine, it has an obvious root in his rage at being abandoned by his mother, who was a prostitute.”

We don’t know what either “passive” or “feminine” means in this context. As for “obvious root,” is it so obvious? And why badmouth poor old Mrs. Genet? No guesswork about living writers unless they decide to tell all; in which case, caveat lector.

* * *

In The Myth Makers, Pritchett deals with nineteen writers entirely outside the Anglo-American tradition: seven Russians, five French, five writers of Spanish or Portuguese, Strindberg and Kafka. In other words, Pritchett has removed himself from ancestral ground. Although he is as familiar with French literature as he is with English (in this he very much resembles another Tory critic, the splendid, no longer read George Saintsbury), it must have been a considerable stretch for him to deal with the likes of Eça de Queiroz. If it was, he shows no strain.

Pritchett is at his best with the French; and if it does not take much critical acumen to write intelligently about Flaubert, it does take considerable intelligence to say something new about him (“Flaubert presented the hunger for the future, the course of ardent longings and violent desires that rise from the sensual, the horrible, and the sadistic”), or to illuminate a writer like George Sand, whose “people and landscapes are silhouettes seen in streams of sheet lightning…. She was half Literature.”

Pritchett has new things to say about the differences between French and English, and how translation to English particularly undoes many of George Sand’s effects. “If there is a loss it is because English easily droops into a near-evangelical tune; our language is not made for operatic precisions and we have a limited tradition of authorized hyperbole. Abstractions lose the intellectual formality that has an exact ring in French…. She had little sense of humor.” This is excellent, and valuable. One thinks of other examples. Although Anaïs Nin was never taken seriously in England, the French eventually came to appreciate her solemn hieratic prose while the Americans, predictably, celebrated her personality. She had little sense of humor.

If there can be said to be a unifying argument to these nineteen essays, it has to do with time and the novel. Pritchett approves Bakhtin’s notion that Dostoevsky is “the inventor of a new genre, the polyphonic novel…. There is a plurality of voices inner and outer, and they retain ‘their unmergedness.’ ” Pritchett continues with Bakhtin’s argument that “the traditional European novel is ‘monological,’ a thing of the past, and if Dostoevsky’s novels seem a chaos compared, say, with Madame Bovary, so much the worse for the tradition. Man is not an object but another subject.”

In Machado de Assis, Pritchett finds another kind of novel, “constructed by a short-story-teller’s mind, for he is a vertical, condensing writer who slices through the upholstery of the realist novel into what is essential. He is a collector of the essences of whole lives and does not labor with chronology, jumping back or forward confidently in time as it pleases him.” As for One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Márquez seems to be sailing down the blood stream of his people as they innocently build their town in the swamp, lose it in civil wars, go mad in the wild days of the American banana company and finally end up abandoned.”

Unexpectedly, Pritchett regards the fabulist Borges as “a master of the quotidian, of conveying a whole history in two or three lines that point to an exact past drama and intensify a future one.” Pritchett examines The Circular Ruins in which a teacher takes refuge in the ruins of a temple in order “to dream a man.” Finally, Borges says of his character (his character?), “With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance dreamed by another.” Pritchett wonders where this solipsistic conceit comes from. I shall be helpful. Borges got it from Chuang-tze, who wrote at the beginning of the third century BC. Chuang-tze or “Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly. Then he woke up and found to his astonishment that he was Chou. But it was hard to be sure whether he really was Chou and had only dreamed that he was a butterfly, or was really a butterfly, and was only dreaming that he was Chou.”

The most interesting piece in this collection deals with Goncharov, whose Oblomov is one of those great novels that are all of a piece and, inexplicably, like nothing else. Since Goncharov wrote only three novels in the course of what must have been a singularly discouraging life (he was State Censor), it is all the more extraordinary that this unique creation should have happened to him. Oblomov, surely, dreamed Goncharov. Who else would have bothered? “From what leak in a mind so small and sealed,” writes Pritchett, “did the unconscious drip out and produce the character of Oblomov, the sainted figure of nonproductive sloth and inertia; one of those creatures who become larger and larger as we read?” There is no answering this question. “Genius is a spiritual greed,” Pritchett remarks á propos Chekhov. But the Censor seems to have been greedier for food than for things of the spirit. Nevertheless, “From Sterne he learned to follow a half-forgotten tune in his head.” Then Pritchett notes a difference between East and West in the way of perceiving events. “If the Western calendared attitude to plot and precise action escaped [Goncharov], he had on his side the Russian sense of the hours of the day running through his scenes and people like a stream or continuous present.” One saw Madame Bovary at a distance-plain; one sees Oblomov close-up, vivid in his sloth.

When Pritchett is obliged to deal with literary biographers and critics, he is generous and tactful. Only once does he express his horror at what the hacks of academe have done to our language. Professor Victor Brombert’s The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques provides the occasion. Pritchett quotes Professor Brombert at length; he praises things in the professor’s book. But Pritchett finds disturbing the fact that the professor does not write well. Although this mild disability would go unremarked (and unnoticed in the land of the tin ear), for Pritchett

It is depressing to find so good a critic of Flaubert—of all people—scattering academic jargon and archaisms in his prose. The effect is pretentious and may, one hopes, be simply the result of thinking in French and writing in English; but it does match the present academic habit of turning literary criticism into technology. One really cannot write of Flaubert’s “dilection for monstrous forms” or of “vertiginous proliferation of forms and gestures”; “dizzying dilation,” or “volitation”; “lupanar”—when all one means is “pertaining to a brothel.” Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists may, I understand, write of “fragmentations” that suggest “a somnambulist and oneiric state.” But who uses the pretentious “obnuvilate” when they mean “dim” or “darkened by cloud”? Imaginative writers know better than to put on this kind of learned dog. The duty of the critic is to literature, not to its surrogates. And if I were performing a textual criticism of this critic I would be tempted to build a whole theory on his compulsive repetition of the word “velleities.” Words and phrases like these come from the ingenuous and fervent pens of Bouvard and Pécuchet.

Literary criticism does not add to its status by opening an intellectual hardware store.

Unfortunately, the hardware store is pretty much all that there is to “literary criticism” in the United States. With a few fairly honorable exceptions, our academics write Brombertese, and they do so proudly. After all, no one has ever told them that it is not English. The fact that America’s English departments are manned by the second-rate is no great thing. The second-rate must live, too. But in most civilized countries the second-rate are at least challenged by the first-rate. And score is kept in literary journals. But as Macdonald’s drives out good food, so these hacks of academe drive out good prose. At every level in our literary life they flourish. In fact, they have now taken to writing the sort of novels that other tenured hacks can review and teach. Entire issues of “literary journals” are written by them. Meanwhile, in the universities, they are increasing at a positively Malthusian rate; and an entire generation of school-teachers and book chatterers now believes that an inability to master English is a sign of intellectual grace, and that a writer like Pritchett is not to be taken seriously because he eschews literary velleities for literary criticism. Madame Verdurin has won the day.

Even so, it is good to know that our last critic in English is still at work, writing well—that is, writing as if writing well mattered. It would be nice if Sir Victor lived forever.

Letters

Hard Marker October 11, 1979

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