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How to Read a Book

The Tale Bearers: Literary Essays

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 223 pp., $10.00

It is getting rare to find good criticism that is not written to excite students or impress fellow academics. The teachers who produce it must either be fierce or mysterious—some are both—for they depend upon bored and fickle clients, who can only be made to sit up by being told that by means of secret ingredient X literature can at last be enjoyed for the first time. The typical academic article begins: “The true place of Titus Andronicus in our culture has never been properly understood.”

V.S. Pritchett belongs to the vanishing breed of critic who writes for an invisible audience of readers who are themselves widely read, print-addicted, curious, civilized, mildly conservative, not much interested in the current fashion, but as prepared to try a new author as to return to a familiar one. It is still a large audience probably, but today it draws little or no attention to itself. It does not want or need to be excited or surprised, because it is already experienced, already addicted. Pritchett, like many good critics before him, from Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt to J.B. Priestley, addresses it as an equal, speaking as one reading person to another.

It may be that this reading person has not come across Lady Murasaki. If not, he or she will certainly want to do so after reading Pritchett’s essay on The Tale of Genji. It will not be because Genji is presented as bearing on current fashion—whether decreation, hermeneutics, or the pleasure of the text—but because it is an absorbing and fascinating tale, once its conventions are understood, which will keep life at bay in the reading, and make life look more endurable or enjoyable when it is finished. Pritchett’s essay on Genji is a test case. It is not scholarly, nor is it polemical, but it makes the reader want to rush out and buy the book, or turn to the shelf to find it and read it again.

The essay appeared on the occasion of Professor Edward G. Seidensticker’s recent translation. Without taking sides Pritchett suggests that both his and Arthur Waley’s translations should be read together for the fullest enjoyment. Seidensticker’s text is shorter than Waley’s, but it is a faithful rendering of the whole work by Murasaki, which suggests that Waley got bored in some places and in others wrote quite a lot himself. And yet a translator who is really in sympathy with the spirit of the work is like a good commentator on a Shakespeare play. What he feels and what he intuits will merge with the performance. Pritchett makes a good point about this kind of translator, whose approach nowadays is out of fashion.

…the post-1914 period in England produced admirable translations like Waley’s, Beryl de Zoëte’s Confessions of Zeno (which may have improved on the regional prose of Trieste, but captured the marked Viennese spirit of the original), Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, and Constance Garnett’s Chekhov and Turgenev. Their translations are gracefully late-Edwardian, and are, of course, metaphors; the translators felt an affinity of period, even though (as we are now told by critical scholars) they made serious mistakes or generalized and embroidered in such a way as to mislead. Since translators are bound to work in images, and not only sentence by sentence but paragraph by paragraph or page by page, generalizations tend to drift off course, and in some translators, the act of re-creation, though often inspired, is not self-effacing.

That is a good instance of how well Pritchett puts things. Translation is indeed a transposed metaphor in many cases and none the worse for that. The late-Edwardian Chekhov and Turgenev bring out something latent in their originals, a quality of the forlorn, or of the genteel, which a native reader might not have perceived, for great books do not belong just to the language in which they are written. Nabokov’s Lolita is a different work in the English and Russian versions, but each throws light upon the other, and his specimens from Gogol add to our appreciation of that author’s splendid dishevelment in the original.

Apart from that, any good translation will reveal the affinities which Pritchett detects between Murasaki and the classic preoccupations of good fiction. By its “modern voice,” as he points out—for that was the quality remarked on when the Waley version began to come out in the late Twenties and early Thirties—“what was really meant was that the writing was astonishingly without affectation.” The court lady of tenth-century Japan was intent on persons, how they revealed their origins, how they developed, and this concentration of hers totally survives the changes of time and society. Niou and Kaoru, in the last section of the novel, are differentiated in much the same way as Tolstoy’s Rostov and Pierre. They are in no sense contrasted, or deliberately exemplary, but the progress of their relationship begins to darken the tone of the novel just because its rivalry is so buried and yet so final: there are few more deceptively simple and yet more graphic instances in fiction of what Goneril in King Lear calls “the difference between man and man.” Vital, too, that Murasaki is, as Pritchett says, “properly class-conscious, quick to detect the vulgar, and therefore capable of refreshing bits of farce.” She notes that while “pure, precise speech can give a certain distinction to rather ordinary remarks,” girls who talk torrentially become “incomprehensible and self-complacent.” That sort of girl is still with us, nowadays usually “into” something or other. Murasaki would not have approved of that.

Brief, but leisurely, Pritchett’s essays divide themselves into four categories. First come English writers, ranging from Max Beerbohm to Henry Green, and taking in on the way such comparative oddities as E.F. Benson and Rider Haggard with such old if still controversial favorites as Kipling, Conrad, Forster, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Angus Wilson. Into this gallery sidles T.E. Lawrence, attracting some particularly valuable comments. Americans follow, with Pritchett at his best on Henry James and Saul Bellow. Then “Characters”—Pepys, Swift, Richard Burton, and Frederick Rolfe. And finally the Exotics: Murasaki, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, German by birth and writing in English about India, where she married and where she lives; and the elusive Irishman Flann O’Brien, otherwise Myles na Gopaleen (Miles of the Little Ponies), the author of two or three idiosyncratically comic novels, including At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman.

Pritchett shows how rare it is for a natural critic to be also a natural creative writer—Edmund Wilson had the same gifts—and the deft economy with which he reveals the inner workings to us, the workings of plot, of how writers trim down or blow up their characters, is intimate with his own talents for doing the same kind of thing. He sees writers as themselves characters, and understands how they are often apt to see themselves in the same way. T.E. Lawrence, for instance, was a man of action who needed above all to become one in the mirror of his own literary gifts, such as they were. His parentage—the ineffectual Anglo-Irish gentleman father, the Puritan Scottish mother—was of vital importance. The mother had gone as a governess to Ireland and the father had fallen for her, left his wife, changed his name, and gone to live with her in England. For Pritchett, the connoisseur of English social valiancies and concealments, the whole thing is an open book: where most biographers, lacking this acumen, go on and on, he digests it for us in a couple of brilliant paragraphs. He has the knack of seeing through people in the way of a friend, without exposing them. He sees through the religion of Lawrence’s mother which

she evidently saw as her redemption for the sin of taking a man away from his wife. I find this too simple; her religiosity was an assertion of pride. Lawrence’s mother had charm and he inherited her strange, vacant, yet penetrating china-blue eyes and undoubtedly her will, which was powerful to a degree. She was a fanatical housekeeper, all for cleansing house, body and soul: the prudent austerity is common to Calvinist Scotland, northern England, and indeed Germany, and is far more the expression of superior virtue than of guilt. She did believe in discipline and in physical punishment. She was determined to break the will of her mischievous second son by beating him on the backside and initiated him into the sensations of pleasure-pain: it is easy to argue that the mother (who was a remorseless questioner) was very conscious of her own guilt; if so she was close to being a Justified Sinner. This did not prevent her from enjoying the vanity of the humbly born in having carried off her grand landowner, in Lawrence’s own words, as “a trophy.”

Never trust a man, or a lady, with very bright blue eyes. But Pritchett’s own have a slight twinkle as he makes such assertions, which purges them of all superiority; and as all these long review articles show, he is a generous noticer of other men’s felicities. When discussing Saul Bellow’s novels he takes a particular delight in Bellows’s mastery of American—especially Chicagoan—types and fates, a mastery comparable to the kind of expertise Pritchett himself shows in that account of Lawrence’s provenance. Bellow “has the most effusive intelligence of living American novelists.” He loves theories as much as people. “He has a kind of spirited intellectual vanity that enables him to take on all the facts and theories about the pathetic and comically exposed condition of civilized man.” Such ideas are like corn thrown to the human chickens the novelist is trying to lure alive into his work. And casually Pritchett himself throws in an extremely illuminating aperçu. Aldous Huxley used the same technique, but it failed: he “could always throw the corn but nothing alive came fluttering to it.” That comparison seems to me to make a point of real importance about the achievement of Bellow.

Bellow’s more ambitious heroes “are essentially moral types who have been forced by the American scene to behave like clowns.” They are as real to us as “physical objects—things”—and “what other tenderness can a materialist society contain?” “They convey the dejected larking of a mind that has been tried by two contradictory forces: the breakdown of the public world we live in and the mess of private life.” “Dejected larking” is a thoroughly Pritchett phrase, and he understands with sympathy how good is Bellow’s portrayal of Citrine and Humboldt, the hard and the soft, the successful and the defeated. Pritchett, too, can see the thing in perspective, producing the unerring but unexpected literary analogue. “Ironical and sentimental,” Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift “also knows he is as hardheaded as that other famous twelve-year-old charmer, David Copperfield.”

The same professional admiration gives weight and depth to a piece on Conrad. Pritchett has the original perception (original in the sense that I don’t think anyone among Conrad’s academic critics has made it) that Conrad’s exile not only gave him a sensibility but exacted as the price “circulatory in-turnings of imagination,” a basic lack of authorial invention. A Conrad without his characteristic pride and reticence might well have gone about asking his friends for plots, as Tennyson used to ask them for subjects for poems.

Memory, unless it is involuntary, is indeed static. As an expatriate Conrad was unable to draw on a body of experience common to his prospective readers. It is interesting to know that so much of his background material and so many of the episodes in his novels were suggested by reading, but, of course, the great novelists often owe their decisive power to their ability to turn their incapacity into qualities. If invention flagged, Conrad intensified his static scenes…. If a character did not move, he used great ingenuity in laboring the character’s moral uniqueness.

That seems to me a just and important comment on the sacred cows of the Conradian sensibility—Heyst, Lord Jim, even Kurtz of The Heart of Darkness. Of course we are all morally unique in some sense, Mrs. Gamp and Becky Sharp as much as these unquiet souls of Conrad’s, but it is a source of weakness as well as strength for a novelist to spend so much time in emphasizing the fact. There is a letter, not quoted by Pritchett, in which Conrad, marooned in a Swiss hotel with a lame wife and a son with rheumatic fever, tells his correspondent that he must go and elaborate Mr. Verloc’s consciousness, a task of the utmost importance. It is a touching glimpse of the dedicated writer, but one cannot help wondering just why it was so vitally important. The answer probably is that there was nothing else that the writer in a bad situation could do which came more easily, and would fill the pages with less effort.

Pritchett admires Graham Greene, who was heavily influenced by Conrad, and has written on him more than once, but he admires him more as a fellow-craftsman than as a writer willing to tackle profound themes. He makes it sound a compliment when he discerns that Greene “is free of the snobbery that pretends it has had no time for the juvenile or the second-rate,” and perhaps indeed it is one. But the fact remains that Greene’s formula has never been anything else than the juvenile, however dressed up in Catholicism and world-weariness. Having seen “perfect evil walking the world,” in Marjorie Bowen’s phrase from The Viper of Milan, he has relied upon that vision to create a prolonged series of identical fictions. The world is evil, the character is weak, he is destroyed, but he is in some sense saved. If Conrad’s fiction lacked invention, Greene’s fiction, with its exotic stereotypes and childhood scenes, sometimes seems arrested at the level of Boy’s Own Paper. He has neither the ear nor the sensibility of a mature novelist. Even the reportage of which he is thought such a master is not far from James Bond, given a seeming verisimilitude by melancholia and smells.

Pritchett is too polite to say this but he hints it, for he has the gift of suggesting everything in a single economical point, in this case a mild complaint that the German woman in The Comedians is nothing but the mouthpiece of an “overwhelming literary intervention.” Of course this does not matter, for Greene’s justified success is the product of the powerful inner engine of his obsession, as indeed was Ian Fleming’s; but obsessions tend not to grow, to be tedious in the long run. Rudyard Kipling had several but made more of them, as Pritchett notes.

On Mrs. Kipling he hits the bull’s-eye—“She was certainly very domineering, and like many dominant people was liable to hysteria which her prisoner was called upon to calm.” E.M. Forster’s appearance he sums up in a single sentence: “He looked like a whim.” Such perceptions are fresh and invariably good-natured for it is by his kindliness and fellow-feeling that he goes on to reveal the real qualities of the writers under discussion. Of course he favors writers who take a real interest in human beings and the performances they create around themselves, because that is what, as a novelist and short-story writer, he does so well himself. One of the best studies is of Angus Wilson, whose very genuine stature is admirably measured and displayed. Curious that he should be so much less popular than Graham Greene, but perhaps most readers of fiction don’t want to hear about real people. They prefer the stereotypes of love or crime, horror or compassion.

Pritchett would accept that philosophically too, for his tastes are not only eclectic but wholly up to the minute—there is nothing old-fashioned about him. Or about his material. From the piece on Kipling—in fact a review of Angus Wilson’s biography—we learn that the headmaster at Westward Ho proposed a motion to the school debating society that “the advance of the Russians in Central Asia was not hostile to British power.” Thanks to the efforts of young Kipling and his friends it was heavily defeated.

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