The Turn of the Years: “As Old as the Century”
“The Seasons’ Course”
In “As Old as the Century,” his genial soliloquy on being eighty, V.S. Pritchett writes:
It seems to me that my life as a man and as a writer has been spent on crossing and recrossing frontiers and that is at the heart of any talent that I have.
Lest this conjure an image of the writer as a man who has to dodge armed guards, searchlights, and wolfhounds before an average day’s breakfast, Pritchett adds:
It cheers me that I live on the frontier of Camden Town and Regent’s Park.
His frontiers are the truly dangerous ones, of the kind that thousands of people habitually cross without ever acknowledging their existence. They are very British frontiers, where a barely perceptible shift of accent, dress, or architecture can signal a human gulf just as cold, bland, and intimidating as Checkpoint Charlie. For nearly sixty years now, V.S. Pritchett has been mapping these rifts and seams of English society, and his Collected Stories have an extraordinary completeness to them. Here is a book that really does work like a world. It contains virtually all classes and conditions of men, from rich old boys in the port-and-leather nurseries of their clubs to the hapless refugees who grub an impromptu life on the city’s dingier streets.
Everyone who lives in the book has his own spiky particularity; he is a unique creature, to whom his author has given the inalienable right of self-determination—however frequently that right is exercised at the expense of authorial design. Taken together, this tumbling crowd of individual characters and their entwined stories compose a larger narrative about the world we have made for ourselves, from our cocky days in the 1920s to the hurts and recriminations of Britain under Mrs. Thatcher. They are our history, and we could not have asked for a more wise or vivid one.
Pritchett’s “realism” is so successful, his artistry so self-effacing, that he tempts the critic into merely gossiping about what happens in his stories, as if his characters were people who lived on one’s own street. The moral philosophy and the literary artifice by which these characters are brought into being are cunningly hidden from the reader. The seemingly inconsequential talkiness of tone, together with Pritchett’s habitual air of just being a plain man with an anecdote to tell, are devices that conceal an art as rigorous and deeply thought out as that of Henry James. Beware of Pritchett’s homespun manner: it is an elaborate camouflage.
It is rare for Pritchett to speak directly to the reader, and one should attend carefully when he announces that “When My Girl Comes Home” is his own favorite among his stories. “When My Girl Comes Home” is a moral fable disguised as a casual memoir: it occupies the same key place in Pritchett’s work as “The Lesson of the Master” does in James’s. The lesson taught by “When My Girl Comes Home” is …