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 the arbitrary nature of social reality and its transformation in literature.
The story is set in Hincham Street. The name itself, like so many names in Pritchett, has particular resonance. Like England in 1947, for which it stands, “Hincham” is pinched and short of dignity. It sounds like an illiterate abbreviation of some other, grander name (Hinchingham? Hindlesham?). Yet Hincham Street, underlettered, underfed, grown skeptical on a surfeit of wartime propaganda, has a firm grasp of reality. It knows what’s what, and knows exactly what is too exotic to be real. Hincham Street is the mean, penny-wise capital of English common sense.
When Hilda Draper returns to Hincham Street after thirteen years away, she is extravagantly, preposterously unreal. The street has prepared itself to receive the ravaged victim of a Japanese POW camp. The headline that appears in a newspaper the day after Hilda’s return reads: A MOTHER’S FAITH. FOUR YEARS IN JAPANESE TORTURE CAMP. LONDON GIRL’S ORDEAL. Yet the Hilda who comes back to Hincham is not at all the Hilda of LONDON GIRL’S ORDEAL. “She shone with money,” says the local librarian who tells the story. Her very suitcases are an affront to Hincham notions of reality. She has been everywhere—India, Tokyo, Hawaii, San Francisco. She has been married, certainly; but was it to an Indian called Singh, or a Japanese called Shinji? Were they one man or two?
More puzzling still, there are two further men on the fringe of Hilda’s picture, a Mr. Faulkner and a Mr. Gloster. Mr. Gloster is an “American” and a “writer” (both equally improbable species in the world of Hincham Street); and “a book” is to be written about Hilda’s “life.” “We were all flabbergasted,” says the librarian.
Her life! Here was a woman who had, on top of everything else, a life.
Hincham Street finds Hilda a thoroughly unconvincing character. Her stories all have the clear ring of untruth about them; her behavior displays a weakness for gothic melodrama of a sort that doesn’t fit in at all with the ingrained realism of inner London suburbia. Hilda disappears in a cloud of unlikeliness. The last paragraph of Pritchett’s story reads:
But Mr. Gloster’s book came out. Oh yes. It wasn’t about Japan or India or anything like that. It was about us.
All Pritchett’s characters would, like the residents of Hincham Street, be “flabbergasted” to find themselves in a book. They would protest that their lives were so ordinary, so “real,” as to be beyond the range of stories. They are frontierspeople, as far outside the folklore of traditional working-class culture as they are outside the genteel manners of the established middle class; shabby, urban, very full of themselves, pure Pritchett.
He allows us to see that Hilda, “unreal” as she may seem to her relations and neighbors, is pure Hincham Street. For Pritchett’s people all teeter on the edge of extravagant selfhood; Mr. Fulmino and Constance and Bill Williams and all the other residents of the street have more in common with Hilda than any of them would care, or dare, to admit. Given half a chance, any one of them would go in for kid suitcases, studded jewel boxes, improbable journeys abroad, and madcap marriages. The gaiety of Pritchett’s world springs from his ability to show that everybody in it, however bound or reduced his social circumstances may make him seem, is rattling the chains of class—another shake, and the whole tottering system will fall apart.
This conviction has literary consequences. In English fiction, the technique of realism has usually been just one more means of keeping the working classes in their place: it has imprisoned them in class accents, class clothes, class districts, class brand names. Give the British realist a voice, a make of shirt, or a neighborhood for his character to live in, and he will construct a complete cosmology, working from the outside inward. Pritchett does exactly the reverse. He uses the class system, with all its intricately coded symbols, as a challenge, to test his characters’ innate powers of individualism.
In story after story he unmasks the sublime ego of someone who, elsewhere in our literature, would be no more than a diagrammatic face in a crowd. Evans, the evangelizing odd-job man in “The Wheelbarrow,” Muriel, Colin, and Mr. Humphrey in “Sense of Humour,” Thompson in “The Sailor,” crusty George in “The Skeleton,” Mrs. Pliny in “The Camberwell Beauty”—they are all figures whom Pritchett has liberated from stereotype.
The tenor of Pritchett’s style slyly asserts that this is the world as we already know it, as it really is; that the author, like the narrating librarian in “When My Girl Comes Home,” is only a humble archivist. Everything that can happen in direct speech does: dialogue is neutral evidence, and dialogue is Pritchett’s primary medium. On every possible occasion he makes his characters speak for themselves, as if their creator were a passive witness to their activities. Much of his writing looks, on the surface, merely like stage directions, to place and inflect the central flow of talk. She said, with excitement…. He said seriously…. He smiled scornfully at me…. He is puritanically sparing with metaphor, preferring rather the kind of observant detail from which another writer would construct a metaphor, but which Pritchett likes to present as tangible fact:
He hated the glazed, whorish, hypocritically impersonal look of telephone booths. They were always unpleasantly warmed by the random emotions left behind in them.
(Who, after reading those two sentences, will use a pay phone again without thinking of them?)
Pritchett’s prose style hinges on the pretense that it never tinkers with the world, never sacrifices the world’s oddities and protuberances for the sake of literary rhetoric. He deliberately lets his sentences become clogged and saturated as they try to carry the burden of the world’s details. Often they have the tone of inventories, with objects and people piling up, higgledy-piggledy, one on top of another.
London was cabbaged with greenery. It sprouted in bunches along the widening and narrowing of the streets, bulging at corners, at the awkward turnings that made the streets look rheumatic. There were wide pavements at empty corners, narrow ones where the streets were packed. Brilliant traffic was squeezing and bunching, shaking, spurting, in short disorderly processions like an assortment of funerals. On some windows the blinds of a night worker were drawn and the milk bottle stood untouched at the door; at the Tube, papers and cigarette litter blowing, in the churchyards women pushing prams….
It is at once exhaustive and exact. To test its precision of phrase and observation, set it beside any descriptive passage in Dreiser, and Pritchett’s artistic cunning will be at once apparent.
His stylistic method is that of a classic realist. Pritchett is temperamentally empirical, Aristotelian, a man who has the air of living humbly in the world as it is. Yet that is a deceptive pose. For every story makes an imaginative appeal for the lives of the characters—of which it pretends to be a straightforward archive—that is absolutely foreign to the conventional assumptions of realism. All the stolid details are there to prove a very unrealist case: that each individual life marvelously transcends its given circumstances, that we are creatures of the spirit, only superficially and temporarily encased in suburban accents and shiny suits.
Sometimes the marvelous happens quite literally, as in “Citizen,” when a bronze nineteenth-century statue takes to the streets of Rome to answer to the needs of a neurotic spinster. More often, it is there as a constant force working on the inner lives of Pritchett’s characters, suddenly showing itself in their humor, their capacity to surprise themselves, their unbidden, childlike springs of playfulness and wonder. The delirious ending of Pritchett’s most famous story, “Sense of Humour,” is a perfect example, with the salesman and his girl jaunting along in the hearse that carries the body of the girl’s previous lover:
Through all the towns that run into one another as you might say, we caught it. We went through, as she said, like royalty. So many years since I drove a hearse, I’d forgotten what it was like.
I was proud of her, I was proud of Colin, and I was proud of myself. And after what had happened, I mean on the last two nights, it was like a wedding. And although we knew it was for Colin, it was for us too, because Colin was with both of us. It was like this all the way.
“Look at that man there. Why doesn’t he raise his hat? People ought to show respect for the dead,” she said.
Humphrey and Muriel, dazzlingly alive, dazzlingly themselves, as morally indifferent as cats, are a glorious creation. Tough, unlikely emblems of the human spirit, they occupy a saintly place in Pritchett’s world; just as the famous sanctity of that hero of Christian Science, Mr. Timberlake, in “The Saint,” earns him a comically low position in the moral order of things.
All this makes V.S. Pritchett the strangest and least easily categorized of modern British writers. He may strike the reader as “English” to a fault with his quizzical mildness of manner, his insistent emphasis on the trifles of speech and social life, his effacement of his own power as an author over the lives of the people he has brought into being. Yet his nicely modulated Englishness is employed in the service of a way of thinking and feeling that is much closer to the nineteenth-century French and Russian writers of whom Pritchett has been the most readable of critics than it is to, say, Wells or Galsworthy, his most obvious British ancestors. In this too he is a frontiersman: Camden Town turns out to adjoin Paris and Moscow as well as Regent’s Park.
As he points out in the title of his memoir, he is now “as old as the century”; and the habit of living on one frontier or another has equipped him with his unplaceable, chameleonlike agility in adapting himself as a writer to more decades than it seems decent to list. Each of his stories is rooted in a specific place and period, but Pritchett himself has gone comfortably striding on, as exact about the 1970s as he is about the Twenties and the Thirties. Over the long continuing are of his career, the larger story that he tells is not a consoling or a cozy one.
The early stories in the collection hark directly back to the childhood world he has described in A Cab at the Door, and it is easy to see how Pritchett’s visionary humanism, his stance as a protesting unrealist, chime with his own upbringing. Pritchett’s father, though he lacked the subtlety, the intelligence, and the reading of his son, recognized no limits to selfhood. In that most British of phrases, he was always getting above himself, with his dizzy business ventures, his new automobiles, his devout conversion to the transcendentalism of Mrs. Eddy, and the young Pritchett grew up in a milieu that was happily innocent of the conventional constraints and taboos of class. The injuries of class that he suffered were inflicted outside the home; and as he became an expert on the delicate lunacies of English society so his expertise was that of someone who was essentially an outsider, with an outsider’s ability to perceive the comedy at the heart of the pain.
Stories like “Sense of Humour” rejoice in the England they describe, finding in it a place at once absurd and possible. Pritchett’s clerks and salesmen of the Twenties and Thirties, with their hair pasted flat on their skulls, their loud checks and faded new slang, are all kin to his own father, they are ebulliently busy getting above themselves, and their author is able to smile on them and find them good. They enter the book in a swirl of exhaust fumes, coming out of ribbon developments of ugly brick houses and art deco saloon bars: a succession of unlikely saints and rain kings for whom the world is their oyster.
Then something happens. It is not a change in Pritchett himself; he is as tolerant, as keen to love his characters, as ever. It is a change in the texture of the outside world. In “As Old as the Century” Pritchett writes:
At eighty I look at the horrible state of our civilisation. It seems to be breaking up and returning to the bloody world of Shakespeare’s Histories which we thought we had outgrown.
This is not the predictable rumbling of an old codger; it is something more serious. One finds its evidence painfully documented in later stories like “Tea with Mrs. Bittell” and “On the Edge of the Cliff,” where the characters are struggling for survival like victims of a shipwreck, where cruelty and violence come casually out of the blue.
Pritchett never deals directly with public life, but one can sense it in the background of these private encounters as a spreading infection that extends from the body politic into the body personal. In “Tea with Mrs. Bittell” what starts as a rumor about an IRA bomb in a London restaurant ends as a grotesque and bloody battle between an old woman and a young thief in a South Kensington flat. As in the early stories, what happens has the air of being unwilled by the author, of surprising him with its cruelty as earlier events surprised him with their grace. As a version of our own history it is all the more ominous because one is certain that this is not the history Pritchett ever wanted to write, and that only honesty now compels him to set it down. The frontier on which his latest stories are set is an England trembling between civilization and savagery; an unhappy setting and a frighteningly truthful one.