In the first sentence of his essay on Barbara Pym—still the best on that now fashionable novelist—the poet Philip Larkin pronounced that “the first thing a novelist must provide is a separate world.” It is hard to disagree about that, although the separate world, like the realized “character,” has come to seem increasingly beside the point to most contemporary novelists, who play about in their ludic structures, cheered on by academic critics. But the world of Dickens, the world of Hemingway? It could only be their own. Their own sort of characters, living in their own sort of world, are unmistakable: no doubt about it.
Then what of stories, of what has come to be known specifically as the Short Story? At first glance the same rule seems to apply. Hemingway again, or Kafka, or Katherine Mansfield, or Borges—you know where you are with them; and the same would be true of more recent artists of the form—Welty, Oates, Carver, Ford. And yet a doubt remains. Is there a sense in which some of the best and most memorable tales win out by having no special world of their own, no instantly recognizable idiom and literariness? Where exactly is the world of Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” for instance, or Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”? Their special world is no more definable than their subject: they escape into a kind of totally meaningful universality. In spite of their styles and their manner the same is even true of the best of Henry James’s stories, or D.H. Lawrence’s.
If a certain anonymity, or transparency, is a characteristic of some kinds of very good short story, V.S. Pritchett must come high on the list as a master of the genre. He has been writing them for a very long time. The first appeared in England in the early 1920s, published in the Cornhill magazine and the New Statesman. Respected periodicals in those days, even if their purposes were largely ideological or political, carried short stories as a matter of course. His first collection, The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories, came out in 1930, and a novel, Clare Drummer, had been published the previous year. There was a fashion at the time for novels with women’s names as the title—a leftover from the French realist school which had produced the Goncourts’ Germinie Lacerteux, Zola’s Thérese Raquin, and in England George Moore’s Esther Waters—and Pritchett followed in the realists’ wake, his novel having no great individuality of his own.
But the short stories were all the better for this lack of an author who put himself forward, and were soon recognized as coming from a master craftsman’s hand. Pritchett’s reputation was confirmed by succeeding volumes. You Make Your Own Life came out just before the war (the title again has the mildly anonymous flavor of the period) and twenty and thirty years later came further …