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V.S.P.

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 collections—When My Girl Comes Home, and The Camberwell Beauty. Collected Short Stories and More Collected Short Stories were published in England and in America in 1982 and 1983.

Interspersed were novels, memoirs, biographies of other authors, literary criticism, books of travel. Nothing if not prolific, Sir Victor begins to look like a Victorian polycreator, a grand old man of letters. And it will be noticed, too, that his achievement begins to take on a timeless quality, an air of belonging everywhere over an almost seventy-year span, but nowhere in particular. The names and the subject matter seem irrespective of age, or local taste, or the whims of the moment: there is no trademark, no logo to win immediate recognition. “No one alive writes a better English sentence,” observed Irving Howe; and there is something peculiarly just about that, for no one could be less narrowly and definably English in outlook and manner than Pritchett. Howe’s verdict suggests a time when English, as such, was well written as a matter of course by a large number of people; before authors and poets, and the language itself, hived off into doing and being their respective things in their respective dialects.

If there is ultimately no need for a short-story writer, as opposed to a novelist, to provide “a separate world,” then what gives a clue to the nature of his final success? Maybe the concept of the poetic? Elusive as it is, the poetry factor is as vital to Pritchett as it is in “The Dead,” or in “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Of course “poetry” itself must not come into it; must indeed be rigorously kept out, as it is by Joyce, or must appear to be simply ignored, as it is in Chekhov. Pritchett learned a lot from both these authors, and particularly from Dubliners. His fellow story writer Elizabeth Bowen, whose skills he greatly admires, is apt to invoke the notion of poetry too openly to obtain an atmosphere: brilliant as they are, her stories do not perhaps in the final analysis wear as well as his, for they depend too much on a bravura felicity of poetic style which announces that the narrative has outsoared the simple business of storytelling.

Pritchett’s stories never do that. His style is always wholly subordinated to the tale; even its economy is unobtrusive. The poetry is entirely a matter of density of reference, a deft helping of the reader to inference, imagining whole lives and personalities in a single turn of phrase or scrap of dialogue. In this way a story like “A Trip to the Seaside,” from his recent collection, A Careless Widow, has the redolence of a Pinter play, or a poem by Sir John Betjeman, but with these suggestions metamorphosed into the absolute originality of a short-story creation. Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California, that there was “no there, there.” In Pritchett’s tales there is always a “there,” all the more haunting and uncompromising for being so contingent.

A Trip to the Seaside” is a gem. From the first word to the last—and the tale is only a few pages long—the reader is gripped conclusively, compelled to participate in the experience. A widower visits a small seaside town to see his former secretary, with the view to negotiating a possible second marriage. What happens is unexpected, and yet in some way inevitable. Pritchett’s mastery of the milieu, its thought and speech patterns, crowds out any need for explanation or description. A seaside setting was one of Elizabeth Bowen’s favorite locales, but she would not have resisted the lure of a few vivid paragraphs, transfixing the scene as a visual impression. Pritchett has no need for that: the whole place is there with barely a word being said about it, just as the “consciousness” of the secretary is made forever visible by the note of pride in her voice when she tells her suitor that she married her new husband “when the divorce came through.” It is a staggering blow—the widower was hoping for a convenient marital follow-up with a docile former employee, but she has attracted another man enough to make him divorce his wife for her! No wonder that when the widower leaves the resort by train in the last sentence he sees that the boats in the estuary “were flying no pennants and no flags.”

Pritchett is fascinated by trades and the habits they engender. The hair-dresser in “A Careless Widow” sees his customers as something “tousled and complaining,” who leave him “transfigured, equipped for the hunt again.”

They were simply top-knots to him. When they got up he was always surprised to see they had arms and legs and could walk. He sometimes, though not often, admired the opposite end of them: their shoes.

That sentence has the kind of perfection to it which Irving Howe had in mind; but like the notes in a late Beethoven quartet it in no way parades such perfection. The stories in A Careless Widow originally appeared in magazines—The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Woman’s Journal, Vanity Fair—but there is never a hint in them of the magazine short-story formula, the telling phrase, the situation worked up.

As a very young man Pritchett worked in the leather business, employment made good use of in his early novel, Nothing Like Leather, and in one or two choice examples near the beginning of the Collected Stories. Pritchett’s manner was more expansive then. In a story called “The Diver” the youthful narrator, an Englishman, is working for a small firm in Paris, but his ambition is precisely to write stories.

And what were these stories? Impossible to say. I would set off in the morning and see the gray, ill-painted buildings of the older quarters leaning together like people, their shutters thrown back, so that the open windows looked like black and empty eyes. In the mornings the bedding was thrown over the sills to air and hung out, wagging like tongues about what goes on in the night between men and women.

The apparent self-indulgence (“like black and empty eyes”) is in fact there for a purpose: to reveal the story elements simmering away inside the young narrator. In his earlier takes Pritchett used this technique, to some degree inherited from Dubliners, to considerable effect, although his later manner invisibly discards it, the story and its stream of consciousness being more organically blended. No one has ever been better at either technique, and at combinations of them. It is the art of blending as author into the sensibility of his characters—more rarely of his narrator, though he is economical with the mode of first-person narrative—and in such a way that there seems no distinction between the brief excursus into a sensibility and the writing itself. This goes with an unerring eye for placing the wholly objective and contingent detail in the correct spot, as Chekhov in “The Lady with the Little Dog” suddenly introduces a watchman who approaches the seaside promenade where the two lovers are sitting, looks at them peacefully and courteously, and goes away again. And Pritchett is a master not just of the seemingly unnecessary detail but of the odd, secretive vagaries of human nature, which may emerge at defenseless or vulnerable moments. The careless widow’s eyes fill with tears when she touches not on her husband’s virtues but on a minor act of folly committed by him which she had loyally concealed. She recounts it after his death, with a sort of shy pride.

The sense of people, in their habits and backgrounds, which so unpretentiously animates all of Pritchett’s stories, makes him an incomparable travel writer. The Spanish Temper, first published in 1954, is not only one of the best books about Spain but also the least ambitious, in the sense that Pritchett, with his usual modesty, makes no claims for his insight, or for any special degree of authority on the subject. He knows the place as a craftsman knows the materials he works in, and that is also true of his fiction. The Spanish Temper is packed with short pregnant commentaries on the institutions of Spanish life, and the figures that have dominated Spanish culture—the bull-fight, the expulsion of the Moors, Saint Teresa and Ignatius Loyola, Don Quixote and Don Juan—commentaries full of a sort of swift instinctual understanding. Pritchett several times mentions Galdos, the great nineteenth-century novelist who wrote with exact and loving detail of the lives of all the urban Spanish classes; and it is perhaps with Galdos that Pritchett himself, in his methods and outlook, might be compared as a writer, rather than with any more up-to-date English or American man of letters.

As the articles reprinted in At Home and Abroad show, he is as good on South America, and the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe, as he is on Spain; and one wishes that he had visited and written more about Russia, for his studies of Chekhov and Turgenev are remarkable in their sense of the peculiar achievement and personality of those writers. His book on Balzac is extraordinary too,* and although The Living Novel (1946) suffers from trying to do too much in too short a compass, it contains a great many brilliant vignettes of separate books for which he feels a special affection or sense of debt.

Above all Pritchett as a writer never loses his sense of what actually happens, the facts of a given case. That is an aspect of his mute and mild disinclination to construct in his fiction, or in any of the many books he has written, a world of his own. His Spain, unlike, say, Hemingway’s, is not a personal fantasy, or anything approaching one. His sense of the realities peeps out significantly in a passing comment he made about the famous tales of Isaac Babel, chronicler of the Red cavalry armies in the Ukraine during the Russian civil war. In one of them the narrator, the Jewish political officer attached to a troop of Cossack soldiery, longs to establish himself in their eyes as ruthless, daring, and devil-may-care. He is uneasy that he may be mocked for his lingering bourgeois scruples, his sense of property and of humane behavior. So, hoping to impress his comrades, he brutally kills a peasant woman’s goose and orders it prepared for his meal. Fine, observed Pritchett, but surely this is no more than a symbolic act, and the bird itself a literary property? Babel is considering how most effectively to point up his story and reveal its idea and meaning. He must have glossed over what actually happened, for would not the Cossacks, who had been living in and tyrannizing this village for weeks, have devoured everything, having no supplies of their own?

Pritchett has a sharp eye, both as critic and craftsman, for this kind of give-away device in a seemingly plain and factual narrative sequence. Some of his best critical work appears in a new collection, Lasting Impressions, which contains twenty-seven essays on writers and intellectuals. The ones on Bruno Schultz, the Polish fantasist, and on Simone de Beauvoir are particularly good. (He respects the great French lady, but does not take her so seriously as some contemporaries have done.) He himself never claims to tell the truth—the spoken or unspoken pretension of so many recent writers—but merely gets on with the job. Babel’s goose, he knows, only survived to be killed by the author as a literary convenience: and he never, as it were, cooks his own goose by resorting to devices of this kind. His reputation has grown gradually, and increases with each successive volume; he would never have become famous overnight. His works speak for him but he has always been too modest to let them claim a name for himself.

  1. *

    Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (Random House, 1988; Vintage, 1989); The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Ivan Turgenev (Random House, 1978); Balzac (Knopf, 1973).

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