Child of the Century

Complete Collected Stories

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 1,219 pp., $35.00

I have before me two photographs,” V.S. Pritchett has written. “One is, I regret, instantly recognizable: a bald man, sitting before a pastry board propped on a table, and writing. He does little else besides sit and write. His fattish face is supported by a valence of chins; the head is held together by glasses that slip down a bridgeless nose….”

The second image is a picture taken fifty years before: a “young fellow sitting on the table of a photographer’s in Paris, a thin youth of twenty with thick fairish hair, exclaiming eyebrows, loosely grinning mouth and the eyes raised to the ceiling with a look of passing schoolboy saintliness…. The young one is shy, careless, very pleased with himself, putting on some impromptu act; the older one is perplexed. The two if they could meet in the flesh, would be stupefied and the older one would certainly be embarrassed.”

A lifetime of transformation has occurred between that past and present. The young Victor Pritchett, destined for the leather trade and English suburbia, has just freed himself from that fate. In Paris he sold shellac and glue. His vague ambition was to write, but some instinct informed him that first it was necessary to become a foreigner. “For myself that is what a writer is—a man living on the other side of a frontier.”

The older man is Sir Victor Pritchett, essayist and novelist and storyteller, the prophet returned to his own country, the traveler come in from the cold, Grand Old Man of English letters. In the years that separate the two there has been, not just a lot of writing, but a great deal of questioning and cogitation, of dwelling upon the art of fiction, of relating—in case it can possibly be done—the writer and the person:

One knows who one is; in childish egotism, one supposed people have a relationship only with oneself. But after the age of twenty, the frame is uncertain, change is hard to pin down, one is less and less sure of who one is, and other egos with their court of adherents invade one’s privacy with theirs. One’s freedom is inhibited by their natural insistence on themselves; also, the professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing.

The fiction writer, the old man decides in the end, is “at the very least, two persons. He is the prosaic man at his desk and a sort of valet who dogs him and does the living.” At first he is all valet, the alter ego no more than a wish or a dream. With literary success, the balance is reversed.

Pritchett’s apprenticeship was in journalism. He wrote anecdotal sketches of real people “because the newspapers liked that kind of thing,” but he could not resist the temptation to invent. He labored at novels, eventually finding himself more …

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