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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 attracted by concision and intensity, by glimpses that illuminated character and relationships; in the 1920s he wrote his earliest short stories.

Chekhov, though no longer alive, would have been considered a near contemporary then and, as the undisputed master of the modern form, an influence that could not be avoided. The short story as we know it today belongs to our times, “a young art,” as Elizabeth Bowen put it, “a child of this century.” The antique—the told tale of the fireside—had drifted uneasily into print but, stripped of the drama supplied by the talebearer’s voice, often failed adequately to communicate.

Literary development such as this has always interested Pritchett. He possesses the ability to discard the implements of the fiction writer in order to view the subject from the perspective of the academic. Not satisfied simply to accept his fascination with the “intricacy of the short form, the speed with which it can change from scene to scene,” he nags himself with analytical questions of why and how and wherefore. His instinct is to reduce possible novels to essentials, but part of that task—as he sees it—is to define the special quality of what he is left with. This is not to reassure himself that his performance is worthwhile, but suggests instead that his fiction-writer’s natural curiosity has overflowed in a particular direction.

The conclusions he reaches are similar to those of another renowned practitioner in the same art, who equally liked to analyze: Frank O’Connor. “Since a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes,” O’Connor wrote, “those minutes must be carefully chosen indeed and lit by an unearthly glow, one that enables us to distinguish present, past and future as though they were contemporaneous.” In Pritchett’s view a short story “tells us one thing, and one thing intensely.” It is a glancing form that “seems to be right for the nervousness and restlessness of contemporary life.” It can be likened to a painting or “even a song which we can take in all at once, yet which brings the recesses and contours of long experience to the mind.”

Although they approach the matter differently, the two writers are in general agreement, but I doubt that Pritchett—more precise and detailed in his thinking—would agree with O’Connor that the storyteller must be “much more of a writer, much more of an artist” than the novelist. The adopted academic role is out of control here; Pritchett rarely is.

The Complete Collected Stories is a fat volume of over twelve hundred pages, constituting more than sixty years of production. The earliest stories Pritchett wrote—those of the 1920s, some of them previously collected in The Spanish Virgin—are out of print and have been allowed to remain so on the grounds that their author had not then discovered his own distinctive voice. But by 1938, with the collection You Make Your Own Life, he was on his way.

In the first story of that collection, and the first in this, a young commercial traveler courts the girl behind the reception desk of his provincial hotel:

It started one Saturday. I was working new ground and I decided I’d stay at the hotel the weekend and put in an appearance at church.

All alone?” asked the girl in the cash desk.

It has been raining since ten o’clock.

Mr Good has gone,” she said. “And Mr. Straker. He usually stays with us. But he’s gone.”

That’s where they make their mistake,” I said. “They think they know everything because they’ve been on the road all their lives.”

You’re a stranger here, aren’t you?” she said.

I am,” I said. “And so are you.”

How do you know that?”

Obvious,” I said. “Way you speak.”

Let’s have a light,” she said.

So’s I can see you,” I said.

That was how it started. The rain was pouring down on to the glass roof of the office.

The young man knows that it pays in small towns to spend the weekend, before making his business rounds on Monday morning. It pays to turn up at church, to say good morning to one congregation and good evening to another. They remember you when you spread your samples out on their counters, and the weekend gives you something to talk about. “I’m TT,” he reveals to the hotel girl over a cup of tea in her office. “Too many soakers on the road as it is.” That, also, is a selling line.

Muriel her name is, known locally for her sense of humor, given to laughter. She is bored, sitting in the hotel office in her overcoat because it’s always cold there, “a smart girl with a big friendly chin and a second one coming and her forehead and nose were covered with freckles.”

Colin, a mechanic in the local garage, is in love with Muriel and when a love affair with the commercial traveler begins he follows the two about on his motorbike. Their country drives are haunted by his dogged pursuit, the big red motorcycle occasionally speeding past them or cutting in dangerously at a bend. Anything can happen next.

This is typical V.S. Pritchett territory. He is intimately familiar with its outward reality; he knows its mores and its emotions, and supplies a plot that doesn’t strain its limitations. The tone is colloquial, the first-person narrator given depth and idiosyncracy.

On a weekend visit with Muriel to his family, comedy slips to the fore. This is a household supported by an undertaking business, which for the young man is just another commercial activity, seasonable like everything else. But for Muriel it’s a hoot, any reference to coffin sizes or hearses sending her into gusts of noisy laughter. The front-room exchanges are ordinary enough, but the presentation of this dialogue, without authorial comment, opens up a whole world of family relationships and reveals a telling glimpse of what awaits a daughter-in-law when the politeness runs its course:

How’s business with you, Mr Humphrey?” said Muriel. “We passed a large cemetery near the station.”

Dad’s Ledger,” I said.

The whole business has changed so that you wouldn’t know it, in my lifetime,” said my father. “Silver fittings have gone clean out. Restraint. Dignity,” my father said.

Prices did it,” my father said.

The war,” he said.

You couldn’t get the wood,” he said.

Take ordinary mahogany, just an ordinary piece of mahogany. Or teak,” he said. “Take teak. Or walnut.”

You can certainly see the world go by in this room,” I said to my mother.

It never stops,” she said.

Colin from the garage is killed, cutting in once too often on his powerful machine—this time in front of a bus. The strands of the story, so far apparently unrelated, fall into place around this tragedy. Death hurries love up; overnight comforting turns into sex. “Ever noticed,” Muriel’s young man wonders, “how hot a woman’s breath gets when she’s crying?” The drama of a passionate motorcyclist isn’t finished yet: when he follows the lovers for the last time it is in one of the family coffins, teak or mahogany or walnut. And they are thinking, as people did in the 1930s, that chances taken with sex before marriage will probably mean marriage in the end, whether they like it or not. It’s inconvenient, it’s dampening, it’s too soon and too hurried, there’s too little in the bank: the story belongs to the boy who escaped on his motorbike.

Seven years later, in the next collection, It May Never Happen, the style is just perceptibly tighter, more economical, closer to the bone. But the obsessions are the same—with what men and women do to one another, with success and failure, strength and weakness; Pritchett is fascinated by these vagaries of the human condition, and above all by the illusions of love. He is aware that pettiness and small dishonesties do not necessarily destroy nobility, and that when bluster cloaks shame and embarrassment it reveals more than it obscures. But such awareness is only a beginning; in writing fiction it must become the property of imaginary people, prompted onto the page by charged emotions or some turn of events. In “The Fly in the Ointment” a man of thirty-five visits his elderly, bankrupt father, who is keeping his end up to a degree that is almost offensive. His disguise betrays him; the truth peeps out. The relationship between the two will never be the same again, and the transformation will influence it retrospectively, its previously unquestioned attributes and assumptions caught in the beam of light adversity has cast.

Listen to me a moment. I want you to get this idea,” said his father, his warm voice going dead and rancorous and his nostrils fidgeting. His eyes went hard, too. A different man was speaking, and even a different face; the son noticed for the first time that like all big-faced men his father had two faces. There was the outer face like a soft warm and careless daub of innocent sealing wax and inside it, as if thumbed there by a seal, was a much smaller one, babyish, shrewd, scared and hard. Now this little inner face had gone greenish and pale and dozens of little veins were broken on the nose and cheeks. The small, drained, purplish lips of this little inner face were speaking. The son leaned back instinctively to get just another inch away from this little face.

Stories breed in a writer, Pritchett has said, and might have added that they are often variations on a theme, yet another attempt to exorcise a still persistent obsession. Few novelists fruitfully have such second thoughts: poets and short story writers thrive on them. Some disown early versions, altering with a mass of emendations, updating colloquialisms, or generally restyling; V.S. Pritchett simply writes another story. In the eighty-two collected here no effort has been made to trim away the echoes. The half-madness that being in love induces before the passion has settled, the influence of someone’s physical characteristics on his or her personality, the potency of the unspoken statement, the sudden revelation: these sources of inspiration are repeatedly returned to. The most formal, traditional, even old-fashioned of writers, Pritchett is also a constant experimentalist. In working the same ground, the distinctive voice has developed many cadences over the years.

But there remains an instantly recognizable Pritchett realm. In it young men make their way and dream of the girls they long one day to find waiting for them. The girls—in saloon bars or cafés or some relation’s house—smile prettily when they’re eventually discovered, but the next time the prettiness seems a little less. The smile is vacant, the jaw heavy, the hair lank. And Jim or Harry or Bill is not a Romeo after all. In corners of public houses middle-aged men talk about their day’s work. In shabby front rooms old women murmur from the bowels of the past. It is often, but not always, a lower-middle-class world, respectable, doing better for itself, as English as its own array of coronation mugs. There’s Cousin Gladys with her Bible class, and Aunt Annie clucking and clicking her teeth, and Mr. Seugar poking the fire in order to annoy them next door, and Mrs. Draper who makes an animal sound, “like the noise of an old dog at a bone.” Mr. Fulmino loves whatever hasn’t happened yet. Big, oblong Mr. Manningtree gets out of bed briskly every morning and longs to shout “Wakey, wakey!” at his sleeping gnat of a wife, but every morning controls himself. Mr. Hoblin uses disguised voices on the telephone. Mrs. Prosser looks like a fist.

Pritchett is at his best when his cast is large and the story twenty or thirty pages long. Group portraits are presented, often of families or people connected through the work they do. In “When My Girl Comes Home” bright, buxom Hilda returns from the war, first-class on the train, her tinted hair fashionably arranged. She is better-dressed than the women who gather round a tea table to welcome her. Her marriage to Mr. Singh took her to the Far East, but Mr. Singh is dead now, and many among the family and relations who congregate in the small house in Hincham Street have believed that Hilda must be too.

This long story is probably Pritchett’s finest. Hilda, with her smart luggage and her jewel case, is a queen among these people who have survived the Blitz and the deprivations of war and are struggling through an aftermath of austerity. The swollen schoolgirl has slimmed down in the shoulders and the elbows, her embrace for everyone is assured and woman-of-the-world. Four Years in Japanese Torture Camp, the newspaper headlines say, London Girl’s Ordeal.

Hilda’s mother, trembling little Mrs. Johnson, never lost hope, and her tears are shed proudly now. A Mother’s Faith, another headline states.

The landlord at the Lord Nelson, the butcher, anyone who met old Mrs Johnson as she walked by like a poor, decent ghost with her sewing bundles, in those last two years, all said in war-staled voices:

It’s a mother’s faith, that’s what it is. A mother’s faith is a funny thing.”

She would walk along, with a cough like someone driving tacks. Her chest had sunk and under her brown coat her shoulder blades seemed to have sharpened into a single hump. Her faith gave her a bright, yet also a sly, dishonest look.

The bombshell that Hilda drops is that after Mr. Singh’s death she married Shinji Kobayashi. It isn’t meant to be a bombshell. Her mother knew; and Hilda presumed the information that she’d been perfectly safe as the wife of a Japanese rather than incarcerated in a prison camp had been passed on. It wasn’t, and instead there are the newspaper headlines, a mother’s faith not at all what it had seemed to be, and everyone at sixes and sevens. These people of Hincham Street had expected a wasted figure to return to them, far more battered by war than they’d been themselves. Yet Hilda has come in glory, and at least that is understandable now. Half-truths multiply among the doilies and threadbare antimacassars. Mr. Fulmino, who always takes the lead, who should have known the facts since he invariably does, smothers his confusion in a teacup. Because everything possible must be done in the way of human duty, it was Mr. Fulmino who wrote to the War Office, the Red Cross, and the Prisoner-of-War Commission. It was Mr. Fulmino who got Hilda back. He feels more than a little foolish now.

Pritchett does not go in for heroes and villains. Hilda isn’t wicked, she didn’t intentionally mislead. She has a stupid, anonymous face, and she inspires mix-ups, but that’s the height of her shortcomings. She trots out the facts of her missing years, adding in honest good measure that recently a Mr. Gloster has entered her life, and also a Mr. Faulkner—just as Mr. Singh and Shinji Kobayashi have in their time. “I don’t believe it,” Mrs. Fulmino mutters, not knowing whether or not she should. The headlines were all lies—no more, it seems, than lingering propaganda. Yet even now, with Hilda awed by what has been printed about her, and while family and relations “believed and disbelieved everything at once,” the fantasy that has taken root still lives.

Finally, ordinariness is in charge again. Uneasy in Hincham Street and the cause of some friction there, Hilda is fortuitously brought low.

We watched Hilda. The painted eyebrows made the grimace of her weeping horrible. There was not one of us who was not shocked. There was in all of us a sympathy we knew how to express but which was halted—as by a fascination—with the sight of her ruin. We could not help contrasting her triumphant arrival with her state at this moment. It was as if we had at last got her with us as we had, months before, expected her to be.

Hilda, fortuitously again, bounces back. Chance is the guiding element in her life, as it is for so many of Pritchett’s characters. From their modest foothold on the periphery they rarely inaugurate events, and influence their own destiny only through occasional, glancing swipes. As real people do, they resist the labels of good or bad; they are decent on their day, some experiencing more of those days than others do. It is love—Pritchett’s favorite ingredient—that pins them into the scheme of things. Grimly it does so for aged, unattractive Gentleman Pliny when he marries his Camberwell beauty and keeps her by him, as he does the hoarded pieces in his antique shop. Desperately it does so for straitlaced Constance in her efforts to hold on to a useless man. It has its way with young and old, weakening them or imbuing them with their most enduring strength, tidying the pattern of their lives. These stories are a record of its capricious nature and of much besides, every page a pleasure.

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