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The Pritchett Sound


The man of action is never the hero of English letters. Byron will always be understood to have been an orchid, or some Italianate exotic, who required sun and wine and ancient marbles to keep him writing, a circumstance which prevents him from ever entirely being loved by the English. They take their revenge by remembering his good looks better than they remember his good poems. Something similar has happened to Bruce Chatwin, another heliotrope with a well-turned heel whose prose is admired but whose journeys in search of desert configurations and hundred-year-old Chinese eggs to swallow will always, at some level, hold him outside the mahogany parlor of English satisfactions.

I say English very deliberately because the same is not true of Ireland or Scotland or Wales, where Joyce, Stevenson, and Dylan Thomas could be better thought of, in the long run if not immediately, for having planted their feet and their imaginations in foreign places, encountering the social rigors of Trieste, the jungle fevers of Samoa, and even the questionable richness of the American university campus. But there is a tendency with the English to dislike writers who fail to sustain their stay-at-home virtues, who fail, indeed, to devote themselves to the occasionally poetic business of nothing very much happening all the time. A writer like Graham Greene was greatly enjoyed but never deeply loved by the culture that produced him. How could he be, roaming around Africa, Vietnam, and Antibes, and taking too little interest in the daily business of Surrey? Stephen Spender never grasped how much he made himself disliked when he spoke about Spain, and George Orwell, I suspect, was forgiven that particular lapse not so much for having written a good book about the experience as by showing the mettle in his English character by soon after wearing down his shoes on the road to Wigan Pier.

England’s inwardness can be charming (Noël Coward) but it can also be grotesque (Anthony Powell). Taking too deep and unsuspicious an interest in foreign parts has traditionally been understood to constitute a lapse of taste, unless, like E.M. Forster or Apsley Cherry-Garrard—he of The Worst Journey in the World—the writer is seen to carry his fascinating Englishness into all weathers, even into a confrontation with icy death.

To the most grounded English writers, there will always be a corner of every foreign field that is forever England, and if not, then God help the field. In the days before we were war buddies, America used to come in for its fair share of these insults too. Rudyard Kipling went to San Francisco and behaved like any popular English author should if he cares about his popularity: he complained about it not being sufficiently like home. “They delude themselves into the belief that they talk English,” he wrote in his American Notes,

and I have already been pitied for speaking with “an English Accent.” The man who pitied me spoke, so far as I was concerned, the language of thieves. And they all do. Where we put the accent forward, they throw it back, and vice versa; where we use the long a, they use the short; and words so simple as to be past mistaking, they pronounce somewhere up in the dome of their heads…. The American has no language. He is dialect, slang, provincialism, accent, and so forth. Now that I have heard their voices, all the beauty of Bret Harte is being ruined for me, because I find myself catching through the roll of his rhythmical prose the cadence of his peculiar fatherland.

V.S. Pritchett was a traveler too, and some of his most deeply invested writing is about other places and what they can do to you. “New York,” he wrote,

is never sad. It has hardened the human shell. It offers that dramatic, rhapsodic self-consciousness which sets the American tone. It instills the spirit of the tallest of the tall stories.

In South America:

We are standing only a mile or two from the huge red maw of the greatest river in the world. It has been a journey through superlatives of size, through all that Nature is capable of in mountain heights, river, jungle, desert and plain. What can we compare with those thousands of miles over the Peruvian desert or the Andes, or over the jungle of Brazil? What was mere romance to us has now become real memory.

The journey toward real memory might be seen to have been an important one for Pritchett, yet he was devoid of the English tendency to take an interest in foreign places mainly for their un-Englishness: he enjoyed particularities for their own sake, the deft, colorful business of places and people stewing in their own specificity. He wrote amazing narratives about Spain, where he worked as a reporter, and he wrote them early, clearing out before the Spender fraternity arrived with their hats, their whistles, their notebooks from Smythson of Bond Street, imagining that Spanish intellectuals were, as Pritchett scoffed, “an Iberian branch of the Fabian Society.”

From an early point, Pritchett had the great writer’s propensity to turn the inward gaze on exterior matters, relishing the texture of experience as it unfolded in his head and in the world outside his head, and he was able to examine nationalist sicknesses without rhetoric. As a nonfiction writer, Pritchett found a way to share his puzzles with the readers, as opposed to sharing his abject certainties. “Sombreness is so much the dominant aspect of these people,” he writes in The Spanish Temper, “that one is puzzled to know how the notion of a romantic and coloured Spain has come about.”

In the bones of his style, however, and despite his travels, Pritchett was a stay-at-home. He is loved for that reason, seeming to meet the requirement for an English Proust, a writer who can let domestic and social worlds speak inside their own dowdy parameters, allowing characters to live their small lives rather largely and rather powerfully, determined only by their unbreakable habits and modes of talk. “Nothing continues to happen to me,” he wrote in his early fifties, and nothing continued to happen to Pritchett during the entire near-century through which he lived. Except writing, of course, writing happened, and Pritchett’s work not only defined a style of implication and understatement, much admired by readers of this paper for almost twenty-five years, but his fiction offers a portrait of a class of people, the “lower-middle-class,” with their soaps and bus fares and hopes of improvement, a portrait that bears the hallmark of his genius.

Jeremy Treglown’s captivating and intelligent biography lets you know that those hopes were sometimes Pritchett’s too, and it shows how the material of his life—his father, his childhood, his marriages, his plain domestic routines—made his life like that of any number of the best characters in his writing: solid and gray and true, filled with the hope that springs eternal, the demands that drive one mad, and the small outbursts of recognition that give shape to the average life.

Yet it is the work that dominates. I remember wondering what it would mean to have a biography of Pritchett: how do you fillet a book out of all those working afternoons, those marked galleys, those uniform hours and small memories and cups of tea? Treglown shows how. He already demonstrated, in his previous book on Henry Green, a great feeling for the tone and the character of that period in English letters, and his curiosity is gifted when it comes to establishing the real matter of a life such as Pritchett’s, the matter of his prose. If one is to follow Nabokov and say that the only biography of a writer that matters is the biography of his style, then Treglown’s book will be seen to have achieved everything, for it captures most definitely the essence of the Pritchett sound.

A Cab at the Door, the first volume of Pritchett’s autobiography, energizes the moribund in a spectacularly individual way. Only Pritchett, perhaps, could summon an entire world via a quick and comic description of his grandmother doing her washing:

Grandma always kept her white hair in curlers until a late hour in the afternoon, when she changed into one of her spotted blue dresses. The only day on which she looked less than neat was Monday. On this terrible day she pinned a man’s cloth cap to her hair, kirtled a rough skirt above her knees, put on a pair of wooden clogs and went out to the scullery to start the great weekly wash of sheets, pillowcases, towels, tablecloths and clothes. They were first boiled in a copper, then she moved out to a washtub by the pump in the cobbled yard and she turned the linen round and round with the three-legged wooden “dolly”—as tall as myself—every so often remarking for her neighbours to hear that her linen was of better quality, better washed, whiter and cleaner than the linen of any other woman in the town; that the sight of her washing hanging on the line—where my grandfather had to peg and prop it—would shame the rest of the world and the final ironing be a blow to all rivals. The house smelled of suds and ironing. Her clogs clattered in the yard. But, sharp at five o’clock she sat changed as usual and sat down to read the British Weekly.

The tang of such Mondays also happens to be the tug of Pritchett’s prose: there is a quality of self-watching in everything he sees. Treglown, however, uses early drafts and fresh interviews to show that Pritchett was given to exaggerating the family traits to suit his grayer purpose, especially when it came to his portraits of his mother and his father, Walter, a Christian Scientist, “light in his handmade shoes,” whose bankruptcies and scams were used again and again by Pritchett to stress his father’s existence as a colorful grotesque. But to Oliver, the writer’s son, Walter had seemed “absolutely the epitome of virtue and uprightness.” Treglown goes on:

By this, Oliver wasn’t…implying that Victor’s version wasn’t true. Yet—if only in emphasis and degree—there was a subjective element in it. Oliver’s sister Josephine remembered her Pritchett grandparents as much more ordinary than in her father’s versions. The idea that Beatrice [VSP’s mother] was downtrodden, so vehement in Pritchett’s many accounts of her, didn’t fit Josephine’s recollection: “No, I remember her as being a sweet, funny old lady who liked to laugh.” And Victor’s younger brother Gordon felt strongly that the writer had exaggerated their mother’s vulnerability and, with it, their father’s faults.

Coming to a fair assessment of Walter’s life was a constant job of work for Pritchett; it was, perhaps, his central business as a memoirist and a novelist, though other sorts of love began to inform the tender meanderings of his short stories. The news that Pritchett was very interested in sex makes one feel curiously like a Pritchett character—embarrassed, twitchy, alarmed, fearing accusations of prurience and unchecked emotion. Yet the journey from wife number one to wife number two, from Evelyn Vigors to the long-lasting Dorothy, is a story of sexual success flowering from the soils of estrangement. “Writing about the happiness he had found with his second wife,” says Treglown,

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