An Ideal Critic

The Living Novel and Later Appreciations

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 467 pp., $6.95

V. S. Pritchett
V. S. Pritchett; drawing by David Levine

The publication of a new collection of essays by V. S. Pritchett serves as a reminder of the degree to which educated readers are in his debt. The present volume combines a welcome reprinting of the thirty-odd essays of The Living Novel, first published in 1947, to which the author has added twenty-seven new pieces, written and published, presumably, during the interim. These pieces, like their predecessors, first appeared in the columns of the New Statesman. Pritchett is not merely a fixture (and director) of this institution; in retrospect, the distinction of its famous “back of the book” appears, as a practical matter, to be inseparable from the distinction that Pritchett can claim as his own. However imprecise or unfair it may be to both parties, one thinks of the two in the same breath; and both, one may add, have been enhanced by the association.

In the title of this volume, Pritchett refers to these pieces as “appreciations.” In another place he calls them “essays.” Most of them seem to have been in fact written as reviews, yet one feels a certain hesitation in continuing to think of them as “mere” reviews, since most of them effortlessly transcend the form as it is commonly regarded. A similar ambiguity exists in Pritchett’s relation to his office or function. To think of his writing essentially as journalism does honor to the trade, not to him. He is of course a critic, but his essays have neither the weight, ambition, nor presumption of most modern criticism, nor do they seem to provide the occasion for that special kind of spiritual anguish by which modern literary criticism characteristically announces itself, and through which the modern literary critic recognizes himself and his brothers-in-blood. Pritchett’s pieces are all “re-views” in the simple radical sense of the word: they are general surveys and conspectuses of a field; they cast a glance once again over an author’s writings or a genre; they sum up what is to be said in short compass about a particular subject. As much as he is anything else he is a reviewer; and how often has one caught oneself thinking of him as an “ideal reviewer.”

In order to be an “ideal reviewer,” however, one has to be other things as well. Pritchett is both a man of letters in the older sense of the term, and a writer. He has spent a lifetime with literature, and is the master of all English prose fiction. He has read just about everything, and is particularly inward with the range and possibilities of the English novel. And he has the gift of communicating to the reader the continuing and unalloyed pleasure he finds in the act or pastime of reading. His essays on minor English novelists are models of their kind. In his pieces on Arthur Morrison or J. Meade Falkner or Sheridan LeFanu…

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