The Key to My Heart: A Comedy in Three Parts
It is hard to believe that these two works were written in the same decade of our century. The anachronistic one is V.S. Pritchett’s novella, which, as the dust jacket alleges, is characterized chiefly by “modesty” and “charm.” The very terms of praise seem to accuse Pritchett of having regressed to the age of say, Zuleika Dobson; and the title of the book sufficiently declares Pritchett’s indifference to the charge of sounding old-fashioned. Burt Blechman’s Stations, in contrast, sums up the quality of much recent American fiction—its satirical fantasy, its sexual brutality, its ambitious statements, its intricacy of symbolism, and above all its confessional urgency. The pertinent questions to be asked are thus quite different for the two authors: in Pritchett’s case, whether his pleasant and breezy tale has any serious claim to our interest, and in Blechman’s, whether his book stands out from the somewhat pretentious mode to which it superficially belongs.
I imagine that V. S. Pritchett, whose own criticism is admirably free of philosophical and psychological cant, must be relishing his reviewers’ struggle to “make something” of The Key to My Heart. In his preface to a collection of tales (The Sailor, Sense of Humour and Other Stories) he gave fair warning that his interest lies not in argument but “in the unconscious self-revelation of people, in the sight of them floundering amid their own words, and performing strange strokes as they swim about, with no visible shore, in their own lives.” One is reminded of Forster’s “muddle”; but whereas Forster cannot keep from occasionally hinting at some ultimate significance for muddle, Pritchett remains content with what he calls “the absurdities or the pathos of the private imbroglio.” The Key to My Heart is about the private imbroglio of a village baker who is not noticeably altered or enlightened by his experience, and there is no suggestion that his commonsensical and unreflective autobiography is to be regarded ironically.
We are left, then, with the story itself and with the mild eccentrics who figure in it. Bob Fraser, the baker, goes to a rich couple’s home to collect a long-standing bill, gets involved in their quarrels, is seduced by the wife, and finally, after a series of sprightly practical jokes and reprisals, sees the unmanageable pair reunited and removed forever from his life. If we were to risk ascribing a moral to this plot, it would be that disorder is normal. For we not only see that the bill-collector’s no-nonsense mentality is inadequate to keep Bob Fraser from getting entangled with his debtors; we also realize that this entanglement has no moral consequences worth mentioning. Quarrel and deceive as they will, Pritchett’s characters have an air of maganimity, even of complicity; they are truly comic figures in their lack of romantic egotism. The authors own final attitude toward them seems to be one of Shakespearian indulgence.
Pritchett thus demonstrates that it is still possible to write comic fiction which, like Fielding’s, exudes good will and tolerance. But can…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.