Life with Father

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

V. S. Pritchett opens the first installment of his autobiography (at least, one hopes that it is only the first installment) by resolutely waiving any claims to a distinguished or even a distinguishable ancestry. “Go back two generations and the names and lives of our forbears vanish into the common grass.” But whatever the Pritchetts may have lacked by way of a pedigree they made up for in depth and tenacity of family involvement. Among the older generation this often took the form of simple stubborn clannishness: there was Pritchett’s Yorkshire grandmother, for instance, passionately wrapped up in the lives of her husband and children, permanently “right vexed” or “disgoosted” with the rest of the world. By the time Pritchett himself was growing up, irritability had given way to wistfulness, and the atmosphere was less embattled, but the sense of having been born into an exclusive sect still persisted as strongly as ever: “We were a race apart, abnormal but proud of our stripes, longing for the normality we saw around us.”

The family counts for almost everything in A Cab at the Door; by comparison, friends, neighbors, and teachers have little more than walk-on parts, and the larger dramas of history and politics scarcely intrude. It is only at the very end of the book that Pritchett (aged nineteen) finally slips free of the parental grip and starts turning himself into a foreigner—literally, by going to live in Paris; figuratively, because looking back he decides that what becoming a writer meant to him was above all choosing the life of an exile, a man on the other side of a frontier.

One speaks of the parental grip, but “paternal grip” would be more accurate. It is the regular fate of mothers to get pushed into the background in their sons’ autobiographies, and certainly Mrs. Walter S. Pritchett, with her gusts of laughter, her lavish corsetry, her sharp cockney chatter trailing off in mid-sentence is far more firmly and distinctly realized than most. Still, for much of the time she remains part of the book’s emotional landscape rather than a character in her own right. It is her husband who dominates the scene, who is felt to be unique—and though the reader may eventually come to suspect that to a large extent the uniqueness probably lay in the eye of the juvenile beholder, a hundred brilliant narrative touches make it easy to recapture the spell which was cast. Pritchett senior is a really masterly piece of portraiture: an expansive young Micawber with a waxed moustache, shuttling his family through innumerable business failures and changes of address, acting out fantasies of the Monte Carlo opulence that is always just around the corner. He has some of the bounce of the new century, and some of its jaunty pathos: there is a hint of Mr. Polly and Uncle Ponderevo, even of Leopold…

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