How to Read a Book

The Tale Bearers: Literary Essays

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 223 pp., $10.00

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

It is getting rare to find good criticism that is not written to excite students or impress fellow academics. The teachers who produce it must either be fierce or mysterious—some are both—for they depend upon bored and fickle clients, who can only be made to sit up by being told that by means of secret ingredient X literature can at last be enjoyed for the first time. The typical academic article begins: “The true place of Titus Andronicus in our culture has never been properly understood.”

V.S. Pritchett belongs to the vanishing breed of critic who writes for an invisible audience of readers who are themselves widely read, print-addicted, curious, civilized, mildly conservative, not much interested in the current fashion, but as prepared to try a new author as to return to a familiar one. It is still a large audience probably, but today it draws little or no attention to itself. It does not want or need to be excited or surprised, because it is already experienced, already addicted. Pritchett, like many good critics before him, from Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt to J.B. Priestley, addresses it as an equal, speaking as one reading person to another.

It may be that this reading person has not come across Lady Murasaki. If not, he or she will certainly want to do so after reading Pritchett’s essay on The Tale of Genji. It will not be because Genji is presented as bearing on current fashion—whether decreation, hermeneutics, or the pleasure of the text—but because it is an absorbing and fascinating tale, once its conventions are understood, which will keep life at bay in the reading, and make life look more endurable or enjoyable when it is finished. Pritchett’s essay on Genji is a test case. It is not scholarly, nor is it polemical, but it makes the reader want to rush out and buy the book, or turn to the shelf to find it and read it again.

The essay appeared on the occasion of Professor Edward G. Seidensticker’s recent translation. Without taking sides Pritchett suggests that both his and Arthur Waley’s translations should be read together for the fullest enjoyment. Seidensticker’s text is shorter than Waley’s, but it is a faithful rendering of the whole work by Murasaki, which suggests that Waley got bored in some places and in others wrote quite a lot himself. And yet a translator who is really in sympathy with the spirit of the work is like a good commentator on a Shakespeare play. What he feels and what he intuits will merge with the performance. Pritchett makes a good point about this kind of translator, whose approach nowadays is out of fashion.

…the post-1914 period in England produced admirable translations like Waley’s, Beryl de Zoëte’s Confessions of Zeno (which may have improved on the regional prose of Trieste, but captured the marked Viennese…

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