V.S. PRITCHETT: A Working Life
By Jeremy Treglown
Random House. 334 pp. $25.95
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m.
Early in their acquaintance, Sherlock Holmes declares to Dr. Watson that a man's brain is like an attic that can hold just so much "lumber." "It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something you knew before."
Current science tends to dismiss so rigid a view of human memory, but Holmes's analogy does provide a useful, albeit sorrowful, understanding of literary renown. Readers, it would seem, have mental room for only so many books, for so many authors, and we tend to fill our allotted space with the work of our contemporaries. The giants acclaimed by one generation end up, as often as not, virtually unread by the next. Write one big novel, and an author just might enter the canon or the curriculum. But woe to anyone who specializes in the short story or essay. Without the weight of a novel to keep them before us, such writers -- no matter how famous in their time -- simply float away into the misty distance and end up vaguely recalled, if at all. Among the recently celebrated, we can observe this happening to Peter Taylor and John Cheever, perhaps even, more shockingly, to Eudora Welty. As for essayists and critics? Why, I have met English PhD candidates who've never heard of William Empson, never read Northrop Frye. We revere other gods -- for now.
These lugubrious thoughts -- of Sic transit gloria mundi and "Ou sont les neiges d'antan?" -- rose to mind while reading Jeremy Treglown's engaging, slightly disconcerting portrait of V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997). Twenty-five years ago, VSP -- as he was often called, even by his wife -- was generally regarded as the leading short-story writer in Britain and the finest literary journalist in the English-speaking world. Yet do many people under 40 still read him? Even his biographer confesses that one must now take some care to distinguish V.S. Pritchett from V.S. Naipaul and Terry Pratchett.
Yet Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett is worth going back to. Without being quite so slick or contrived as Somerset Maugham, he tells endlessly satisfying stories about real people and real lives -- undertakers and antique dealers, barbers and bicycle racers -- and he knows how to grab your attention. "One night of his life Don Juan slept alone," he writes. Who wouldn't keep on with this wry and touching tale of a ghostly visitation ("A Story of Don Juan")? High on anybody's short list of the pick of Pritchett would stand such mini-masterpieces as "Sense of Humour," "The Sailor," "You Make Your Own Life," "The Wheelbarrow" and "Our Oldest Friend" -- all to be found in the Complete Collected Stories (1990). Throughout his biography, Treglown periodically urges the merits of Pritchett's five relatively unknown novels as well, especially Mr. Beluncle (1951), which he calls "one of the most vivid, funny, and painful British novels of the mid-twentieth century." I've owned a copy for years and now must actually read it.
Though in his early years he tended to disparage his Grub Street nonfiction, VSP also possessed rare gifts as a literary journalist; he could produce insightful, imaginatively structured and unfailingly generous appreciations of all sorts of books and authors. Such pieces drew readers first to the New Statesman, then the New Yorker and finally the New York Review of Books. Certainly, few people can have devoured more of the world's great fiction or written about it so well. If you explore Pritchett's hefty Complete Collected Essays (1992) -- which, as Treglown reminds us, is still just a selection from a lifetime's output -- you will discover in its 1,300 pages reflections on writers as various, unexpected and rewarding as W.W. Jacobs, Alfred de Vigny, Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, George Meredith and Molly Keane, not to mention approximately 200 others.
In just one of those pieces, addressing the importance to our literature of Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, VSP notes that "everything really American, really non-English comes out of that pair of spiritual derelicts." Those last two words point to Pritchett at his best -- a concise, strikingly phrased insight that is exactly, brilliantly right. Turn the page and Pritchett casually adds that Twain's Huckleberry Finn is built on "the generic American emotion which floods all really American literature -- nostalgia." To simply throw off such a shrewd observation -- one which an academic might turn into a long book -- is the hallmark of the working writer.
V. S. Pritchett was born to a lower-middle-class family -- his memoir A Cab at the Door (1968) is arguably his finest book, as fizzily enjoyable as H.L. Mencken's somewhat similar Happy Days -- and he left school as a teenager, apprenticed in the leather trade, then gradually began to produce casual pieces for the Christian Science Monitor (consult Midnight Oil, published in 1971, in which he describes his early years as a writer). During the 1920s he swiftly turned himself into a literary jack of all trades. After casuals and travel articles (many about his beloved Spain), he took up reviewing, in part to educate himself. He brought with him remarkable diligence and appetite. "Over all," says Treglown, "for different publications in 1932 -- a year in which he published a novel (Shirley Sanz) and two short stories -- he wrote at least sixty-six reviews." These were often roundups, and his biographer calculates that Pritchett once dispatched 54 titles in just eight reviews.
Much of this briskly told life chronicles, again and again, Pritchett's admirable and unflagging industry (all great writers, it would seem, share this energetic passion for their shop). Treglown also reveals that his subject could be as human as any of us.
Following a first marriage that seems to have broken down through some kind of fundamental incompatibility, Pritchett married Dorothy Roberts in 1936, and over the next 60 years he dedicated virtually all his subsequent books to her. In interviews they were always presented as utterly devoted to each other, the model of marital contentment, a regular Darby and Joan. Yet the Pritchetts were not always so. In the 1940s the young VSP was lionized by literary society, while Dorothy stayed home in the country with their two children. Before long, the writer drifted into an affair, confessed, broke it off. Dorothy -- understanding yet hurt, depressed and still lonely -- started to drink, gradually drifting into alcoholism.
For a long time Pritchett pretended that Mummy was just tired, even as family tensions increased. Given a year's appointment at Princeton in the early 1950s, the writer packed Dorothy off to a clinic and, far from home, embarked on an increasingly serious relationship with a glamorous New York editor. Pritchett was utterly besotted and contemplated divorce, with the affair continuing, off and on, for 10 years. But in the end the Pritchetts stayed together, Dorothy finally stopped drinking (after joining AA), and in old age their deep love for each other re-emerged.
What's disconcerting about this domestic turmoil is that it comes close to hijacking Treglown's biography. A dab hand at this genre (see his books on Roald Dahl and Henry Green), Treglown isn't the sort of owlish researcher who plunges deeply into detail or follows a strict chronology or aims to produce a definitive life. He's a man of letters himself, writing for the intelligent common reader and counting on a certain basic familiarity with his subject. Consequently he feels free to leave out a lot and to aim for an artful portrait rather than an authoritative, exhaustive record. Pritchett's own biographical studies of Balzac, Turgenev and Chekhov are exemplary instances of this approach.
Yet in these generally fine pages I sometimes felt unhappily voyeuristic, all too eager for frissons about Pritchett's intimate life -- his letters to Dorothy can be surprisingly graphic -- while my better (?) self kept wishing for more information about his intellectual habits and professional career. For instance, how did Pritchett find time to read so much? How many books did he actually own? Was he influenced by W.W. Jacobs as much as I suspect? Did he labor over his essays? For years, Treglown does tell us, he used a pen given to him by his New York lover. (Did Dorothy know?) He also responded to questions of editing with courtesy and deference. One relishes every such scrap about a professional writer's desk habits. After all, literary biographies appeal most deeply to fans.
Treglown reminds us, for instance, that Pritchett could never allow himself to slack off. He always needed money. His children attended boarding school and he eventually bought a fine house near Regent's Park, but to afford these he borrowed from colleagues, accepted monetary gifts from friends, welcomed literary grants and kept churning out lucrative travel pieces for Holiday magazine. After all, even his magnificent appreciation of Turgenev (The Gentle Barbarian), published in 1977 at the height of his fame, sold fewer than 800 copies in Britain. Pritchett couldn't retire and so kept writing until he was nearly 90, when his memory began to fail. As another working novelist, Edgar Rice Burroughs, once said of being a writer: "It's a great life if you don't weaken."
Ideally, Treglown's new book should send readers right back to Pritchett's old ones, and especially to A Cab at the Door, London Perceived (1962) and the collected essays and short stories. Will this happen? Probably in only a few cases, alas. Yet a reader who opens any of VSP's books will be enriched by them and grateful for their clarity, good humor and profound understanding of both the human heart and the world. Hard work always pays off, and V.S. Pritchett worked hard for a very long time.
Michael Dirda's online book discussion takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.