THE CAREER OF V. S. PRITCHETT is a triumph of the work ethic. Born in 1900 to a lower-middle-class family - his father a dreamer, always in debt, repeatedly bankrupt, and his mother a laughing, slightly bawdy shopgirl himself "ungraduated" and apprenticed to the leather trade at 16 - he has risen to become Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett, a director of The New Statesman, and England's most respected man of letters.
His literary life has been an example of salvation through good works. The first of these, the account of a walking trip, has called Marching Spain (1928). It has been methodically followed by 30 other books, including novels (Mr. Beluncle), collections of short stories (Christopher Isherwood described "Sense of Humour" as one of the most shocking of the great English stories), biographies of Balzac and Turgenev, two volumes of autobiography (the memoir of his childhood, A Cab at the Door, is probably his finest book), travel writing (The Spanish Temper), and several collections of essays, including this latest, The Myth Makers. His friend Gerald Brenan has described Pritchett's life as one of unremitting labor - he writes all morning in a tall birchwood chair, takes a siesta after lunch, works some more in the afternoon, strokes himself with food at supper, and then works again into the night. He supported his parents in their old age; he has dedicated virtually all his books to his wife, Dorothy.
The Myth Makers is Pritchett's fourth selection of articles and reviews. Like The Living Novel and Books in General, it is really a batch of well-crafted essays, each using a biography, translation or critical study as the peg on which to hang reflections on the whole of a writer's life and work. Pritchett developed this technique in his literary column for The New Statesman during World War II: new books were in short supply, so he was asked to write about the classics. He has continued that practice, and in this current gathering concentrates on figures of world literature, especially 19th-century Russian, French, and Spanish novelists. None of the pieces deals with American or English writers - a second volume, promised for 1980, will be devoted to them.
Despite the uncharacteristically pretentious title, The Myth Makers reveals the usual Pritchett qualities of modesty, judiciousness, and good sense. The essays are clearly written and jargon-free; they emphasize the biographical and are sprinkled with apt quotations (Pritchett is one of the best quoters since Eliot); passages are analyzed, translations evaluated. Throughout, one senses that Pritchett has done enormous homework, that he has read an author entire, and that he brings to bear, appropriately and illuminatingly, a lifetime of reading. "I am appalled by the amount I have read," he once confessed.
What is a typical Pritchett essay like? As a good journalist and storyteller, he begins with a striking image, description or quotation. He knows that the reader's attention must be arrested even handcuffed, from the start, as when he describes Zola as pure Appetite: "Like some powerful locomotive, he eats up facts and lives as if they were so much coal, choking us with enormous clouds of smoke. . . ."
He then generally focuses on a theme or obsession of the writer's life or literary career. "Like the Lawrences and the Carlyles, the Tolstoys were the professionals of marriage; they knew they were not in it for their good or happiness, that the relationship was an appointed ordeal, an obsession undertaken by dedicated heavyweights."
As he procceeds, his placid prose - best read slowly - is rippled with exact similes and motes justes : Chekhov's "humour sharp as horse radish" and Tolstoy's "exclamatory life"; George Sand is caught forever as "a thinking bosom."
When needed, he quietly draws on a wide range of reference. "This and other passages [of Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 ] are as good as anything in Vigny's Servitude et grandeur militaires." He may also offer readerly advice: "Rusanov [in Cancer Ward ] is quietly drawn as a Iudushka or hypocrite - see Schedrin's classic portrait of the Russian Judas in The Golovlyov Family . . ." Such allusions notwithstanding, he is never pedantic and can honestly admit that "without the aid of commentators like Thody and of Coe I do not get far with the novels [of Genet]." Unlike many reviewers, Pritchett respects scholars and other critics, invariably giving them credit, recognizing, as one professional to another, their hard labor. The essays are, in all senses, appreciations. He is pointedly critical only of "metatextual" jargon, which he describes as "the present academic habit of turning literary criticism into technology."
Such touches of humour may be felt throughout The Myth Makers, even when Pritchett writes of the deluded, self-torturing, but slightly ludicrous, Strindberg: "He is the perpetual autobiographer who has at least three albatrosses - his three wives - hanging from his neck, and it is not long before he is telling us that the birds shot him ". Similarly, he formulates incisive epigrams, distilling the essence of an author or literary epoch. "The sick are the picaros of contemporary life." "A scene of Oriental luxury was indispensable to the Romantics: the looting of Egypt was Napoleon's great gift to literature". Stendhal "is one of those who exhaust an experience before the experience occurs - Romantic malady that becomes a pose and second nature." It takes only a sentence to evoke a novel by Machado de Assis: "In The Psychiatrist a doctor puts the whole town into his asylum."
Pritchett is essentially a reader, if never a common one, speaking of what he likes. "I see my self," he has said, "as a practicing writer who gives himself to a book as he gives himself to any human experience." He can confess that a story made him weep, he can mention the last time he read Madame Bovary and you believe he read it more than once, he can make a writer like Solzhenitsyn sound interesting as an artist rather than propargandist. His thrilling account of the marital and political intrigue in novels by Galdos and Eca de Queiroz should send readers hurrying to the library for the works of these neglected giants.
Sympathetic, bearing no grudges and never drawing attention to himself, carefully shaping these small works of art, V.S. Pritchett is an exemplary man and writers, a dedicated professional - and because he "lives by standing at his stall in Grub Street every week," he has made himself a master of his craft. CAPTION: Picture, Photo of V.S. Pritchett by Matthew Pritchett