A COLLECTION OF STORIES, like a zoo, is merely a packaging convenience. No less than novels, stories are written to stand entirely on their own; no less than wallabies or wolves, they are independent units of life. But when many stories by one author are joined in a volume that we read straight through, we sometimes misperceive the volume itself as the work of art, a kind of family album, denying each story's anarchic integrity. The otter becomes a sleek little ox: th ox is a great hooved otter.
Story writers accept this penalty in order to reach a general readership, but let us impose it as lightly as we can. Most of these nine stories by V.S. Pritchett are love stories. Most of the love concerned is adulterous. Yet one is struck not by similarity but by variety: central characters of all ages and both sexes; narration in first and third person; differences in length, in complexity and quality.
There are, of course, prevalent virtues and faults, as one would expect in pieces from the same pen. First and most often, one is struck by a sharpness of eye, a resourcefulness of phrase, that are frequently startling: "Messell was wearing a cape and a violet tunic done up with small buttons high on the neck, and there his round face rested on it like a detachable moon. His large round eyes were vain of their woes. It would be no surpirse, she thought, to see him carrying his head in his hand, for he had the look of one wishing he had been executed in more dashing times than the present."
Sometimes the observation is original almost to the point of becoming nonsense, depending not on sense but on an acute intuition: "The doctor is a big man, overweight, as soft as an elephant, his jacket and trousers hanging on him like a hide. He walks in a creeping way, stooping as very tall men do, as if he were following a scent, often nibbling a biscuit. In the village it is felt to be unnatural for a man of his size to be living alone." That last sentence seems, not illogical, but a rare insight into the kind of illogic that all of us share.
The shortcoming of most of these stories is an aversion for the jugular. They are done in daubs rather than strokes. Gestures, not passions, are held at the focus of our attention, and too often we are unsure of what's at stake.
For example, consider the title story. Hary, "seventyish," lives with Rowena, 25, his lover. The point of view shifts between them, analyzing their relationship, which appears to be comfortable enough. Some complication is obligatory, and one appears: at a local fair, Harry and Rowena run into Daisy Pyke, a woman from Harry's distant past. Daisy, like Harry, now has a young lover.
Give this tangle, something seems likely to happen -- but nothing does. There is a plein air scene of too-symbolic cliff-walking. There is a second meeting with Daisy, implausibly motivated. With this the story ends. Harry and Rowena will continue on as before; Daisy will stay with her young man.
Are there really any cliff-edges here? Does even mortality count for much? The events of the story seem scarcely to matter to the characters, which limit how far they can matter to us.
By contrast, the best of these stories, "A Family Man," involves an encounter that matters desperately. Berenice is expecting a visit from William Cork, her well-named lover, when Mrs. Cork arrives instead and charges her with adultery. This primal scene takes an unexpected turn when Mrs. Cork produces her evidence: a love letter that, as the stunned Berenice points out, was written to William by yet another woman. He has been deceiving Berenice as thoroughly as his wife; even more so in a sense, since she had thought she was his accomplice. The story ends with Berenice inventing a lie that comforts Mrs. Cork, Berenice taking upon herself the full burden of William's betrayal. A shapely tale, with every phase contributing to its unified effect.
Different as they are, these two stories barely begin to suggest the variety of the collection. "The Spanish Bed," for instance, is a Gothic mystery. "The Whorshippers" is an insider's satire of London commercial types; for Americans, the humor is elusive. "The Vice-Consul," a deft comedy set in Brazil, treats of fornication, Dominican missonaries and the theft of false teeth.
Like the duller animals in a zoo, some of these stories seem to be here chiefly for the sake of plenitude. But their diversity, if not quite that of creation, still promises that each reader will find, scattered among the pens, those creatures that will speak to him.