LOOKING MORE like a genial uncle than either a paragon of letters or a grandfather -- he has five grandchildren -- Sir Victor Sawdon Prichett greeted me at his door. Taking me up some stairsand into a drawing room overlooking a sedate terrace, he left and returned shortly with tea and biscuits. Attired in dark tweeds, he first sat down in a chair opposite the couch where I sat. But when I noted that he was looking into the late afternoon sun, he moved over to the couch beside me.
RWS: First volume of The Myth Makers got a uniformly warm reception in America. When are we to see the second volume and what will it contain?
VSP: The second volume is completed and will be published in a year. It will be a "seizure of subjects," concerned with writers who have most interested me personally, a mixture of major and minor writers. Among those I discuss are Max Beerbohm, E. F. Benson, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy and Henry James. I'm glad that the first volume was well received. I've always tried to write for what Virginia Woolf called the "common reader," the educated person who delights in literature, and not for the professor. I am not an academic.
RWS: Your latest volume of short stories, On the Edge of the Cliff, is just coming out. There seems to be no end of you. But do your books give you the same satisfaction as earlier?
VSP: Oh yes. I love writing. I still get hugh satisfaction from trying the new thing. Especially the short stories. I'm a "short breath" writer essentially: the short story is my form of poetry. I have written novels, but my last novel came out over 20 years ago; then the war fatally interrupted my novel-writing, and I've never returned to it though two of my novels, Dead Man Leading (1937) and Mr. Beluncle (1951), are still in print. The Irish are excellent in the short story form. I learned to write short stories in Ireland. Kipling was another influence. I reread Kipling's recently, his strange mixture of oratory and plain statement. Among the Americans, I find Hemingway, Cheever, Jean Stafford, Eudora Welty and Updike the most compelling. I prefer Saul Bellow's short stories to his novels. I like the incisive and brief
RWS: You work in two vineyards, creative writing and criticism. Do these complement or do they compete?
VSP: Most imaginative writers in England, in my time, have had to support themselves by critical work for the serious reviews. Although it is perhaps in decline, there has always been a strong tradition of periodical criticism. Even now, few writers have professorships in universities as they would have in America. It is often irritating to have to split one's working life in this way. But there is a sense in which some critical work can be creative, for an imaginative writer's insight will spill over into his criticism. One's experience of life seeps in. I have often noticed something like hidden autobiography hopping up in my criticism. This would not be permissible if I were a scholar; but in an essayist which I have become, this can be a resource.
RWS: Speaking of autobiography, after a Cab at the Door (1967) and Midnight Oil (1972), do you plan another autobiographical volume?
VSP: I doubt if I will write a third volume. After the age of 40 one's time becomes telescoped. I would be most unreliable in reminiscence; it would become fiction at once. I have rarely kept a diary and don't hoard letters, and I am not in love with my self enough to become confessional. The middle age is too far away; old age -- so far -- too busy with things outside myself.
RWS: in your writing do you follow a schedule?
VSP: Yes. Mornings are best for imaginative work. My stories are done then, say from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sometimes I have to break off because of some irritating deadline as a reviewer. I read a good deal around a subject and, if it stirs me, make notes and then digest. I take a nap after lunch, but at 4 p.m. I go back to work and usually stay at it until dinner at 7 p.m. I rarely answer the telephone. This late afternoon stint is my usual time for criticism and review -- writing is a slow and laborious business. I follow this schedule for seven days a week and once a month I take a day or two off. One has to work harder as one gets older.
RWS: Are you a light or heavy reviser?
VSP: Heavy. Very persnickety. I am a tough taskmaster. I suppose I got regular habits of work since I was put into the leather works at 16. I have written as many as 10 versions of some of my short stories. A story has to be springy. It must be kept on the move. One must cut out anything essayish -- the structure won't accommodate it. Thus, I find that reworking is mainly refining overwritten previous drafts. My early short story, "The Sailor," was done when I was about 30. I first wrote it in the third person, then from the god's eye viewpoint. I then discarded that draft and reworked it in the first person. Revising always improves writing.
RWS: Is it painful?
VSP: No. To write is to find out what one thinks. I'm always learning how to write. From the time I was 10 I wanted to write. In fact I wrote a novel then about the Alhambra. At school the other boys were cleverer than I. They copied and cribbed while I muddled away, trying to be original. They, of course, did better in the matter of grades -- I was bad at English -- but I was learning to teach myself. This was training in becoming an autodidact. All autodidacts muddle along in this way. And even get conceited. I am sure I was: we all need guidance. I still gratefully remember an editor who, in rejecting some of my early stories, sat me down and showed me where I was good and where I was spoiling everything by showing off, or getting out of my depth.
RWS: I've read and share your enthusiasm for the great Russian novelists. But I'm remiss on the English. I read many in school years ago, of course, but I'd like to read or reread again the best of Dickens, Hardy and Scott. Which would you recommend?
VSP: It's very worthwhile; the 19th-century English novel is very rich. I even dip into Sir Walter Scott occasionally now. By 20 I had read most of these novels and have oftenreread them. For Dickens, I'd say David Copperfield for his early and Dombey and Son for his later period. And of course the hardy perennial The Pickwick Papers. Like many English fathers, I used to read aloud to my children and still regard it with affection. For Thomas Hardy, I'd suggest The Mayor of Casterbridge and I have always admired his very early comedy, Under the Greenwood Tree . Walter Scott's two long short stories, "The Two Drovers" and "The Highland Widow" and his novel, Guy Mannering , are rewarding reading, but I like Old Mortality best. At any rate, try some of these. I think you'll find them nourishing. Much of current life pivots on lawyers. See what a master Scott was in presenting this breed!
RWS: What is the state of the novel today?
VSP: In 1940 in an article titled "Future of the Novel" in the journal, New Writing , I was bold enough to say that the day of the "great" novel was finished. My argument was that the novel was natural to 300 years of individualism -- a creed that, for all the lip service paid to it, has lost a lot of its ideological prestige. We are bored with ourselves as "characters," and, socially speaking, we are obliged to behave as mass men and women. What really distinguishes us is the degree to which we enact fundamental passions -- even myths. The less individual we are forced to be, the more we become dramatic in another way -- for example, more like the faceless figures in Greek drama who are at the mercy of the gods. The most remarkable example of this is Joyce's Ulysses . However, I think my argument was rather forced. The subject is certainly larger than my jeu d'esprit suggested.
RWS: When young, you relished walking and even came to America on assignment from The Christain Science Monitor once to do a series on the Tennessee mountaneers, at which time you walked 100 miles from Johnson City, Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina. Do you still walk alot?
VSP: I remember the mountaineers. To go from Spain (where I had been living for two years) into the American mountains was in interesting culture shock. I've always liked walking. I didn't own a car until I was 50 and still can't drive. I've walked 40 miles a day, though my average was nearer 25. I still walk but not to those lengths. Five or 10 miles is a good stretch for me nowadays. When I was young, my jacket bulged with notebooks for writing down what I saw or heard. I've given up notebooks but if something strikes me I write on anything handy -- usually my checkbook. Though walking was almost a religion for me, I was also a keen bicyclist. I love the sensation of speed you get on a bike. You feel like a dragonfly.
RWS: To conclude, let me ask what effect radio and television have had on literature?
VSP: There were alarms raised in the '20s and '30s over radio, but it has become literature's best friend in England. One listens to readings and dramatizations of contemporary work -- my own autobiography, A Cab at the Door , is being read serially on the radio in December. Television is another matter. It does little for the born reader. People get a kick out of seeing what an author looks like on television. But once that curiosity is satisfied, their reading interest is small. Visual lust is easily satisfied. Television exercises the eyes, not the imagination or the creative faculties. The Brothers karamazov and Anna Karenina were marvelously done on television here, but when one went back to the books, one found that the essential reflective ingredient -- the author and his prose -- were missing. One had simply been looking at picture postcards. And then the requirements of compression are so stringent. My short story "Blind Love" was done on television. After adding two extra characters they raced through a story covering four years in 50 minutes. It was like watching a horse race.