WITH THIS VOLUME of collected literary essays V. S. Pritchett throws out another wing on the substantial edifice of critical writing he has built during his long lifetime. It is an excellent house, something of a random house, and a comfortable if rather austere house. Because it is very much an English house it is sometimes cold, but it is spacious and the views it affords are extensive. The wing that preceded it, called The Myth Makers, was admirable, and this is just as good, and the two taken together form a pleasing unity.
These are called essays, rather than book reviews, although many of them deal with particular works by writers ranging through Saul Bellow and Mary McCarthy among the moderns, through Kipling and Conrad among those of an earlier day, and extending backward as far as Pepys, Swift and the Lady Murasaki. Among the subjects are no-nonsense -- well, almost no-nonsense -- types like T. E. Lawrence and Edmund Wilson, and there are exotics like Max Beerbohm and Frederick Rolfe. In every instance the opinions are fresh without being eccentric, the writing is beautifully achieved without being obtrusively so, and the judgments classically balanced, by which I mean that all the writers are judged by the same high, necessarily general standards, and there are no obtrusions of enthusiasm.
This is not to say that the critic is cold, but only that he is never carried away. Himself a writer of fine fiction, he does not fall victim to the love-or-hate-relationships which sometimes betray less experienced and less widely-read critics. He is an ideal reviewer. His judgments will stand.
To test this quality, I "proved" one of his criticisms by the method arithmeticians use to prove problems. That is to say, I worked backward from the solution to the problem, from the criticism to the book, and found it just and correct in every detail. The book I used was Angus Wilson's No Laughing Matter, which I had not read since it appeared in 1967; I reread it in the light of the criticism in The Tale Bearers and found that criticism to be just, perceptive and illuminating. Just, because it puts its finger on a quality of excess in the book which is enjoyable though perhaps artistically self-indulgent: perceptive, because it dwells on Wilson's brotherhood with Dickens and Fielding in the histrionic quality of the novel: illuminating, because it summed up judiciously what a very good novel it is in a way that I, as a reader, could not have done for myself. This is criticism in a fine, often misunderstood tradition.
Every editor knows how hard it is to get good reviews of new books, because the circumstances of modern periodical publishing do not allow editors to pay enough for the work. Publishers and the public want reviews as soon as possible after publication, and the people who rely on reviewing for an addition to their income want to do as many reviews as they can. The result may sometimes be lively journalism, but may also be slapdash, cheaply effective and hard on the authors, though not, in some cases, as hard as a thoughtful, long-pondered review might be. This is especially true of the reviewing of fiction; it is easier to find someone to do an expert's review on a book of fact or opinion than to find a reviewer who is truly sympathetic toward a work of art, which is what serious fiction aspires to be. There have been reviewers like Arnold Bennett and Alexander Woollcott whose exuberant good word could make the fortune of a book and its writer when first it appeared, but it is instructive to inquire where most of those books, so quickly praised, are today. To look at a list of the best sellers of 20 years ago is melancholy work, and we are grateful for a book like the present one which talks of books most of which are 20 years old, more or less, and which are as good, if not better, than when they were new. Criticism like that of V. S. Pritchett is a fine balance in the hurly-burly of weekly publishing.
Critics like Pritchett belong to the small body of serious lovers of literature who will not compromise with standards that reach beyond the enthusiasms of the immediate present. This is not to say that they are out of sympathy with what is new, and judge all writing, as did a schoolmaster under whom I once suffered, by the yardstick of Addison. But they do attempt to discern a pattern and a reasoned growth in literature -- to detect it rather than to impose it on their sole authority. Thus they may sometimes seem a little cold, as is V. S. Pritchett when he writes about Edmund Wilson, who was never cold. But Pritchett helps us to see Wilson better, and Wilson loses nothing of his essential quality under each examination, though he is shorn of some of his testy ipse dixit authority. Pritchett sees that the dandyism of Max Beerbohm cloaks a steely nerve and a gimlet eye, that the humanitarianism of E. M. Forster springs from an essentially indecisive spirit, and that the mannerist prose of Rolfe is the perfect expression of a unique, one-book talent. All this is achieved with justice; the whip and the butter-tub have no place in his critical equipment, and when he puts on the red robe and the full-bottomed wig of the judge we acknowledge his right to wear those fine critical habiliments.
This is not the sort of criticism that brings a fortune or millions of readers, but it has its recognition and its reward. Since 1975 he has been Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett, knighted for his services to literature. A proud accolade, and in his 80th year we are happy indeed to salute Sir Victor and thank him for what he has done.