SIR VICTOR PRITCHETT will be 82 this year. He has won acclaim as a critic, biographer, novelist and writer of some of the finest short stories of this century; the best of these are gathered in the volume reviewed here.
It is a pleasure to refer to him as "Sir Victor" because he was not born into that station of life where titles abound; he won his knighthood fair and square by his talent, which also makes him a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has for many years lived on that level of distinction which entitles him to be spoken of as "a man of letters." It is an Edwardian expression, but how else is a man to be described who has not only written well in so many branches of literature, but who has encouraged countless others to write well by his criticisms and his personal example?
If his short stories must be nailed down to some particular department of narrative art, they may be called French in quality. Their concision, coolness of tone, controlled irony and economy in describing emotion that is itself far from economical remind us that this writer studied French writing closely as a youth, and lived for some time in France during the years when he was not only forming his style but acquiring his characteristic way of looking at life. The life he looks at most closely and describes most persuasively is not French but English.
English, moreover, of a special aspect that only an Englishman who had experienced it at first-hand could hope to capture and make convincing. A Henry James may perfectly understand the English upper classes, but Pritchett's England is the England of H. G. Wells' Kipps; he writes of it better than Wells, because Wells despised it and his mockery and derision cannot be controlled. Pritchett writes of it coolly, but not coldly; his feeling for it is affectionate and understanding, but not nostalgic or approving. As a result, his view of this lower middle-class world is more revealing and more devastating but in no way as cruel as is that of Wells, who was convinced that he was a genius; it is unlikely that such a notion about himself has ever entered Pritchett's head.
How wonderfully he writes about this world of precariously manintained respectability, of shopkeepers who must "refinance" or "sink back" (meaning get their hands on more capital or fail), of all the fine slicing of theology that divides Calvinistic Methodist from Wesleyan, and Congregational from Baptist, to say nothing of that vast world of "New Thought" and faiths "in harmony with modern business." How compassionately, but not emotionally, he deals with all the complicated domestic politics of the respectable poor, the martyred or termagant wives, the feckless or drunken husbands, and that terror that walketh by noonday, the mother-in-law. His novel Mr. Beluncle is an unjustly neglected comic masterpiece, perhaps because the comedy is too shrewd and not broad enough for those who merely want a funny book. Its comedy is Chekhovian, rather than Dickensian. But then, Dickens believed in Evil, and Sir Victor is too cool a customer for that, and the most piercing comedy demands a moral commitment he does not choose to make.
Such knowledge, of course, is bought by being born into the class that embodies it. Pritchett's two volumes of autobiography, A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil, tell it all; of the Cockney mother and the hopeful, hapless Yorkshire father, the Nonconformist preacher grandfather, and the grandmother whose first words to her darling son when he introduced his new wife were that he had plainly married a cl London harlot--which was false and cruel but intensely maternal. Such knowledge is bought at a dear price, but in the hands of an artist it is capital for life, and Pritchett is thoroughly an artist.
Sir Victor admits his preference among his short stories; he thinks "When My Girl Comes Home" is the best thing he has done, and all critical reason supports his opinion. But I have a special fondness for "The Camberwell Beauty," a story of the antique trade. Not the antique trade of Bond Street, but of those numberless shops scattered all over England in which there are sound pieces, and dubious pieces, things that tourists like and things that connoisseurs like--and perhaps one treasure that the owner does not want to sell, and over which his greed and his collector's passion wage a mortal war. In this splendid story Pritchett produces that mingling of the wondrous and the commonplace that marks the finest work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, and which has a power that can only be described as fantastic in the real sense of that battered word. The reader will not soon rid himself of the image of the beautiful girl, prisoner and mistress of one of those rookeries of antiques, blowing on her bugle and rattling on her drum to keep at bay the young man to whom she is the treasure of treasures.
Part of the pleasure of reading Pritchett is that he writes about people who are very much in the palpable world, people who go to work because they must, and whose financial ambitions are modest. People to whom the bank manager is a towering and perhaps a minatory presence. People whose adulteries are as compelling as those of Antony and Cleopatra, but who live out their drama against the fusty dullness of ordinary lives and ordinary bedrooms. People who are working-class politicians, driving themselves toward petty goals which may benefit their followers but are principally beneficial to themselves. People in whose lives truth is a conditional, rather than an absolute value. People whose lonely old age is eerily illuminated by cunning, and acute feeling, and loony passion. People who live in that world of unlikelihood which is the very stuff of truth, rather than of careful fiction. If they sound dull or repellent thus catalogued, they are by no means so as he writes about them, because they are all illuminated by understanding, and have the ring of truth. Every word and situation, every queer turn of events, carries conviction.
This is literary achievement on a very high level, and what a relief it is from the tedious stream of stories about privileged people who have time and inclination for foolish mischief, usually of a sexual kind, and who are so frequently authors, or artists, or simply rich idlers, but who are invariably self-indulgent dullards.
Sir Victor's reflections on his present condition appear in an essay called "As Old as the Century," which is part of a book ornamented with charming engravings by the late Reynolds Stone, who was his close friend. The Turn of the Years is an odd little book, delightful to have but somewhat puzzling in its composition, for the elegant romanticism of the pictures does not reciprocate the robust matter-of- factness of the Pritchett text. In the essay he says nothing that surprises us about his physical condition; he declares that he smokes like a fish and drinks like a chimney, hurries up the four long flights of stairs to his study, works for 12 hours a day, and is as happy as a sandboy, or a clam, or whatever your particular gold standard of felicity may be.
He says that the writer has to work much harder than the mass of employed people, which is what all writers say, but which in his case carries immediate conviction. To see life as steadily as V.S. Pritchett does, and to find the best way to tell us what he sees and to convince us of its reality without ever falsifying detail or tone, is very hard work indeed, and I think he has said too little in claiming 12 hours of work. It is the work of 24 hours day in and a clday out for many decades, pursued when the outer man is apparently engaged in pleasure, or has shut off his consciousness and surrendered himself to the unconscious. This is the harvest of a life of observation, experience and intuition, a harvest gathered by a man of integrity and artistic gift. It is this rich harvest that we enjoy with him, and for which we offer him our thanks as he comes rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.