I HAVE a little confession to make about V.S. Pritchett. Although he is, by general consent, the most distinguished, humane, best read and most readable general critic of literature now writing in England and maybe America too, your reviewer has difficulty reading him -- when he appears in magazines. I admire Pritchett increasingly. When I read his work in books, I sink with a sigh into the enchantment of his mind. Yet before critical prose of V.S. Pritchett in one of the magazines he writes for -- The New Statesman, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books -- I become as one suddenly struck down with selective dyslexia. Let's say the latest issue has Pritchett on Nabokov. I pick up the magazine and -- no go. My eyes will not move. By the end of column one, the fine all-powerful flame of readability has flickered out.
This has nothing to do with dyslexia, or the (high) readability of V.S. Pritchett, and everything to do with the nature of journalism, including what the reader is holding at this moment, literary journalism. Pritchett sees himself as a literary journalist par excellence. I do not, though each of these beautiful and sometimes magisterial essays first appeared in some magazine. Any number of literary Englishmen of his generation -- Malcolm Muggeridge, Graham Greene -- are far more gifted for journalism. Muggeridge makes history news. Pritchett has no news sense at all: it is his sense of the past that is impeccable. Everything becomes golden history at his touch. And history is not for magazines.
The life-force of newsprint is urgency. In this wonderful book we find the most literary of Pritchett's literary essays, meditations on George Eliot and Max Beerbohm, Nathaniel West and Benjamin Constant, and many others. They are the seemingly effortless products of a wonderfully masterful intellect. Every thought is magisterial, far more penetrating than it seems, sometimes miraculously lucid. Stepping into these essays is like getting into a Rolls-Royce of uncertain vintage and gliding away, barely hearing the purr of an engine that is still flawless. The essays are never modish, usually too modest, and almost never wrong. But there is never any urgency at all. They do not date. An essay written in 1944 is indistinguishable from one written in 1984.
In his introduction, Pritchett distinguishes himself, a trifle sharply -- but only a trifle; he is very much the grand gentleman of modern letters -- from the professional lit-crit. True men of letters like himself, he says, are a dying breed; "We have no captive audience. We do not teach." Academia rewards specialization; the man of letters must write (and be patronized for writing) prose intended to be read by what Virginia Woolf, echoing Samuel Johnson, called the "common reader." And it is all passing away.
One can regret the sad, sighing, goodbye-to-all-this tone. I, for one, do not believe that the man of letters is a dying breed at all. I reject the fantasy that the electronic age is transforming him into some kind of pitiable dinosaur of consciousness, bleating a final protest, elegant but unheard, in video's vast idiot twilight. The truth is that serious literary and cultural journalism is probably in better shape at this moment, with a wider (though of course elite) audience, than in many decades. I am not besotted: I know the situation is far from wonderful: We need, and badly, more magazines. In America, both The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books are desperately in need of serious competition -- and they are most unlikely to get it. The problem (apart from capital) is not writers or readers: they are out there. The one thing needful is editors. You cannot find figures like William Shawn or Robert Silvers in the yellow pages. Great magazines are one-person tyrannies; one great editor can effect the culture profoundly. But the job is almost impossible to fill. It requires toughness; a capacity to direct without dominating; uncanny sophistication; high fiscal, diplomatic and literary skills; an unlimited capacity for (uncredited) work; an unfailing intuition for the moment; and -- since an editor's most frequent task is to say no -- a serene willingness to be resented and even hated. Such people appear, at best, twice or thrice a generation. And, unfortunately, anything less spells probable doom.
But if literary journalism is alive, Pritchett is no journalist. He is that exemplary modern figure: an essayist without a home. Like his method, his culture is utterly unjournalistic. This one can regret -- though in a world besotted with news, it is also (to me) very appealing. It means the sphere of his sensibility is in some way closed. Compare him to Edmund Wilson: Pritchett is belle-lettristic where Wilson is journalistic; penetrating and parochial where Wilson is crude and encyclopedic; complacent and masterful where Wilson is obsessed, blundering and worried; British, perhaps, rather than American.
The essays rest upon ideal reading of a certain kind of educated Anglo-American gentleman which the world, for good reasons and bad, stopped producing around 1950. The syllabus is genteel, profound, impeccable. (It is also very like what used to be required for very good English majors in the USA). Transforming everything into history, it seems untouched by history. It does not think thoughts gentlemen -- real gentlemen; I am not being facetious -- do not think. Innocent of ideology and humiliation, it has never stood at what Lionel Trilling called "the bloody crossroads" where culture and politics meet. Its culture is complete, and so necessarily a little valetudinarian. Pritchett is meditating on a story already told.
What Pritchett does derive from journalism is economy. Here is Pritchett on Balzac's voice. "Many of his contemporaries thought it rather a loud, pushing, incessant voice; though others found that its powers of story-telling, wit, and fantasy, and its energy, imposed an irresistible spell. The voice of Balzac performs. It changes like an actor's. It is sanguine, skeptical, sensible in a blunt way, ready with the rash generalization, the journalistic caricature; it easily contorts the larynx in passages of lurid melodrama and absurd hyperbole, and yet passes without a blush to asides that may be caustic, shameless or tender. It is a voice bursting with non-stop interest in whatever his eye catches and the guesses of his own genius. Above all it is personally intrusive: Balzac bustles in among his characters and stops the action to explain to their face that they are specimens taken out of a natural history of society . . ."
About a hundred effortlessly revealing words. Roland Barthes devoted an entire book to the same thing. Note that the Pritchett contains not one original observation, (while Barthes is all originality), and yet leaves one with the sense of seeing the subject whole for the first time.
It is very English. Pritchett writes in what Samuel Johnson, in his great essay on Addison, called "the middle style of English prose." An obvious peer is Cyril Connolly, but I would aim much higher and suggest Virginia Woolf. A Man of Letters belongs beside The Common Reader. Though he lacks Virginia Woolf's depth and narrative sense, Pritchett is more just (more of a gentleman?) than she is, has a wider range, and seems more (not a very glamorous virtue) reliable. Both are important writers of fiction who when using the middle style, (in their own inflections of course), share a common voice. That voice has said some of the most impressive and powerful things British literature has had to say, and V.S. Pritchett is its great living master. Stephen Koch teaches writing at Princeton. His new novel, "The Bachelor's Bride," will be out this summer.