Essays 1961-1987

By V.S. Pritchett

Random House. 171 pp. $19.95

"TO CALL myself a critic," V.S. Pritchett once wrote, "would be going too far." Few readers would agree with this typically modest self-assessment by a man whom both Gore Vidal and Anthony Burgess have hailed as our foremost critic. Then again, in an era when the word is applied mainly to professors who write abstruse theoretical tomes that are read almost exclusively by other professors, "critic" might well be a misleading tag for the 90-year-old Sir Victor, whose commentary usually takes the form of short, lucid reviews for general-interest periodicals and who subscribes to the quaint idea that literature is not about itself but about us. Perhaps Pritchett's own label of choice -- which he used six years ago for the title of his selected essays -- is most appropriate: He is a "man of letters" who, in five novels, 15 story collections, three biographies, seven travel books, two memoirs and nine volumes of lit-crit, has invariably addressed himself to the educated common reader.

Admirers of A Man of Letters will doubtless also enjoy Lasting Impressions: Essays 1961-1987, though it is little more than half the length of its predecessor and far more of a grab-bag. Whereas the earlier volume consisted of some four dozen pieces -- mostly about masters of the novel (from Fielding to Forster) and mostly occasioned by the publication of new editions, translations and the like -- the 27 items in Lasting Impressions are more conspicuously book reviews, in which Pritchett takes on everything from a gathering of pense'es by his friend Gerald Brenan to a life of Alexander von Humboldt to a meditation on old age by Simone de Beauvoir. Since most of these reviews first saw print several years before the publication of A Man of Letters, it seems fair to describe them as leftovers; certainly Pritchett treats them as such, opening the volume with a slapdash "preface" that is all of 13 lines long.

Yet in Pritchett's kitchen even the leftovers are far from scraps. On a first encounter, to be sure, even his strongest essays may taste like cuisine bourgeoise -- their style plain, their tone informal, their form discursive. But the appearance of casualness is deceptive: Pritchett makes many telling points in very little space, and remains firmly above the level of the "breezy and blokey" (to borrow his uncharacteristically snide description of one biographer's prose). Nor, on closer examination, are the subjects tackled here as divergent as they may seem; for what virtually all the books under discussion have in common is that they offer him an opportunity to write about what really interests him: namely, human behavior, manners and morals, the ways people live.

Time and again, Pritchett scrutinizes fictional characters with genuine fascination, enumerating their traits and synopsizing their lives at often surprising length; likewise, the nonfiction books he chooses to examine are well-nigh novelistic in their attention to details of character and conduct. The highest tribute he can pay to a work of history or biography is to state, as he does of V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, that "every place and person and mind comes to life"; his interest in Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou, a study of daily life in a medieval French village, is plainly related to the fact that it possesses the virtues of a good novel, giving us "what history so rarely can -- the real voices and phraseology of a people lost for hundreds of years." (Surely it would occur to few reviewers other than Pritchett to say of Jacques Fournier -- a ruthless 14th-century inquisitor, "sifter of souls," and future pope who lured elaborate confessions out of Montaillou's hapless inhabitants -- that "he might have been a novelist collecting his material.")

PRITCHETT is splendid at thumbnail characterizations of fiction writers. "Walker Percy's gift is for moving about, catching the smell of locality, and for a laughing enjoyment between his bouts with desperation and loss"; in Sholom Aleichem, "we move through joy, exaltation, fear, and farce, as if these were a weather in which the people live." He draws sensitive contrasts: Maupassant was "outside, whereas all Babel's characters carry some grain of the presence of Russia, the self being a fragment of the land's fatality." Pritchett esteems clarity, allusiveness, a sense of period, a freedom from sentimentality; he does not hesitate to make relevant observations about social history ("The Victorian and Edwardian codes," he notes apropos of Molly Keane's Irish novels, "stayed on far longer in southern Ireland than in England"); and he tosses off his share of sardonic mots about modern folkways, referring to the car as "that secondary sexual organ of our contemporary life" and wondering whether sex isn't "just the latest item of conspicuous waste in Western society."

Needless to say, these pieces are not in-depth analyses. Their brevity can be frustrating, as can Pritchett's habit of making provocative remarks and never explaining them. One doesn't understand, for example, why he regards Rabbit Redux, generally judged the worst of Updike's Rabbit novels, as the best of the series; nor does he ever elaborate upon his reference to that book's "Thomas Hardy-like items." Yet the pith, charm and cogency of this assemblage more than make up for its shortcomings.

Bruce Bawer's most recent book is "Diminishing Fictions," a collection of essays on the modern American novel.