Authors: V.S. Pritchett
Table of Contents
V. S. Pritchett’s stories leave you with unforgettable glimpses of movement: Charlie, in “The Two Brothers,” running his hands over his dog, “feeling the strange life ripple under the hair and obtaining a curious strength from the tumult”; or the sailor in the story named for him, on a wet day in a busy London street, “lifting his knees high and putting his hand up . . . as if, crossing the road through that stinging rain, he were breaking through the bead curtain of a Pernambuco bar.” It’s no accident that Pritchett’s letters and notebooks were filled with cartoons. These are intensely visual stories: verbal animations.
Then again, they leave you with haunting echoes of talk: Spanish men arguing over where to sit in a restaurant, contradicting themselves and each other and forgetting to order their meal in an amiable fury of anecdotes; or the aging parents in “The Lion’s Den,” nervously competing for the attention of their visiting grown-up son:
“Oh, there you are, that’s it, dear,” said the mother, timidly clawing her son out of the darkness of the doorway and kissing him. “You got here all right. . . . Have you had your tea? Have a cup of tea?”
“Well, let’s see the boy,” said the father. “Come in here to the light.”
“I’ve had tea, thanks,” Teddy said.
“Have another cup. It won’t take a tick. I’ll pop the kettle on . . .”
“Leave the boy alone, old dear,” the father said. “He’s had his tea. . . . Now—. . . . Would you like to wash your hands, old chap? . . .”
“Yes, go on,” said the mother, “wash your hands. They did the water yesterday.”
Pritchett grew up in a singing family, and his ear was alert to the idiosyncratic rhythms and theme tunes of his characters. Their clichés, too, which so often gave him his titles: “A Serious Question,” “Just a Little More.” These are intensely aural, and oral, fictions.
Another of their lasting traces is an indelible impression of the fantasy life of the most ordinary people. The mother in “When My Girl Comes Home” has convinced herself and her neighbors that her daughter has been interned in wartime in Japan, when in fact—that is, so far as there are any facts in this tale of self-deception and role-playing—the girl self-preservingly married a Japanese man. The bombastic father in “The Lion’s Den” turns out to have a room full of aspirational possessions—riding boots (though “He’s never ridden in his life”), redundant silverware—the props, theatrical as well as supportive, of his mythomania. Fictions of self, Pritchett knew, are among the defining activities of being human. In the phrase of the anecdotal barber which gives another story its title, “You make your own life.” He partly means, you make it up. Among other things, these are stories about the importance of stories.
The visual, the aural, the fictive: all are anticipated in one of Pritchett’s earliest published works, “The Sack of Lights.” It appeared in the magazine
in 1928, when the author was twenty-seven, and again, a couple of years later, in his first collection,
The Spanish Virgin
and Other Stories.
Yet in common with everything else in that book, he later suppressed it. Pritchett was among other things a great literary critic, but he was much less generous to his own work than to others’. Forgotten for three quarters of a century, “The Sack of Lights” poignantly encodes the artist himself in the character of a deluded and—except by the story—neglected vagrant Cockney woman, with her song of another world, “Valencia, land of oranges,” her mysterious mission to “git me [get my] lights,” and her mad yarn of rockets and a general:
No one else could hear what her mind heard. No one else could see what her eyes saw. Alight with it, she walked from her room at the back of Euston to Piccadilly Circus with a sack on her back—the sack which she always carried in case there was anything worth having in the gutters—and “Valencia, land of oranges . . .” twiddling like a ballroom of dancers in her head.
No one noticed her as she stood on the curb of Piccadilly Circus, nor guessed that at that moment she could have died of laughter, she was so happy. She wanted to shout to see what would happen, but she laughed instead. A miraculous place as high and polished as a ballroom. The façades of the buildings were tall mirrors framed in gold, speeding lights. “Chucking it about,” she cried out. The crowds did not even hear her in the roar.
Pritchett had the tenderness for eccentricity that has characterized so many of the greatest English writers. In his daily walks through London, he watched and listened to people as a naturalist observes wild creatures and birds. He knew that oddity is the norm, not the exception. The man who likes to show off his stage fall, in the story ambiguously titled “The Fall,” is based on an actual encounter of Pritchett’s at a party. James Wood has argued that his attention to such “little billowings of pride and egotism” influenced Harold Pinter, William Trevor, Alice Munro, J. F. Powers.
Martin Amis, who worked with Pritchett on the
toward the end of his fifty-year association with the magazine, saw it as an investigative process, and also a profoundly egalitarian one. Pritchett “went into ordinary people,” Amis said, “and showed us that they weren’t ordinary. . . . [He] came away with their genius in all senses. . . . Almost frighteningly intimate, he possesses his characters, he knows almost everything about them in a way that startles me when I look at him.”
You have only to read “The Wheelbarrow” to see what he meant. Pritchett understands so much about the two people on whom he intensely focuses: the fact that in clearing out the house of her recently dead aunt, Miss Freshwater’s niece has to face something about losses in her own life; and that in employing an opportunistic Welsh taxi driver and part-time evangelist to help her, she is risking an intimacy all the more powerful for being temporary; and that the man’s very Welshness involves a colonial element, and with it a resistance to colonization; and that if he has designs on his new employer, he has equally strong designs on her wheelbarrow . . . the list could go on. By not straying too far, Pritchett’s imagination goes very deep. He always worked exceptionally hard, writing draft after draft, distilling his material—sometimes initially of novelistic dimensions—until it combined astonishing density with superficial lightness. As Thoreau pointed out, a good story needn’t be long, “but it will take a long while to make it short.”
Pritchett’s habits of imaginative recording began in his childhood. Many of his stories fictionalize a “real” early experience. “The Lion’s Den” is almost straight autobiography: Pritchett’s own father was a fantasist like the one in the story, and the son returned to him often for fictional copy, most ambitiously in his 1951 novel,
and later, with a more forgiving poignancy, in his cameo of a recent widower, “Just a Little More.”
Pritchett Senior was a Christian Scientist. While the vagrant woman in “The Sack of Lights” embodies both the liberating irresponsibility of the imagination and its consoling privacy, in “The Saint” V. S. Pritchett takes a simultaneously sterner and funnier line on self-delusion through the character of Hubert Timberlake, the self-important leader of a fictional sect very like Christian Science. Mr. Timberlake’s belief that he knows how to manage a punt has to contend with the empirical reality of a low branch:
. . . he put out a hand to lift it. It is not easy to lift a willow branch and Mr. Timberlake was surprised. He stepped back as it gently and firmly leaned against him. He leaned back and pushed from his feet. And he pushed too far. The boat went on, I saw Mr. Timberlake’s boots leave the stern as he took an unthoughtful step backwards. He made a last minute grasp at a stronger and higher branch, and then, there he hung. . . .
. . . I prayed with all my will that Mr. Timberlake would not walk upon the water. It was my prayer . . . that was answered.
I saw the shoes dip, the water rise above his ankles and up his socks. He tried to move his grip now to a yet higher branch—he did not succeed—and in making this effort his coat and waistcoat rose and parted from his trousers. One seam of shirt with its pant-loops and brace-tabs broke like a crack across the middle of Mr. Timberlake. It was like a fatal flaw in a statue. . . .
The comedy is partly a matter of observation, and partly, too, of sheer clowning: a bumptious man is separated from his trousers and gets drenched. But it’s also verbal: that “unthoughtful” step backward is perfectly judged, as is the parenthetical “he did not succeed”—one of those comic moments that depend precisely on being superfluous. As a musician of language, Pritchett had perfect pitch. Another of his editors, The New Yorker ’s Roger Angell, was to exclaim, “he could write. Again and again, he is capable of the acute perception, the absolutely convincing illumination of thought, that can transform the eye’s journey down the page into a sensual and startling experience.”
You can’t, in fact, say much about writing as good as this without quoting, and as soon as you start it’s hard to stop: What about the next sentence? the whole paragraph? Why not the whole story? Pritchett’s friend Eudora Welty wrote with an insider’s knowledge about the flaring self-completeness of each of his works: “any Pritchett story is all of it alight. . . . Wasteless and at the same time well fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick . . . with nothing left over.”
(The comparison with a poem is one Pritchett himself often made. The story writer’s art, he said, “calls for a mingling of the skills of the rapid reporter or traveller with an eye for incident and an ear for real speech, the instincts of the poet and the ballad-maker, and the sonnet writer’s concealed discipline of form.”
) So, in “Sense of Humour,” every detail, however accidental-seeming, has its place. One of the main characters, Muriel, tells her new boyfriend, Arthur, that her father used to work “on the railway.” The glib Arthur responds with a music-hall couplet: “The engine gave a squeal. . . . The driver took out his pocket-knife and scraped him off the wheel.” We half remember that squeal when Arthur’s obsessive rival in love, Colin, drives his red motorbike under a bus. The story’s title itself runs throughout like something between a refrain and a commentary: an ironic one, because a sense of humor is something the main characters lack—in Colin’s case, fatally. Stories like this don’t end with the sharp click of an O. Henry tale, but—as Welty implies—with a quieter sense that everything has been made use of. The seemingly random pile of materials which is all most of us can make of what we find around us in life has, by Pritchett’s conjuring, been turned into something beautifully coherent.
Given Welty’s description, you might expect his work to feel like a set of closed systems, yet miraculously it doesn’t. On the contrary, most of Pritchett’s stories fit his own description of Maupassant’s, which he contrasts with those of more “artificial” writers. By “artificial,” Pritchett meant something you could test on the final page: “Do you, at the end of a story, feel that the lives of the people have ended with the drama of their situation? Do you feel that their lives were, in fact, not lives, but an idea?” He conceded that all short-story writers (including himself) produce some stories of this sort, because, “like the sonnet, the short story is liable to become a brilliant conceit.” But more often than not, he argued, Maupassant’s tales—like Pritchett’s own—operate differently. As Pritchett puts it, “The characters go on living. They are beginning to live their way into a new situation.”
Edmund Wilson didn’t get the hang of Pritchett’s fictions when he first encountered them. (From 1949, they more often than not appeared first in
The New Yorker.
) “They don’t have the kind of ending one expects . . . ,” he wrote to his friend, in later self-extenuation: “the point is that in your masterly use of detail, you so exactly hit the nail on the head that the reader expects a more usual kind of point at the end, & I haven’t always grasped that the final details, though they may seem . . . random . . . are equally significant in their accuracy.”
Wilson might have been writing about “A Serious Question” but he wasn’t, because this, like “The Sack of Lights,” is among the early stories that Pritchett suppressed—though for a different reason. It is a delicate and loaded exploration of a failing, childless marriage: in essence, Pritchett’s own first marriage, to which he hardly ever alluded once it was over. The bitter divorce came four years after “A Serious Question” was published in the
Robert Louis Stevenson famously prescribed that “The ideal story is that of two people who go into love step for step, with a fluttered consciousness, like a pair of children venturing together into a dark room.”
Lost to readers since 1931, “A Serious Question” puts Stevenson’s formula into tragic reverse.
There are other sadnesses among these fictions, very funny though they generally are, and despite Pritchett’s rare knack (for example, in “The Evils of Spain”) for communicating happiness. “The Two Brothers,” with its powerful firsthand sense of the fate of early-twentieth-century Ireland—where, as in Spain, he worked as a reporter for
Christian Science Monitor;
or “The Upright Man,” about a rigid-minded office clerk who is maimed in the First World War; or, much later, “On the Edge of the Cliff,” partly based on the wayward last years of Pritchett’s closest friend, the writer Gerald Brenan—they can make you cry. But such reactions are never simple. “Our Oldest Friend” is an anatomy of what it means to be rejected: the title, once again, turns out to be powerfully ironic. But, as the story unfolds, the narrator is revealed to have been partly complicit in the rejections of his friend, ever since the two men were at school together. By being made, first, to laugh at the victim, we find ourselves taking the side of his tormentors:
“Look out!” someone said. “Here comes Saxon.”
It was too late. Moving off the dance floor and pausing at the door with the blatant long sight of the stalker, Saxon saw us all in our quiet corner of the lounge and came over. He stopped and stood with his hands on his hips and his legs apart, like a goalkeeper. Then he came forward.