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Authors: V.S. Pritchett

The Pritchett Century

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1999 Modern Library Paperback Edition

Biographical note copyright © 1997 by Random House, Inc.
Copyright © 1997 by The Estate of V. S. Pritchett

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Modern Library is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.

This work was originally published in hardcover by the Modern Library in 1997.

Portion of this work were originally published in
At Home and Abroad, New York Proclaimed, Dublin: A Portrait
, and
Mr. Beluncle

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

: “In Memoriam: V. S. Pritchett” by John Bayley originally appeared in
The London Review of Books
. Copyright © 1997 by The London Review of Books. Reprinted by permission.

.: Chapters 1 and 5 from
The Spanish Temper
by V. S. Pritchett;
Chapter 10
Marching Spain
by V. S. Pritchett;
Chapter 8
Foreign Faces
by V. S. Pritchett; “Sense of Humour,” “The Evils of Spain,” “The Oedipus Complex,” “Things as They Are,” “When My Girl Comes Home,” “The Liars,” “The Camberwell Beauty,” “Did You Invite Me?” “The Marvellous Girl,” “The Vice-Consul,” “The Fig Tree,” “Cocky Olly,” and “The Image Trade” from
The Complete Short Stories
of V. S. Pritchett;
Chapter 10
Dead Man Leading by
V. S. Pritchett. All essays reprinted by permission of Peters Fraser & Dunlop Group Ltd.

: “Looking Back at Eighty” by V. S. Pritchett from the December 14, 1980, issue of
The New York Times
. Copyright © 1980 by the New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.

.: “The American Puritan,” “Clarissa,” “Scott,” “Edwin Drood,” “The Living Novel,” “Poor Relations,” “The Russian Day,” “The Notebooks of Henry James,” “Boswell’s London,” “The Unhappy Traveller,” “The Performing Lynx,” “Meredith’s Brainstuff,” “Quixote’s Translators,” “The Despot,” “The Myth Makers,” “The Con-Man’s Shadow,” “Jumbos,” “The Sayings of Don Geraldo,” “Irish Behaviour,” “A Better Class of Person,” and “Midnight’s Children” from
The Complete Collected Essays by
V. S. Pritchett, copyright © 1992 by V. S. Pritchett;
Chapter 3
The Gentle Barbarian
by V. S. Pritchett, copyright © 1977 by V. S. Pritchett;
Chapter 8
by V. S. Pritchett, copyright © 1988 by V. S. Pritchett; excerpts from
A Cab at the Door
by V. S. Pritchett, copyright © 1968 by V. S. Pritchett; excerpts from
Midnight Oil by
V. S. Pritchett, copyright © 1971 by V. S. Pritchett. All material reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

Pritchett, V. S. (Victor Sawdon), 1900–1997
The Pritchett century/V. S. Pritchett—Modern Library ed.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-55926-5
I. Title
PR6031.R7A6   1999
823′.912—dc21     98-21226

Modern Library website address:



It never struck me as odd, when I was growing up, that I had a father who was generally known by a set of initials. At lunchtime, my mother would stand in the hall and call out “V.S.P.” No response. She would try again two or three times, then sometimes she would change the call to “Voospie.”

If there was still no answer, my sister, Josephine, or I would be sent to fetch him. The pipe smoke got thicker as I approached and when I opened the door he would be seated in an old armchair, surrounded by a sprinkling of used matches, with his legs crossed and his old pastry board propped on his lap.

Over the years the pastry board had turned as dark as mahogany and there were sometimes doodles round the side of it—usually of faces with wavy furrowed brows. The paper was fastened to the board with a Bulldog clip, and V.S.P. wrote in fountain pen and terrible handwriting.

As I first peeped round the door he looked frightening. He wore a terrible frown and his bottom jaw jutted fiercely in his struggle to order the words on the page. It was a battle. Sometimes he held his head away from the board, as if he expected those words to rise up from the page and fight back.

Then he would look up and see me and immediately become his welcoming, smiling self again, coming to lunch, leaving some of his thoughts behind in his study, sometimes rehearsing his ideas at the table.

“The extraordinary thing about Henry James …”

“Can I have another potato, please?”

I was never a very satisfactory audience.

We were in a word factory. My sister and I learned quickly that we had to be quiet in the house when V.S.P. was working. No shouting, no barging into his study. It seemed quite normal to us. When my sister was very small, she would wait in ambush outside his study, and he would have to climb out of the window and creep round the outside of the house when he wanted to go to the lavatory.

The handwritten pages, covered in revisions, crossings out, second and third thoughts, and sideways writing in the margins, were given to my mother to type. They would be revised and typed again and again. The Imperial typewriter was a sacred object. Nobody else was allowed to touch it. I was nervous of even standing too close to it.

My mother typed with such speed and force that it was not like mere machine gun fire. She seemed to be at the keyboard playing tremendous major chords, producing a whole paragraph at once.

Her ability to decipher V.S.P.’s handwriting must have been the result of some sort of brilliant telepathy. When he was abroad a five-line postcard from him would take me two days to work out and a letter could last for a week or more.

And what an output there has been from this word factory! Selecting a fraction of it for this volume has been difficult, of course, but it has also been a huge pleasure—re-reading the autobiography, the short stories, and the novels, recognising incidents from our life which have been smuggled into the stories, feeling a sort of thrill at a brilliant phrase or a daring generalisation in the literary criticism.

I soon realised that I could not make an entirely logical or even sensible selection, or anything that could be taken as the last word. So I have tried to give an idea of the extraordinary range of my father’s work, the amazing breadth of his reading, the variety of his subjects.

Some of the choices are based on our conversations. Sometimes, in
recent years, when we talked at the table after dinner, he would wave his hand in the direction of the imposing ranks of Walter Scott novels in the bookshelf and say, “Nobody reads Scott anymore” and then speak about him so amusingly that those volumes no longer seemed so daunting.

That is the reason I have included his essay on Scott from
The Living Novel
. I have chosen other essays simply for the pleasure they have given me and for the way he has always made literature unintimidating.

He often talked about his misery at being taken away from school and being made to work in the leather trade when he wanted to go to university, and about how valuable the experience turned out to be, so I have included the section from his autobiography about that time. Years ago, he and I took a walk in Bermondsey, in South London, and found the building where he first went to work.

The early chapters of his novel
Mr. Beluncle
are included because they are very funny, but also give another perspective on V.S.P.’s childhood with his Christian Scientist father.

He many times talked to me about the short story “Sense of Humour,” about how he re-wrote it again and again, thinking of different ways of telling the story and how, when it was finally published, it suddenly made his reputation. When he recalled this success he put on that particular expression of his, a mixture of puzzlement, amusement, and pleasure, which he always had when somebody paid him a compliment.

Spain had to have a prominent place, so you will find a chapter from
Marching Spain
, first published in 1928, as well as extracts from
The Spanish Temper
and a more recent essay on Gerald Brenan, his great friend and another interpreter of that country.

There are also sections of my father’s books on Chekhov and Turgenev. I have tried to find passages from these books, and also from the two volumes of autobiography and the novels, which are self-contained. They can only provide a glimpse of the work, but I hope they may encourage people to read the whole thing.

There is also a chapter here from the novel
Dead Man Leading
, first published in 1937, written when V.S.P. had never been to South America
but had just made a model of the Amazon in the garden with matches and bits of string to help him. He went to South America about twenty years later to write travel articles, and I thought it would be interesting to include his piece on Amazonia, as he eventually found it—and also a later short story “The Vice Consul,” which is set in South America.

In deciding which short stories to include, I have indulged myself and picked some of my own favourites, added my father’s favourite, “When My Girl Comes Home,” and my mother’s choice, “The Fig Tree,” and the one he wrote specially for my mother, “The Marvellous Girl.”

Cocky Olly was a game my sister and I used to play with other children when we lived in the country and visited nearby families. Years later it re-appeared in a V.S.P. short story of the same name, which is in this collection. It surprised me, because I had not really believed he had noticed our game or had not expected he would remember it. I should have known better. He has always had a way of sharply observing while appearing not to be paying much attention, and the stories are full of odd details that have been stored for years.

The Turn of the Years
, V.S.P. wrote of his feelings at reaching the age of eighty, of being as old as the century, having been born at the end of 1900. This collection includes work written in the early part of this century and in its last decades. It is only a small fraction of all he wrote. When I consider the output of that word factory, I am still filled with admiration and astonishment.

V. S. P

It’s often said that the short story today goes with poetry. But the trouble with bringing poetry in is not only that the “poetic” is a bad thing in prose but that it implies a degree of consciousness and concentration which the very best stories don’t seem to have. William Gass rationally observed that the story “is a poem grafted onto a sturdier stock” but Borges decreed that “unlike the novel, it may be essential.” That has an ominous sound.

None of these suggestions seems to fit the way in which V. S. Pritchett wrote his novels and stories. Many are absolute masterpieces, no doubt about that: but the master who wrote them did not think his own process deserved any extended comment. Never had a great craftsman, and one who was universally admitted to be such, so unpretending a persona. Nothing in him needed to build himself up. There seem to be no stories about him, no legend, no special atmosphere or locality which an admirer can feel that he haunts. Everyone knows what “Chekhovian” means, or has come to mean, but “Pritchettian,” or “Pritchett-like”? No, one cannot imagine that becoming part of the literary vocabulary. So was there a style, and what was it, and how did it succeed so well?

It is here that the idea of poetry, the poetry of the short story, does
give the necessary clue: and yet it must be obtained without any suggestion of the poetic, which is what Pritchett contrived. Elizabeth Bowen sometimes obtained the same sort of effect by different means. In one of her stories a married woman and a younger man, who know in their heart of hearts that their affair will soon break up, have spent Sunday afternoon on a common in Metroland, and as they make for the bus-stop they see a photographer taking a picture of a girl across a pond. Elizabeth Bowen moves her “atmosphere” briefly into that of the photograph’s ambience: the picture will be called “Autumn Evening,” and will appear in a professional magazine as an art study in mood, symbolising the sadness of ending, and romance and the time of year. This, too, is how the lovers have seen themselves, and how the real pathos of their relation is merged into the kind of plangent sadness they can cope with, and the reader can recognise.

BOOK: The Pritchett Century
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