In Praise of Pritchett

Martin Amis

  • On the Edge of the Cliff by V.S. Pritchett
    Chatto, 179 pp, £4.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2438 5
  • The Tale Bearers: Essays on English, American and Other Writers by V.S. Pritchett
    Chatto, 223 pp, £6.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2435 0

V.S. Pritchett’s short stories are retrospective, provincial, formless and feminine. His is an art that does not care how peripheral it sometimes seems. There are no twists, payoffs, reverses, jackpots or epiphanies. Pritchett never rubs life up the wrong way, and is happy to leave only a faint shine on its fur. He uses the forms and addresses of minor art, yet there is no one quite like him – no one alive or male, anyway. ‘He is proof,’ Frank Kermode has argued, ‘that an older tradition could survive the importunities of the modernist Twenties and stay modern, respond finely to the world as it is.’ I am not sure how true this is, or in what ways it might turn out to be true: but it is clearly the central critical question posed by Pritchett’s quietly extraordinary way of looking at life. Of course, the answer to this question may in the end not be very relevant or even interesting, assuming as it must do that an art of such freakish fragility is pierceable by criticism in the first place.

Luckily, Pritchett the explicator is on hand with a new collection of essays to provide oblique guidance. All artist-critics are to some extent secret proselytisers for their own work; they are all secret agents. As Pritchett says of Graham Greene’s Collected Essays, ‘let the academics weigh up, be exhaustive, or build their superstructures – the artist lives as much by his pride in his own emphasis as by what he ignores; humility is a disgrace.’ Pritchett’s judgments are emboldened by this ‘artist’s necessity’, but his professional fair-mindedness always keeps the picture steady. As in his stories, he has the curious ability to let art shine through him, helplessly. Pritchett is a mirror, not a lamp. He goes at criticism the old way, creeping up on a writer through the life, the letters, the creative temperament on offer. When he interrupts a biographical account to put forward his own view (‘I find this too simple; her religiosity was an assertion of pride’), he is not presenting a rival piece of evidence but merely exerting his artistic confidence. The New Critics tend to look at classic texts as if they were contemporary and anonymous; with Pritchett, criticism is always busily attentive to history, character and random human traffic.

Pritchett’s fiction is like this too – inevitably. He does not feel at ease with the stylised and the exemplary. In his essay on Borges – reprinted in another recent collection, The Myth Makers – Pritchett responds finely to Borges’s wit and elegance of mind, but is quickly dislocated by his panoptic coolness, the liberties Borges takes with the shape of life. As a result, Pritchett makes several fruitless attempts to humanise stories like ‘Emma Zunz’ and ‘The Aleph’, and simply misreads the irreducibly abstract fable, ‘The Circular Ruins’. If fiction is imagined as a globe, with realism as its equatorial belt, then Borges occupies a spectral citadel in the North Pole, while Pritchett sweats and smarts in the tropics. When one artist writes about another, the reader is doubly rewarded by this reverse-barometer effect. We enjoy Pritchett’s culture shock – and note, too, the minor adjustments and time-lags he undergoes when he visits writers who live much nearer home.

‘One often wishes he were less of a contriver and would let the characters show for themselves what their meaning is,’ says Pritchett, rather testily, of Graham Greene. The reader reflects that this is exactly what Pritchett lets his own characters do. We hear the same double thunder when Pritchett approvingly observes that ‘Kipling’s characters are always thickly neighboured: the story exists in the minds of all who were there,’ or when he praises Flannery O’Connor’s fidelity to ‘the inner riot that may possess the lonely man or woman at some unwary moment in the hours of their day’. Now this is more like it, you can hear Pritchett saying to himself. The distinction he is secretly making throughout the book becomes explicit in his essay on Henry Green:

Some very fine artists impose themselves, but Henry Green belonged to those who masochistically seek to let their characters speak through them. In so speaking, they may expose more than they know; but don’t we all stubbornly feel that ... we are more than we know? There is a muddled justification for our existence. We are encrusted in something like a private culture.

It is clear from the construction of the first sentence that Pritchett aligns himself with the second kind of writer, with the masochist rather than the imposer. He doesn’t go on to add – perhaps because he prefers epigrams to generalisations, with their suggestion of schools and ‘modes’ and whatnot – that the Moderns are all imposers, while the masochists belong to a quieter and more fitful tradition. One is tempted to make a third distinction here, which will become relevant later on. Male writers tend to be imposers, female writers masochists. Is it not remarkable that there is only one female Modern, Virginia Woolf? No wonder we’re all so afraid of her.

Pritchett’s fiction is suspended in place and time. On the Edge of the Cliff contains several stories set in present-day London, but the mild convulsions they describe could just as easily have taken place in, say, post-war Cheltenham. ‘Look at that. Another bomb in Belfast,’ murmurs Mrs Baum in ‘The Worshippers’. When in the last Jeeves novel P.G. Wodehouse started dutifuly noting the sit-ins and demos he saw in the London streets, the effect was disastrous, even blasphemous. As Evelyn Waugh observed, Wodehouse wrote of an unfading, green world, a world that simply wasn’t equipped to admit such brisk topicalities. In Pritchett, these time-warps into the present have a different point: you’re meant hardly to notice them. Ever-faithful to the land-locked egotisms of his characters, Pritchett is just reminding us how marginally the Belfast troubles really connect with people like Mrs Baum. She has far more important things to worry about: there is a man in her flat-block who bothers her, and someone has just spilt gin on her carpet. Similarly, when the 70-year-old heroine of ‘Tea with Mrs Bittell’ starts noticing now London has changed in recent years – ‘In the once quiet streets ... there were empty bottles of whisky and brandy rolling in the gardens’ – it is the fact that she has become aware of change that is important (as an expression of genteel anxiety), not the changes themselves. ‘She noticed these things now because for three weeks Sidney had not been to church ...’ And when Sidney returns a fortnight later, Mrs Bittell stops noticing things again. She goes back to worrying about Sidney’s friend Rupert, and about her feud with the doorman. So do we.

Pritchett’s prose, too, is quirky and nostalgic in its devices. He continues to write in a style that has not noticed the regularising, the tidying-up, that accompanied the concerted push towards naturalism in the middle of the century. His punctuation is tangled, hectic and Victorian. He sometimes uses semicolons in the way Dickens did – as brackets; and he is a hardened exponent of the pause-for-breath comma that is being steadily driven out of English prose: ‘As he wrote and rewrote his sentences, a pencil drawing of Grant which he had found at a bookseller’s in Colchester, looked down ...’ And, from the essay on Beerbohm: ‘If he had a secret it lay in his quite terrific will and the power to live as if he and the people he saw, were farcicial objects.’ He is equally capable of the condensed dangler (‘This, knowing his skill and history, they [Rolfe’s letters] may very well be’) and the jumbled connective (‘Ayesha is undoubtedly a disturbing figure and, I think, because she is a compendium’). Observe the cluttered confidence of the following constructions, all taken from The Tale Bearers:

The amount of theatre criticism and essay writing he did as a young man, and the delightful trouble it stirred up among the respectable, is remarkable ... That he was kidnapped as a baby in Ireland and taken to England by his nurse, with whom he lived for three years, is strange ... The muddle he is in, his sense of victimisation, are valuable ... The picture of Margaret thinking her pernickety way from the real life character before her into the imaginary relations she is creating is good.

It is easy to imagine how a more self-conscious and workaday critic would settle down to transposing and tightening these sentences: ‘It is remarkable ...’ ‘How strange that ...’ and so on. But Pritchett’s style answers to the shape and direction of his thoughts – and to their fertile swiftness.

In the stories also Pritchett’s prose has little time for the guidelines of elegance. ‘To heave this dead weight down the corridor from the old office was like lifting dead bodies.’ The repeated ‘dead’ ruins the effect of ‘dead bodies’, just as the repeated ‘even’ here, with the word used in different senses, gives the reader a futile jolt: ‘In the direct glare of Berenice’s working lamp, Florence Cork looked even larger and even pregnant.’ Pritchett must be aware of these verbal pile-ups, since elsewhere he shows himself to be an adept of deliberate, or controlled, repetition. Take the repeated ‘little’ here, which is delightfully resonant: ‘once one has got used to the big wrongs of life, little ones wake up, with their mean little teeth.’

In the same way, most writers worry about internal rhymes and chimes in their prose to an almost comical degree. There is a marvellous joke about this in Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, when Udo Conrad, the exiled highbrow novelist, inadvertently reveals to the pathetic Albinus that he is being savagely cuckolded by his mistress and his best friend. As Albinus reels away, Udo is left to muse on his faux pas:

‘I wonder,’ muttered Conrad, ‘I wonder whether I haven’t committed some blunder (... nasty rhyme, that! “Was, it, I wonder, a – la, la la blunder?” Horrible!).’

Sentences that resemble train-wrecks – ‘The cook took a look at the book’ etc – are common enough in genre fiction, where simple inattention or mercenary haste must claim responsibility. And when, for instance, Anthony Powell writes a phrase like ‘standing on the landing’ you feel that it is the result of mandarin unconcern or high-handedness. Pritchett’s prose is full of these jangles – ‘Sitting behind the screen of the machine’ is a random example – but the effect is entirely appropriate to his way of looking at life. Life does rhyme: it rhymes all the time. Life can often be pure doggerel. Pritchett’s responsiveness to the quotidian is one of the reasons his stories seem formless; they are not comic, tragic, romantic, farcical, or like anything else that has a shape. Pritchett is locked into the kinks and rhythms of what he elsewhere calls the ‘native ennui’.

This is surely a feminine style of apprehension. Pritchett himself would be unalarmed by the idea: in the essays, he reacts with candid gusto to Leon Edel’s hermaphroditic reading of Henry James. Pritchett is no Jamesian dandy, and he is not a clever primitive like Henry Green. He is an instinctivist who forgets all his reading as soon as he starts to write. His fiction has the same freakish certitude as that of Jean Rhys, Flannery O’Connor and Christina Stead. Pritchett’s curious inwardness when writing about women has often been noticed:

‘No,’ he said and told her what he had told her a dozen times before. She liked her flat to have someone else’s voice saying the same things again and again.

And:

‘What an enormous tip.’ In our heavy state, this practical remark lightened us. And for me it had possessive overtones that were encouraging: she stood outside, waiting for me to bring the car with that air women have of pretending not to be there.

But Pritchett writes this way about men too. It is all part of a larger habit of mind, the knack of looking at things the other way.

For Pritchett, the minutiae of the observed world are all ignited by an emotional affect; the canvas is neutral and washy, but the details are fluorescent. McDowell, in ‘The Vice-Consul’, has ‘an unreasonable chin and emotional knees’; Mr Ferney, in ‘Tea with Mrs Bittell’, has ‘two reproachful chins and a loud flourishing voice’. It is almost a perceptual tic of Pritchett’s to register human objects in terms of an emotional abstraction. A young maid is ‘red as puberty in the face’; a woman at a wedding is ‘dark haired and brimming with fat’; a ditched wife’s rings ‘sparkle with sentiments’; in his club, a man is ‘at home with his mysteries’; in her flat, an old woman sits ‘among the wrongs and relics of her seventy years’. Pritchett has always been on fruitfully uneasy terms with the inanimate and domestic world. His stories sometimes read like muffled and niggly versions of the Dickensian cartoon: like Dickens, he has great trouble establishing to what extent dead things are alive. A disused electric fire looks like ‘a modern orphan’. Sofa cushions have ‘red or green fringes, so that we seemed to be squatting on dyed beards’. In ‘The Worshippers’, Mrs Baum nostalgically contemplates the foyer of a once-fashionable hotel:

They found themselves on the huge carpet of the hotel on which thousands of pairs of shoes without people in them might be treading.

What is the force of that ‘might’, exactly? ‘In the village it is felt to be unnatural for a man of his size to be living alone ...’ Pritchett’s method is in fact very simple, though vastly ambitious in its way: he tries to interpret the world through the romantic, nervous and mystical thoughts of his own characters, who are seldom remarkable except in their peculiar ordinariness. If one thing underlies his work it is the constantly dramatised proposition that ordinary people are really extraordinarily strange.

V.S. Pritchett is the same age as the 20th century; he is at the height of his fame, and pretty well at the height of his powers. If none of the stories in On the Edge of the Cliff give quite the concerted satisfaction of early masterpieces like ‘Blind Love’ and ‘The Skeleton’, this is because he is making fewer concessions to the usual demands of the form. His art is reaching its natural conclusion, slowly dispersing into odd flashes of intensity. The stories seem old-fashioned only in their insistence on the continued richness of life, whereas one of the pet dreads of the Moderns is that life might be losing its multiformity and superabundance. Pritchett is ‘for life’, but not in the Leavisite sense. Leavis had the notion that life was something he had to keep sticking up for – almost as if the rest of us had no time for the stuff. Actually, all writers are lovers of life, even the blackest of them; they all know that life has everything to be said for it. Few lovers are as generously inquisitive as Pritchett, and have such affection for vagaries and wrinkles – ‘preserving especially’, as he says of Saul Bellow, ‘what is going on at the times when nothing is going on’.