- The Complete Short Stories by V.S. Pritchett
Chatto, 1220 pp, £25.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3712 6
- Lasting Impressions by V.S. Pritchett
Chatto, 171 pp, £15.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3606 5
In the lustrum after World War Two the word ‘commitment’ got almost as much work as ‘existential’ in literary magazines. The words represented opposite attitudes to the writer’s stance in relation to the world around him. A literary existentialist owed a little, but not much, to Kierkegaard’s belief in the free and responsible individual discovering his spiritual essence through acts of will. In practice, existentialist writers favoured individual freedom of action against the limits imposed by ‘society’, expressing rebellious feelings outwardly by (according to Mary McCarthy) wearing long dark-belted coats of shaggy material, and in their work by exalting individual values against those of the mass. The work of committed writers, in contrast, was rooted not only in the visible world but also in the rapidly changing pattern of social habits and attitudes. Thoroughgoing existentialists believed in the virtues of irresponsibility, but for others the question of the degree and nature of commitment nagged like an aching tooth.
In 1948, V.S. Pritchett set out his views of the problem in the course of an exchange of letters being written for publication. Writers, he said, enlarged the knowledge of human nature, but in the present time was that enough?
Ought they not, perhaps, to be putting their shoulders to some wheel or other? And which one? After all (the cliché runs), ‘this is a time of crisis, this is an age of revolution, transition, despair.
He acknowledged the difficulty. ‘If society is reformed in this way or that,’ ought the writer ‘to be reformed with it? Is it possible to “do” anything with the writer as you do it with, say, the doctor?’ He decided that it might be possible but was not desirable, although he was in favour of state-funded endowments and scholarships for writers, and made an early plea for Public Lending Right in the form of a tax on out-of-copyright classic authors. But ‘when the history of any writer’s mind is written, whatever his degree, we find (I believe) that there is a break at some point in his life. At some point he splits off from the people who surround him and he discovers the necessity of talking to himself, not to them.’ Two decades later he enlarged on this in an expressive couple of sentences. ‘A writer is, at the very least, two persons. He is the prosaic man at his desk and a sort of valet who dogs him and does the living.’
The refusal to be labelled implicit in these statements has been a great source of strength to Pritchett. The valet who does the living may have particular sympathies, the writer stays detached. He began a long love-affair with Spain in his early twenties and in the Civil War made speeches on behalf of the Republicans, but he never wrote anything resembling a propagandist story. And if some of the remarks quoted seem sympathetic to existentialism rather than commitment (the terms are long out of use but some similar attitudes exist today), that is belied by the firmness with which his fiction is bedded in reality. Both the short stories on which his reputation mainly and rightly rests, and the critical essays and reviews that have not been appreciated at their full worth, spring from the nature of Victor Pritchett’s early life and the unusual way in which he soaked up culture. This material has been put at the service of a marvellous exaggerative eye for physical detail and an equally fine ear for what is unusual in everyday speech. Part of his art has rested in the understanding that ordinary people say and do extraordinary things.