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V.S. Pritchett

V.S. Pritchett latest collection of short stories was published on 10 June. The second volume of his collected essays, The Tale Bearers, appeared last year.

Falling in love with Fanny

V.S. Pritchett, 5 August 1982

‘A way into secrecy frisked a pampered mouse’ – a curdled Georgian sentence that leads one straight into one of Walter de la Mare’s most plain and chilling tales about a boy’s initiation into horror. The story is ‘An Ideal Craftsman’. In this genre he was a master – albeit a very literary master – of the riddles of sado-masochism, the dark underside of his ‘magic’. So also was Stevenson – a predecessor in his ‘sedulous ape’ period; so too, later, is the bookish cross-bred Borges. Miss Angela Carter, whose preface speculates here on his famous novel Memoirs of a Midget, glances at Borges and goes on to the possibility that de la Mare may be the only English Surrealist, but one with a manner that has what she calls the ‘sheen’ of the Pre-Raphaelites. This ‘sheen’ on his best prose is of course protective and is intended to give the false sense of safety in which we can play with unease. The rooms of his old country houses and their furniture gleam with malign assurance; the gardened Kentish landscape is rich and somnolent. Gardens are important to him – the shadows of trees or the cries of birds alarm a writer who feels himself to be watcher and watched. His ‘normal’ people are torpid, the class manners in which they are set are decorous and assured, even when they have the English acidity. ‘A double-minded creature I was,’ cries Miss M., the genuine midget in this novel. A freak she may be, precocious in her intellect and her retorts as she reads her Jane Austen, her Brontës, her Metaphysical poets, and studies astronomy, but she is vivacious and violent too: she is sarcastic rather than humbled, in her estrangement from the human norm. ‘Foolish girl that I was,’ she cries out again when she considers her self-will and her passions. Looking back on her failure to be anything more than a deviant, she eventually elects to see herself as nothing less than a damned soul – damnation is a kind of fame – and mysteriously speaks at the end of her story of being ‘called away’ out of loneliness into limbo – but not Hell. Miss Angela Carter, who is searching on the symbolism which seems basic to the Memoirs, thinks that its ‘metaphysical sub-text is a decoy’. De la Mare had a gift for the riddle within a riddle: but she thinks he offers ‘a key to a door behind which there is only another door’ and that he is shut up in Victorian reticence and sternly anti-Freudian. She quotes his own defence from his introduction to the Everyman edition of the novel in 1938: ‘Feelings as well as thoughts may be expressed in symbols; and every character is not only a “chink” or “peep-hole” in the dark cottage from which his maker looks out at the world, but is also in some degree representative of himself, if a self in disguise.’ This is a truism. What one notices are the ‘peep-hole’ and ‘cottage’: he was drawn to the small and unique because he applied a microscope to it and thereby turned it into the grotesque. He believed in the privacy of the imagination, regarding it as an anatomical part. We may think that Fancy rather than Imagination was his forte. Still, within these terms, he was an ingenious and marvellous architect of his elaborate drama. Immediately after the 1914 war, Angela Carter suggests, older readers may have been drawn to a nostalgia for the exclusive if staling comforts of a past that was safe: but there is no doubt that this novel is a minor masterpiece. He was an authentic connoisseur of manners, their spites and the price paid for their comedy.

Escaping from Belfast

V.S. Pritchett, 5 February 1981

Early in 1923, when I was a very naive and untrained newspaper correspondent in Dublin, it was my duty to take a regular trip to Belfast and to find out what was going on politically in that depressing and bigoted city of linen mills and shipyards. The Orangemen were contemptuous of the Southern Irish and had a blustering condescension to Englishmen like myself, and one of the few people whose talk was a relief from this was Forrest Reid, a novelist and critic in his late forties, admired by Yeats, Forster and Walter de la Mare, but almost ignored in his own city at that time.

The Case for Negative Thinking

V.S. Pritchett, 20 March 1980

One of the pleasures of reading Peacock in the Thirties, when I first read him, was that he was without acrimony. He enabled us to relive the great battles of ideas in the 19th century without an aching head. His conversation was spirited and diverting and he had sceptical hopes of human nature. Born in 1785 and dying in 1866, Peacock lived through 80 years of rancorous social change. He was a contemporary of Rowlandson – Rowlandson’s country drawings evoke Peacock’s landscapes; he had listened to his gifted mother reading Gibbon when he was a boy; he preceded and survived Byron, Shelley and Keats. He outlived Enthusiasm and revolution, sat through the quarrels of Reform, went on to consider the doubts of Matthew Arnold and the euphoria of the Great Exhibition, and listened to all arguments with a satirist’s joy in dispute. A liberal who sometimes sounded Toryish – he was often attacked by the strenuously committed, who demanded that everyone should stand up and be counted, and Hazlitt called him a mere ‘warbler’ – Peacock seemed to be a gourmet of ideas who perversely remained seated at the table with his bottle of Madeira, indulging his wit. Where was his ground? Fashion called for tragedy and the didactic. Peacock replied that his ground was in the Comic Spirit.

Rochet and Chimère

V.S. Pritchett, 6 March 1980

For forty years, in person and in writing, Raymond Mortimer was an ornament of English literary journalism. He was at his best, I think, in the querulous Thirties and Forties when he was Literary Editor of the New Statesman. In the preface to his only book, a collection of essays with the typically Edwardian title of Channel Packet, he described himself ‘without humility’ as a journalist and not an author. But, he said, a ‘succession of hundred-yard sprints demands no less effort than a cross-country race.’

Victor Ludorum

Julian Symons, 20 December 1990

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...

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Trips

Graham Coster, 26 July 1990

‘I did not particularly like travel books,’ explains the rancorous writer-narrator in Paul Theroux’s recent novel My Secret History: ‘the form had fatal insufficiencies....

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Michael Frayn hasn’t published a novel for 16 years, but it’s immediately clear from his new one that he hasn’t lost the trick of it. After so long a lay-off some...

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Not all that Keen

John Bayley, 16 March 1989

It is likely that The Cherry Orchard was suggested by Chekhov’s story ‘A Visit to Friends’, which he did not include in the collected edition, and which concerns a family in...

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A Sense of England

Graham Bradshaw, 17 February 1983

In 1976, V.S. Pritchett remarked that ‘what has always struck me in Irish writing is the sense of Ireland itself, its past or its imagined future, as a presence or invisible...

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Ars Brevis, Vita Longa

Dan Jacobson, 16 July 1981

Poetic intensity, concentration upon a single incident or event – these seem to be the defining characteristics of the short story for both V.S. Pritchett, in his introduction to The Oxford...

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In Praise of Pritchett

Martin Amis, 22 May 1980

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,...

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