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 character.’ He added that in English short stories ‘the sense of England as an extra character is very rarely felt.’ Allowing Kipling as one obvious exception, Pritchett was too modest to mention what is probably the finest and most ambitious of his own longer stories, ‘When my girl comes home’. Here the complexity of the narrative and its oblique, carefully timed disclosures might seem to exceed the needs of an ostensibly simple subject – the return to Hincham Street of Hilda, who is thought to have suffered in a Japanese prison camp but had actually married a Japanese. Yet the responses of the various characters, including the elaborately drawn narrator, are conditioned, not only by their sustaining fantasies (‘We had all dreamt of Hilda in different ways’), but also by the challenging release from the habits and exigencies of wartime existence into a changed world: ‘we were all in that stage where the forces of life, the desire to live, were coming back’ (like Hilda). Their dreams, the shocks Hilda brings, and their subsequent adjustments, discriminations and evasions, project the ethos and changing mores of a whole community: England emerges as that ‘extra character’.
The ‘invisible character’ appears, more obliquely, in a very early story, ‘Sense of Humour’ (‘the first one of mine to make a stir’), and in the recent story ‘Tea with Mrs Bittell’. The early story very well illustrates Pritchett’s Chaucerian genius for entering another consciousness to divine the energies that keep it going. Indeed, because it seems impossible to dissociate the story from the unforgettably flat yet pushy voice of Mr Humphrey, who so imperturbably equates insensibility with ‘sense’ and ‘having your head screwed on’, it’s both surprising and instructive to learn from Midnight Oil that Pritchett struggled for a while with a third-person narrative, and worried that his drafts ‘suffered from the vice of exposition or explanation’. This problem was only resolved by realising that ‘my task was to make him tell his fantastic tale as flatly and meanly as possible, and to see his life through his eyes alone.’ The story still had to be worked out, of course, and here one might contrast Pritchett’s achievement with that of Joyce Cary, who had the genius for inhabiting another mind but tended to a dissipating episodic prolixity. The episodes in ‘Sense of Humour’ have a marvellous economy and fluidity; as often in Pritchett, they are partly held together by an unobtrusive, deftly developed conceit – in this case, the variations worked on the idea of Colin’s ‘following’. The story begins with the meeting between Mr Humphrey and the girl, who had been Colin’s girl. They go out together, with Colin ‘following’. They visit Mr Humphrey’s parents, make their unemotional decision to marry, and learn that Colin has been killed while following them. The girl’s grief releases Mr Humphrey’s sexuality (‘I’d never thought of her in that way, in what you might call the “Colin” way’). Finally, the three all travel together in a hearse (or marriage hearse) with the coffined Colin in the rear – ‘following’.
The story suggests why Pritchett has more than once objected to the view that he specialises in ‘eccentrics’. In his extreme way Mr Humphrey is devastatingly normal, as appears when we notice how the responses of his girl, and of his undertaker father, have more in common with his own than with those of the doomed Colin. Debating whether to travel in the hearse, the girl reflects: ‘Colin loved me. It is my duty to him. Besides, I’ve never been in a hearse before.’ The father adds: ‘And it will save her fare too.’ To miss what is, or was by then, ‘very native English’ in Mr Humphrey is to ignore the evidence that, as Pritchett puts it, ‘England was packed with people like him and his rootless friends,’ who carried ‘inside them something of the personal anarchy of unsettled modern life’ and represented the ‘vulgar push and self-interest that was changing the nature of English society’. But those comments occur in Midnight Oil: Pritchett is too finely scrupulous an artist to blur his story’s sharp focus with authorial interpolations – and he also relishes the vitality, however compromised, of the effective ‘push’.
‘What extraordinary changes in society, manners, speech, ways of living, I have lived through,’ he reflects in his preface to that book: ‘each decade has changed them. To live is to be out of date.’ ‘Tea with Mrs Bittell’ chronicles the relationship between a rich, lonely old lady and a young homosexual shop assistant; like other recent stories with elderly protagonists, it also quietly charts collisions of period and class, and shows a keen, wry sense of the displacements worked by social change and old age. Sidney’s understanding is as limited as his vocabulary, which is a small, painfully unreliable work-force, fit for few jobs; Mrs Bittell’s head is ‘clouded by kindness and manners and a pride in her relics’. Each intermittently drifts into, and out of, the other’s limited comprehension, so that the story is peppered with sad, bruised ironies even as it celebrates their dim, inarticulate advances – as when Sidney’s weeping over his lost love gives Mrs Bittell an obscure, fleeting intuition into her almost forgotten husband’s secret predilections. Examining her valuable possessions, Sidney wishes that Rupert, his love, were ‘here now, he’d have valued everything.’ Of course ‘valued’ is the wrong word, since Sidney is acknowledging Rupert’s ability to ‘see into pictures’: yet the confusion between aesthetic and financial appraisal is right too, since Rupert is a thief. After one of her flurries of inchoate panic Mrs Bittell ‘closed her papery eyelids and prayed and pleasantly dropped off in the middle of the prayer’. ‘Papery’ is a lovely descriptive detail in any case, but here it follows a glimpse into the way in which her obscure fears are fed by ‘things she had read in the papers’.
Here and elsewhere, scattered felicities of incisive, vivid detail are quietly but tellingly anchored to a particular character, setting or situation. A Dickensian aperçu like ‘She would walk along with a cough, like someone driving tacks’ is brilliant and memorable in itself. But its placing, in ‘When my girl comes home’, gives it a remarkable density of suggestion: the woman so observed is ‘a poor, decent ghost with sewing bundles’, whose ‘mother’s faith’ is being lauded by other characters in ‘war-staled voices’. The tacks metaphor is both poignant and astringent, modifying our response to the sentimental expression of communal and maternal solidarity, and hinting at the precariousness of Mrs Johnson’s chief strategy for survival – not her sewing, but the ‘faith’ which holds (or tacks) her together. That prepares for the next observation: ‘Her faith gave her a bright, yet also a sly, dishonest look.’ In ‘The Sailor’ the exhilaratingly sharp observation that the exhausted sailor’s ‘face was the familiar pale suety agony’ achieves a similar density and comitragic intensity, conveying the man’s grotesque stodgy misery while recalling the menus he favours in his capacity as cook. In neither case is the metaphor a detachable embellishment, or something that might call attention to the author’s brilliance or sensitivity. Even in his autobiographies, Pritchett prefers Erkenntnis to Bekenntnis, objective insight to subjective or confessional revelation.
In ‘The Wedding’ a farmer expresses his dislike of an anaemic, ‘foamy’ portrait of Mrs Jackson, commissioned by her former husband: ‘When I am buying an animal I want to see how it stands. I look at its bones.’ Her reply gives much away: ‘I am sure you do. But my husband was buying a work of art, not an animal.’ The undercurrents in their talk reveal her conflicting feelings: she is affronted by his blunt, accepting animality (‘Girls get excited by weddings. You saw the heifers’), but also responds to it as a strength into which she might relax. Pritchett’s ironies are perfectly pitched, with nothing underlined. He has also – it is perhaps his greatest strength – a wonderful instinct for the narrative viewpoint which will best reveal, and transform, a limited subject. In ‘You make your own life’ the black sex-farce of the barber’s story is set off by the incongruous saloon setting and the contrasting character of an irritably attentive, anonymous narrator. ‘Citizen’ is narrated by a shrewd, very vigorous and intelligent father who can never quite grasp the paralysing effect his strength has on his artistic daughter. In ‘Many are disappointed’ what might have been a merely pathetic sketch of a lonely woman’s disappointed sense that she regularly disappoints others is rendered from the callow (and disappointed) viewpoint of urban cyclists who mistake her teashop for a pub. The beautifully evoked, lonely setting is of course supplied by the author, but the concealed cycling reference in a description of ‘the strong white light which seemed to be thrown up by great reflectors from the hidden sea’ is typical of Pritchett’s exuberant wit. A control of narrative voice and perspective establishes such complex, rewarding relations between the seer and the seen as to be, in itself, a form of truth-telling. His earlier volume of Collected Stories appeared in 1956 and was also really a selection rather than a collection; it included 36 stories, of which Penguin reprinted 21 in The Saint and Other Stories in 1966. In this new collection there is little reduplication: eight stories from the earlier collection, and 21 others. Pritchett’s stories are perhaps still not as widely known as they should be, and the art of the short story is not much discussed, save by practitioners: but this rich collection provides the best kind of evidence for Pritchett’s claim that the short story is ‘the glancing form of fiction that seems to be right for the nervousness and restlessness of contemporary life.’