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.
The portrait of Pritchett’s father Walter in the autobiographical volumes A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil shows his powers at full stretch. Walter Pritchett, as seen by his eldest son, was a figure of Micawberian optimism, opening a newsagent and stationer’s shop in the Ipswich area at the age of 22 without knowing the trade or having any capital, and to his astonishment finding himself after a few months ‘penniless and pursued’. For the most part, the optimistic Yorkshireman managed to be a step in front of his pursuers, moving from Ipswich to Derby, thence to Palmers Green, Balham, Uxbridge, Acton, Ealing, Hammersmith, Camberwell, Ipswich again ... the list is not exhaustive. Trailing in his wake came a South London working-class wife, and in due course four children. By the time Victor was 12, his mother said they had made 14 moves, re-counted and made it 18. And Walter Pritchett operated on a more than Micawberian scale. His practical defeats were all emotional victories, he emerged from every failed enterprise more consciously virtuous than when he entered it. In good time (but for him all times were good), he became the owner of a London factory making and selling what were then called fancy goods, embroidery-worked tea-cloths, silk handbags, scented sachets, pretty tea cosies. It is no surprise to learn that he became a Christian Scientist, burned his son’s copies of Magnet and Gem (‘You have a father who has his own business and you spend right and left on muck like this’), or that in 1936 he went bankrupt. Walter Pritchett had his moments of shrewdness. When bankruptcy became unavoidable he asked a Christian Scientist legal friend to wind up the firm, and then refused to pay him on the ground that they held the same beliefs. In his latter days he attributed everything to the Divine Will.
The activities of this marvel or monster of self-deception are recalled by his son with a flat literalness more effective than moral indignation or satiric exposure could ever have been. ‘He left us all his egotism, as our mother left us her racing tongue’ is the final word delivered, not by the valet, but by the writer who lives, as the last line of A Cab at The Door tells us, always on the other side of a frontier. Walter Pritchett emerges as the greatest of his son’s many comic characters, almost inevitably the model or part-model for dozens of people in the stories who deceive others but have to begin by deceiving themselves. He is the eponymous central figure of the novel Mr Beluncle, and the short story ‘A Fly in the Ointment’ is a conversation between father and son at the moment of the father’s bankruptcy. The novel is characteristically exuberant, the short story’s ending neatly reveals the father’s hypocrisy, but neither quite does Walter Pritchett justice.
His son, a failure at examinations, spent the years from 16 to 20 working in a Bermondsey leather factory, starting at 12s 6d a week and rising by six shillings, before cutting loose from family and steady job on a month’s visit to Paris which lasted two years and was followed by lengthy stays in Ireland and Spain. He maintained himself precariously by working for the Christian Science Monitor and writing freelance pieces about cities visited, things seen. He became an almost nomadic traveller and his first book, Marching Spain (1928), is an account of a walk through Spain. Pritchett later deprecated the ‘exhibitionist prose’ of the opening chapter and the ‘baroque writing’ of the rest. The book has the vigour he modestly claims as its only virtue, but what one notices particularly is the razor-sharp eye for revealing character through the details of appearance. A red-necked man seen in the train has a smooth red face and ‘in his square head, under a slight steam of yellow eyebrow, were eyes as shrewd as two pips ... He looked as though he had never been out of a job, an indispensable man putting money by every week.’ A man seen at Vigo has ‘three separate globes of chin, pending below an ever open mouth ... he wore on a monumental nose a pair of pince-nez with a black ribbon to them.’ The full description occupies a long paragraph and is a touch overwritten but remains remarkable, and Marching Spain is an observant and enjoyable book.
The years of self-imposed exile notwithstanding, Pritchett was from the start an intensely English writer. The short stories are mostly peopled by the working-class and lower-middle-class people remembered from his youth, and their typical settings are pubs, barber shops and the small red-brick villas of the suburbs. They come from the same stratum as those in Wells’s early and best novels, but where Wells plays them down to emphasise ordinariness, Pritchett plays them up and stresses oddity. But it is the oddity of commonplace people, and he says fairly that reviewers misread him when they say he is interested in ‘characters’. Instead he aims to expose ‘the illusions or received ideas by which they live or protect their dignity’.
‘Sense of Humour’, the first story in the present collection and ‘the first story of mine to make a stir’, is typical in the terseness of the dialogue, its rejection of easy smartness, and the indirection of the characterisation. The technique is masterly. The narrator, a commercial traveller, is a portrait again in debt to Walter Pritchett, who was at one time what he no doubt called a knight of the road. He chats up a girl working in a hotel, takes her out in his car. Her boyfriend is upset, follows them around on his motorbike, is killed in an accident. That is all. The story succeeds because so much is left unsaid, the tragedy of the boyfriend’s death emphasised by the narrator’s emotional imperceptiveness. No story is typical of Pritchett’s work and he really has no ‘periods’, the first stories from the Thirties printed here being similar except in superficial detail to those appearing in volume form last year. The dialogue remains spare, unshowy, understated, the visual quality is sharp as ever, and most of the people have no history and no need of it, for what we need to know about their ‘illusions or received ideas’ is contained or implied within the story.
A personal choice of the finest pieces would certainly include ‘Blind Love’, a tale of great intensity about the love-affair of a blind man and a woman with ‘a great spreading ragged liver-coloured island of skin’, a birthmark crossing one breast and ending in ‘a cradle of skin’ below it. The portrait of an ageing propagandist orator in ‘The Speech’, the competition of untruths in ‘The Liars’, the Pinterian anticipations of ‘The Sailor’, the ironies of ‘The Cage Birds’, the offbeat rowdy comedy of ‘The Key to My Heart’, make up an almost casual selection showing the great range of the work and the constant avoidance of easy snap endings. Almost nothing has been outside his spheres of interest except perhaps sport, which, professional or amateur, seems never to have engaged the interest of the valet who did the living. The Complete Short Stories (a misnomer, since the stories of the early The Spanish Virgin are omitted) confirms, if that were needed, his success in a time and country unreceptive to the short-story writer’s art.
None of the novels I have read can be called fully successful: his achievement is as story writer and critic. The tone and temper of his criticism, its basic pragmatism and refusal of theory, spring again from the self-education of his adolescence. (It is dismaying to find him using the ugly and unnecessary ‘autodidact’ for ‘self-educated’.) Such an upbringing means that you read what you like rather than what according to academic proprieties you should, and the reading is almost inevitably lopsided, full of false starts and misconceptions. But initial ignorance and lopsided learning can, and in this case did, encourage independent thought, a refusal to be bound by convention. It can also reveal the reader’s own individual strengths and weaknesses. Pritchett was quickly converted from poetry to prose, in which he found ‘the common experience and the solid worlds where judgments were made and in which one could firmly tread’. He would hardly claim the statement as absolutely true, but it was true for him. The ‘Books in General’ articles he wrote almost weekly over several years for the New Statesman dealt with novelists, travellers, biographers, very rarely poets. His limit was 2000 words, although this was exceeded when his fame grew.
The articles, especially those written for the New Statesman during the war, were produced under great pressure, the lengthy Clarissa read one week, Gil Blas, Lermontov or Benjamin Constant the next. The reading was done during this period on ‘slow trains packed with troops’, the writing between reports on the ‘war effort’ made to this or that ministry, and on occasion the self-educated man may have been reading a book or author for the first time. The result, as one reads pieces on Fielding and Richardson, Peacock and Cruikshank and Trollope, a slew of Americans and a galaxy of European stars from Balzac and George Sand to Turgenev and Musil, is to leave this reader at least stunned with admiration for the sympathy, originality and fresh turn of phrase constantly shown. Just as the short story is the ideal length for Pritchett as creative writer, so the longish review or essay on a single work suits him perfectly as critic. Given the length of a book, as in his volumes on Balzac and Chekhov, the reviewer-essayist seems at times to lose his way.
Confined to three thousand words or a little less, however, Pritchett is always an illuminating and resourceful guide, pointing out unsuspected beauties, surprising often with a telling and revealing phrase. He may provoke disagreement but he never bores. Sterne ‘constantly reckoned up how much he was going to feel before he felt it’; ‘the point about Jorrocks is that he is not a horse-lover but a fox-lover ... Jorrocks is as vulgar as Keats’; Trollope ‘grew worldliness like a second skin over the raw wounds of his youth’ and ‘longed merely for the normal’. The most recent collection, Lasting Impressions, covers as many subjects and countries as ever, from Humboldt and Malraux to Sholem Aleichem and Babel. He is excellent on the enigmatic element in Aleichem’s folk tales and his characteristically Jewish ‘skills of masking and ventriloquism’, and might be writing of his own stories when he says Babel worked and worked until he found the symbol that would turn mere anecdote into ‘five minutes of life’ – that is, the life of fiction. Occasionally he is uneasy, as in reviewing a biography of Orwell. No doubt Orwell’s political certainties were uncongenial to Pritchett’s agnosticism, and his own social realism made him find Orwell’s starry-eyed view of the working class deeply irritating. ‘He was “in life” and an intrepid pamphleteer’ – those final words, meant for praise, could hardly be less enthusiastic.
Such a failure of sympathy is rare. If V.S. Pritchett’s virtues as a critic are based in that background of self-education and in avoidance of any critical doctrine, they have been enormously enlarged by his intense curiosity about people and things, and the generosity of his mind. He leads readers into books and writers as no other critic of this century has done because he gives so often the sense of encountering them himself for the first time. He is the ideal critic for the reader who, as he says of himself, is ‘not a product of Eng Lit’. He has also said, ruthlessly, in relation to his creative writing: ‘I have talent, but no genius.’ It is true that his achievements are products of a rational mind rather than an instinctive sensibility, and that his finest effects have an air of calculation. He is Kevin Keegan and not George Best, or, in a comparison more meaningful to him, Maupassant rather than Chekhov. There are limitations of which he is well aware in being always on the other side of a frontier. Yet the achievements have been great. The only British short-story writers who have produced anything like a comparable body of work in this century are Kipling and Wells, and if, like everybody else, Pritchett cannot match the greatest Kipling stories, he exceeds them both in the richness and variety of his subjects, his unquenchable zest for the unexpected poetry of everyday life. The valet who did the living and the prosaic man at his desk have done each other proud.