In the latest issue:

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

Anglo-America Loses its Grip

Pankaj Mishra

Short Cuts: John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas

Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe

Tippett’s Knack

Philip Clark

At Tate Modern: Steve McQueen

Colin Grant

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill

The ‘Batrachomyomachia’

Ange Mlinko

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs

Paid to Race

Jon Day

Poem: ‘Traveller’s Tales: Chapter 90’

August Kleinzahler

The Soho Alphabet

Andrew O’Hagan

Old Tunes

Stephen Sedley

Victor Serge’s Defective Bolshevism

Tariq Ali

The Murdrous Machiavel

Erin Maglaque

Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

Life at the Pastry BoardStefan Collini
Vol. 26 No. 21 · 4 November 2004

Life at the Pastry Board

Stefan Collini

5774 words
V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life 
by Jeremy Treglown.
Chatto, 308 pp., £25, October 2004, 9780701173227
Show More
Show More

It was all done with a pastry board and a bulldog clip. Sheets of paper were clipped to the board, the board rested on the arms of his chair and the fountain-pen began to cover the pages with a scrawl that barely hinted at intimations of legibility. Every day was much the same, weekday or weekend: a long morning at the board, lunch, a nap, errands, tea and then back to the board; a drink or two before dinner, perhaps some more reading after dinner, and then early to bed in preparation for another day of turning the doughy ball of thought into light, crisp sentences. The secret of happiness, it has been said, is to develop habits whose repetition we find enjoyable and whose outcomes we find satisfying. For the greater part of his very long adult life, Victor Sawdon Pritchett seems to have been a happy man.

Pritchett’s son, Oliver, later recalled that he and his sister grew up ‘in a word factory’. ‘The handwritten pages, covered in revisions, crossings out, second and third thoughts, and sideways writing in the margins, were given to my mother to type. They would be revised and typed again and again.’ Transposing the usual location of domestic equipment, the Pritchetts lived out an Upstairs, Downstairs version of the literary life: he, upstairs, rolling out the sentences on the pastry board; she, downstairs, pounding, turning the scrawl into copy for the printers, stopping only to prepare the traditional cooked lunch and substantial dinner that marked the end of the day’s two shifts.

‘Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.’ This is Pritchett, writing on Gibbon in 1941, in the piece that now stands at the head of his 1300-page Collected Essays. He didn’t really mean that it was depressing, of course: that’s just the note of twinkly-eyed collusion with his readers’ all-too-human weaknesses that graces so many of his essays. Beneath the surface, a more strenuous moral is silently making itself felt, a reminder to keep himself up to the mark. The last essay in that volume, on Virginia Woolf, written more than forty years later, observes almost as an aside: ‘She worked harder than ever when she became famous, as gifted writers do – what else is there to do but write?’ That rhetorical question may on first reading seem to strike a bleak note, as though all else had lost its savour, but in context it gestures towards an inner imperative, that achieved condition of the writer, whether critic or novelist, in which experience is not fully possessed until it has been cropped, shaped and coloured. Pritchett wrote so well about authors as different as Gibbon and Woolf in part because he, too, knew the compulsions and desperations of the writer’s life.

The credit for noticing the neat way in which these two remarks frame the collection of Pritchett’s essays belongs to Jeremy Treglown. In a move that exemplifies the imaginative sympathy informing this acute and shapely biography, Treglown juxtaposes the observation with a remark from one of Pritchett’s letters to his friend Gerald Brenan. ‘Pritchett knew that the virtues of industry could be illusory, especially for someone from his kind of background. "I realise what escapists we who rely on our own efforts are,” he told Brenan. "Any effort, to us, is valid just because it is an effort.”’ The reach of this particular use of the first-person plural is interestingly hard to determine: addressed to Brenan, it may at first seem to embrace those who live by their pen, but questions of class are never far away in Pritchett’s understanding of his own trajectory, suggesting that the pronoun mainly picks out those who have made their own way in the world without the leg-up which in one form or another the comfortable classes provide for their offspring. The snares associated with the habit of hard work seem to have preoccupied Pritchett, for he returned to them in the second of his two volumes of autobiography, Midnight Oil, published in 1971, where he writes: ‘There is always the danger that people who work hard become blinded by work itself and, by a paradox, lazy-minded.’ The knowingness of the remark claims exemption for its author from his own generalisation, while at the same time hinting that he has himself come close to this state. For all his Stakhanovite habits, Pritchett worked hard at not being merely hardworking.

All this makes Treglown’s subtitle doubly apt: this biography is principally the story of Pritchett’s career, but his life was, even by the standards of professional writers, unremittingly a life of work. Yet this may only bring into sharper relief the problem faced by the biographer of almost any writer: the activity whose products prompt posterity to take an interest in their creator is, by its nature, uneventful and largely unrecorded, perhaps unrecordable. Literary biography is mostly the story of what a writer did when he or she was not writing. Pritchett touched on this in his characteristically metaphorical way in Midnight Oil: ‘For 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. There is a time when he is all valet looking for a master, i.e. the writer he is hopefully pursuing.’ Pritchett was thinking here of his much younger self, who set off for Paris with a patchy, truncated education and a series of unsatisfying jobs behind him and an intense, but still vague and wholly unrealised, aspiration to become ‘a writer’ in front of him. ‘When, at 20, I got out of the train in the early spring of 1921 at the Gare du Nord, I was all valet.’ As he demonstrated in that book and its predecessor, A Cab at the Door (1968), the memoir of the valet can be full of incident: he travels, has adventures, takes on bizarre jobs, falls in love, faces penury and so on. Once the master is firmly in the saddle, however, there is less to report; there may be some record of who the valet had dinner with and even some of what was said, but the record of what happened during the long hours at the pastry board the next morning requires forms of attention more characteristic of the literary critic than the biographer.

It is one of the many merits of this biography that it contains a good deal of unobtrusive literary criticism. We are all too familiar with the clunking literary biography which recounts, in tedious detail, a series of travels, parties and affairs, merely pausing, when the date of publication of the various works is reached, for a synoptic content-summary of the item in question, often treated as so much decodable biographical evidence. Treglown departs from this dispiriting model in several ways, while still fulfilling the biographer’s contract, and one of the most welcome of these departures is his critical alertness to Pritchett’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. No less welcome is the book’s comparative brevity, when seen alongside those great biographical pantechnicons that deliver every remaining stick of evidence no matter how trivial. And it seems right, after all, that a biography of Pritchett, acknowledged master of both the short story and the brief literary essay, should not be too long: Treglown gets through the almost 97 years in just 250 pages without any sense of unseemly compression. His subject would surely have approved.

In this respect, the huge volume of Collected Essays, along with its companion The Complete Short Stories, both published at the beginning of the 1990s, cannot help but give an inappropriate impression of monumentality, though neither compilation comes anywhere near to completeness. In practice, it is no easy task to compute the total of Pritchett’s writing, and there seems to be no published bibliography. At a rough count of the books, and allowing for some duplication even while excluding ‘collecteds’ and ‘selecteds’ which reprint material already reprinted, there were five novels, at least ten books of stories, two volumes of memoirs, six travel books of various kinds, three literary biographies and nine collections of essays and general literary criticism. Say, 35 books spread over 60 years. But books were, if not exactly the icing on the cake, then the big display-pieces of patisserie: most of his output can now only be tracked down in old periodicals and newspapers, where the browsing researcher, struck by a phrase or simile, glances to the end of the article or review and finds the once familiar set of initials: ‘VSP’. Treglown, with proprietorial pride, claims that ‘in his time’ Pritchett was ‘the most influential man of letters in the English-speaking world’. That may be right – such claims are inherently unverifiable – though we would need to remember that his time coincided roughly with that of American candidates such as Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, and special allowance might have to be made for the senses in which Cyril Connolly was ‘influential’ or George Orwell a ‘man of letters’. But I would be surprised if any serious contender for that title between about 1930 and 1980 were more prolific than VSP.

Gore Vidal, always a master of understated hyperbole, praised Pritchett’s criticism by saying ‘it would be nice if Sir Victor lived for ever.’ Pritchett did his best: he was born in 1900, when Victoria was still queen, and he died little more than a month before Tony Blair became prime minister.

Pritchett’s family bumped along on that uneasy late Victorian border between the respectable artisans and the aspiring lower middle class. His father, a man with a limitless capacity for financial disaster, belonged to the Wellsian world of suburban shopkeepers and small businessmen. The ‘cab at the door’ in the title of the first volume of Pritchett’s autobiography bespeaks not comfortable gentility, but the dawn flit to a new address to escape the bailiffs. Pritchett’s father dominated not just his son’s childhood (and his later account of it), but his literary imagination for years to come: the eponymous hero in Mr Beluncle, Pritchett’s last and best-known novel, published in 1951, is largely a portrait of this extravagant, demanding, pathetically unrealistic man, whose life was increasingly subjugated to the teachings of Mrs Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and the guiding messages which ‘the Divine Mind’ sent him at the numerous crises of his affairs. Pritchett’s mother, from still humbler origins (the Sawdons, he later recorded, didn’t have ‘an aitch to their name’), suffered, complained and was loyal. At various points in this rackety upbringing Victor caught snatches of education, including a brief spell at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, but money, or the lack of it, determined that he had to leave at 16 and start earning. He worked as a clerk in the leather trade near Bermondsey docks, read Ruskin and other staples of the self-improver, and fantasised about girls. The ambition to be a writer was growing, however, and taking the train to Paris that spring day in 1921 was his bid for freedom.

Not surprisingly, Pritchett is a frequently quoted witness in Jonathan Rose’s recent book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, in part because he was so eloquent about his sense of being educationally deprived. Like other autodidacts of his time (few of them, including Pritchett, entirely self-taught), his reading was dominated by the established canon of classics and the middlebrow writers of the previous generation, such as George du Maurier and Hilaire Belloc. ‘All my tastes were conventionally Victorian,’ he despairingly recognised, ‘I seemed irredeemably backward and lower class.’ He knew nothing of the Modernist revolution taking place all around him in early 1920s Paris, and he records that later, when he came across the work of figures such as Tristan Tzara, ‘I was angry because he was smashing up a culture just as I was becoming acquainted with it.’

The 1920s were a difficult but exciting time for the would-be author: a series of absurd jobs in Paris, work as a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor (through his father’s connections), extensive travel in Ireland and Spain, an unhappy first marriage, and the usual accumulation of rejection slips. But by the end of the decade things were looking up: his first book, based on his travels in Spain, came out in 1928, his first novel, Clare Drummer, in 1929, his first volume of stories in 1930, while he performed the usual corvée of reviewing new fiction for a variety of periodicals. In 1936 he remarried, this time happily and lastingly, and his life began to settle into its productive routine. His first real critical success came with the publication in 1937 of his subsequently much anthologised short story ‘Sense of Humour’. By then he was reviewing regularly for the New Statesman, going on to become that paper’s star critic, in some years contributing over half its main literary articles, and eventually a director.

He later joked that it was the Second World War which turned him from a reviewer into a critic. New books were scarce, so Raymond Mortimer, the Statesman’s literary editor, set Pritchett to filling the ‘Books in General’ slot with essays on classic authors, French and Russian as well as English. Perhaps we tend now to romanticise the circumstances in which these essays were originally read, imagining people crouched in bomb shelters, or travelling in ill-lit trains, or receiving slightly tattered out-of-date copies on foreign postings, but some of these pieces still seem marvellous examples of the genre – engaging without being chatty, informative without being didactic, creating the winning pretence that reader and critic are sharing their pleasure in familiar authors.

In the years after 1945, Pritchett developed into an established literary figure on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming a regular reviewer as well as fiction writer for the New Yorker, and, from its founding in 1963, contributing more than a hundred substantial pieces to the New York Review of Books. He was also invited to take up several visiting appointments on American campuses. All this made him prosperous. Treglown describes the life it bought at the beginning of the 1950s: ‘The couple banked at Coutts, ate in good restaurants when they were in town and went to Harley Street when they needed medical treatment. Dorothy dressed well. Victor had his club, the Savile. Both children were soon sent to boarding-schools.’ Given his humble beginnings, VSP was understandably proud of his success, particularly that, once settled to his task, he was able to support himself and his family entirely on the proceeds of his writing. He relished recognition and honours of a more symbolic kind, too: he was made a CBE in 1968, a knight in 1975, a companion of honour in 1993. For the last couple of decades of his life, he was indisputably the Grand Old Man of Letters.

Since for the last sixty or seventy years of his life Pritchett didn’t do much of public consequence except write, the focus of his biography, once we get beyond his childhood and Wanderjahre, is bound to be, first, on his domestic and emotional life and, second, on his career as a writer. Accounts of the later Pritchett always emphasise his close, passionate marriage and his happy home life. Without coming at all close to prurience or sensationalism, Treglown profits from his access to letters and diaries to paint a more complex, even troubling, portrait.

At the age of 23, Pritchett married Evelyn Vigors, the daughter of an Anglo-Irish military family, apparently as much drawn by the charms of exoticism and social class as by sexual attraction. To Pritchett, as Treglown drily notes, ‘Evelyn represented everything that wasn’t Bromley’ (where his parents had been living for some time, in one of the longer settlements of their peripatetic life). After a few years, the marriage drifted into sexless unhappiness, and they divorced in the early 1930s. By then he had met Dorothy Roberts, 14 years his junior, and with her he found passionate love and sexual fulfilment. It was the beginning of a very long marriage (she outlived him), but it was also for her the beginning of her job in the word-factory. Pritchett had more than his share of the necessary egoism of the writer, and perhaps never quite acknowledged the toll on his wife of the inequality in their lives and the amount of unpaid, subordinate labour she contributed. In the 1940s and 1950s she was often left alone with the children in their house in the country while Pritchett went up to town, perhaps to the offices of the New Statesman, perhaps to his club or to a literary dinner. When he was at home, one of her chief tasks was to ensure that he wasn’t disturbed while he was working, which was most of the time. Even when he discovered, rather belatedly, that his wife had become an alcoholic, Pritchett seemed only to half-recognise the part he had played in bringing this about. After the usual deceptions and defeats, Dorothy managed to kick the habit, and thereafter her teetotalism doesn’t seem to have detracted too much from the jollity of their social life, which became much more active and shared once they moved to Regent’s Park Terrace in North London in 1956. But, as his children recognised more readily than Pritchett himself, there were several years during which they were a dysfunctional family. Pritchett’s friend Al Alvarez said of him that ‘he was addicted to writing like some people are to the bottle,’ but Pritchett never seems to have grasped the dialectical relationship between these two forms of addiction in his own household.

At one point, Treglown observes that Pritchett was ‘always a traditionalist in matters of gender’. Well, yes, in much the same way as we might be tempted to say that Queen Victoria was always a traditionalist in matters of oral sex. He just didn’t see that there was anything to say on the subject, at least not in his own case. It is surely not just the sensitivity of a later age that makes us wince at some of what he seemed to take for granted. For example, at the height of Dorothy’s alcoholism (obviously a difficult time for him as for her), he wrote to her saying: ‘I hate to see your beauty being wasted in this ugliness, and my talents too. I have a responsibility to my gifts and you to your grace and attraction as a woman.’ This might be thought to be carrying ‘traditionalism in matters of gender’ a little far.

It is less of a surprise to discover that even this famously happy marriage had to cope with the strains of both partners’ extra-marital affairs. While lecturing at Princeton in 1953, Pritchett began an affair with Barbara Kerr, a capable, vivacious American a dozen years younger than him. By his own confession, he enjoyed being in love (who doesn’t?) and threw himself into the affair, which lasted intermittently, on both sides of the Atlantic, for several years. But as his life with Dorothy regained its equilibrium, Barbara came to represent a dangerously destabilising force. Perhaps the endings of affairs are bound to produce unforgivable remarks, but for that reason it may be all the wiser to avoid committing them to paper. In December 1960, after they had not seen each other for some time, Kerr wrote from New York to ask if Pritchett would be visiting the States soon and if so whether they might get together, perhaps with Dorothy. Pritchett’s reply is fairly brutal (it wasn’t all that long since he had discussed the possibility of marriage with Kerr). ‘I have no notion of coming to New York,’ it concluded, ‘and, of course (if you will reflect upon it for a moment) you will understand that it is impossible that you should meet Dorothy and me there or anywhere ever. I have no news that you would understand. Love from Victor.’ I’m sure Treglown is right to quote this letter, but I can’t help wishing that it hadn’t survived, if it had to have been written in the first place. (Treglown also records that over forty years later, and five years after Pritchett’s death, Kerr’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled it.) Actually, despite this appalling rebuff, Kerr must have persisted, or Pritchett relented, as their relationship briefly renewed itself three years later, when he was 62. In a notebook in the early days of the affair he had written: ‘It came into my head this morning that the successful, happy adultery is not now often described.’

The other central theme, Pritchett’s career as a professional writer, raises no such troubling issues, though there are some interesting questions about its historical specificity. The preface to the selection of his essays published in 1985 under the title A Man of Letters contained a credo that became well known:

If, as they say, I am a Man of Letters, I come, like my fellows, at the tail-end of a long and once esteemed tradition in English and American writing. We have no captive audience. We do not teach. We are rarely academics, though we owe a great debt to scholars. We earn our bread and butter by writing for the periodicals that have survived. If we have one foot in Grub Street we write to be readable and to engage the interest of what Virginia Woolf called ‘the common reader’. We do not lay down the law, but we do make a stand for the reflective values of a humane culture. We care for the printed word in a world that nowadays is dominated by the camera and by scientific, technological and sociological doctrine.

I’m not sure this is one of the best examples of Pritchett’s prose: the clauses about Grub Street seem unbalanced and the last sentence tries to run together things that are too disparate. The pathos of being the last of a line may have had an obvious appeal for an 84-year-old, but a couple of decades later we can still ask whether he was right about being the ‘tail-end’ of this tradition, and if so what were the causes of this profession’s extinction.

The economics of the literary life is an endlessly fascinating subject, especially to writers, yet it is notoriously difficult to make comparisons between the conditions of authorship in different periods. The mere sums earned tell us very little abstracted from the realities of comparative purchasing power and associated questions of social status. Clearly, before postwar growth reshaped expectations for the bulk of the population, a reasonably successful literary journalist could live conspicuously well. At the end of the 1930s, when the Pritchetts’ prosperity was only just beginning, they rented a large and handsome house in the Berkshire countryside for £1 a week; the long agricultural depression had led to low prices and many of the neighbouring rural labourers would have been on wages of not more than £80 a year. The hunger for reading matter widely remarked as a feature of the 1940s was good news for a productive author at the peak of his powers. For example, the second collection of Pritchett’s literary essays, The Living Novel, published in 1946, earned him £650 within the year (roughly £20,000 at today’s values), and that was in addition to the fees for their first periodical publication and any subsequent reprinting. By the mid-1940s he was receiving a retainer from the New Statesman as well as being paid for individual pieces, and Treglown records that Pritchett earned £1500 a year from that paper alone (over £40,000 at today’s values). In the 1940s and 1950s, his stories paid several times over, sold to magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, reprinted, anthologised, issued in book club editions and so on. In 1951, Mr Beluncle was a commercial as well as critical hit, quickly earning out its advance and then some. Buoyed by this success, the Pritchetts moved to an even grander house in the country in 1952.

But we also catch glimpses of how uncertain, even precarious, this prosperity could be, despite long hours at the pastry board. Nostalgists may be sobered to discover that even Pritchett could get into financial difficulties in the late 1950s, when he needed to repay the loan from the New Statesman that had enabled him to buy his house in Regent’s Park Terrace. Some timely American commissions helped him out of this, but as Treglown observes, ‘the experience was a harsh reminder of the realities of freelance life.’ Thereafter, he undertook an increasing amount of work for Holiday, a glossy American travel magazine that paid handsomely as well as subsidising much of the Pritchetts’ holidaying in later life. The books he made out of these commissions did not win universal acclaim.

The most telling evidence this biography contains about the fate of the tradition to which Pritchett assigned himself concerns his increasing reliance on the American market. Recent biographies of other British writers suggest how widespread this dependence became after 1945. For at least three decades after the war, a particular cachet seems to have attached to British writers and academics in liberal circles in the US, and the fees they could earn constituted a kind of cultural equivalent of the Marshall Plan, quite apart from that curious literary form of transhumance involved in spending a semester as a Distinguished Visiting Professor on an American campus. The Man of Letters may have ceased to be sustained by the British ‘common reader’ alone a good deal earlier than Pritchett allowed. By the 1960s, Pritchett himself, we learn, ‘made significantly more of his income in the USA than in Britain’.

Pritchett is known, above all, as a writer of short stories, a form that suited his inclination to the episodic rather than the architectonic. This has led him to be described as ‘the English Chekhov’, but maybe he has to be thought of as a Chekhov who had absorbed Hemingway and looked forward to Pinter. That’s not such an improbable or indigestible mix as it may at first seem. His stories are, of course, more domestic and less action-driven than Hemingway’s, but there is something similar in the use of a deliberately spare prose to carry an occasionally too heavy symbolist burden. Abstinence from any accompanying authorial commentary threatens to become a mannerism in itself. Still, no one could dispute that Pritchett had a wonderful ear for the baffling yet betraying inconsequentialities of actual speech, and if there is not usually any of the Pinterian menace, there is a fractured, banally proverbial quality to much of his dialogue which is more than just Elizabeth Bowen in demotic.

I would like to be able to say, in the approved manner, that this biography has led me to ‘reread’ a good deal of Pritchett, but I have to confess that I have largely been reading him for the first time, culpably so in the case of the two memoirs and the selections of literary essays. Though not quite sharing the common admiration for the autobiographies, I have been struck by how good a critical essayist he could be at his best. His preferred mode was the general characterisation rather than the minute examination of the texture of the writing, a kind of literary portraiture that was carried by his own energy and richly metaphorical sensibility. One of his best-known set pieces in this vein must be his obituary tribute to Orwell as ‘the wintry conscience of a generation’ who ‘had "gone native” in his own country’, but we can see him achieving a somewhat similar effect by different means in his salute to E.M. Forster on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1962. Other, louder, writers may have tried to ‘impose themselves’, Pritchett writes, whereas ‘Forster has interposed and influenced by a misleading slackness, by the refusal to speak in a public voice. This has given the personal a startling strength.’

These examples are taken from the literary equivalents of state occasions. For an instance of what he could do in more everyday critical circumstances, consider his meditation on Arnold Bennett’s unyielding realism:

He catches the intolerable passing of time in our lives, a passing which blurs our distinctiveness and quietly establishes our anonymity; until our final impression of him is as a kind of estate agent’s valuer walking with perfunctory step through the rooms of our lives, ticking his inventory and treating us as if we were long deceased. He cannot begin – and I think this is his inheritance from the French naturalists – until we are dead, until we and our furniture have become indistinguishable evidence. I find this very restful.

Writing about a passage in Bennett’s Clayhanger in which Hilda Lessways is facing ruin, he asks rhetorically: ‘How do people face ruin? Variously, unexpectedly; they traipse, protected by conviction, through their melodramas.’ This may seem casual to the point of off-handedness, but ‘traipse’ wonderfully suggests the prosaic, straggling, unnoticing way people get through the catastrophes of their lives.

Pritchett described himself as ‘travelling in literature’. He did this in several senses, most obviously reading as one who explores the geography of other writers’ imaginations, but it is not fanciful to think of him in the guise of the commercial traveller who crops up more than once in his stories, laying out his samples every week, pointing to the best features of each new ‘line’. His range of goods was astonishing, embracing all the high (and some of the not-so-high) peaks of European as well as English and American literature from at least the 18th century onwards, reaching out to García Márquez and Machado de Assis and on to The Tale of Genji, and saluting new talent such as Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. His own reflection on the extent of his literary travels was characteristic: ‘I am appalled by the amount I have read.’

His two volumes of autobiography were among the most popular and successful of his books, especially A Cab at the Door, above all for its portrait of his father – Micawberish chancer, Kippsian shopman, Christian Science gull. The zest and comedy are appealing, but at times the effects can seem a little contrived. His childhood is presented as taking place in a theatre of freaks and caricatured social types, the action a sequence of mishaps and ludicrousnesses, narrated with a chirpy, one might almost say Cockney, bounciness and a wilful lack of connecting causality. The abrupt transitions and improbable juxtapositions seem intended to convey the mad, Dickensian-grotesque atmosphere in which he grew up and to heighten the comic effect, but they become a tic. The writing intimates that the world is a rum go yet full of interest. As it moves on it starts to suggest that if the world weren’t so rum it wouldn’t be so interesting, and this begins to slide imperceptibly into needing to make it rum in order to make it interesting.

At one point in Midnight Oil, Pritchett claims to have seen a reference to himself on a list kept by a BBC producer before the Second World War, where he was crisply pigeonholed as an ‘embittered, left-wing intellectual’. This seems wrong on all counts. Pritchett never strikes one as embittered: he found the detail of the human comedy fascinating and diverting, and was for the most part rather pleased with life for having treated him generously. Nor was he an ‘intellectual’ in the now dominant sense of that term: he played no public role, offered no direct commentary on the events and trends of the day, and did not try to shape opinion on non-literary matters. There must even be a question about how far he was, or remained, ‘left-wing’, despite his long and close association with the New Statesman. His writing evinces an instinctive sympathy with the underdog and the downtrodden, it’s true, but he tends to treat them as victims of a series of individual bad-luck stories rather than the outcome of structural patterns. Treglown remarks, in relation to an early article about Spain, that it was ‘one of many in which Pritchett’s pessimism comes close to conservatism’, which may be right, though neither element ever took on the pretensions of a full-blown ‘ism’. He could write appealingly of ‘the usual blindness to character endemic in the politically minded’, but he could sometimes display that blindness to politics endemic in those minded to make character the measure of all things. By the 1950s and 1960s there is a bit of grumbling about socialism, as he interprets his experience of the increasing democratisation of society and cultural life as a decline of standards brought on by ideology. But he did not go on to elaborate any general critique; he wasn’t much drawn to general ideas of any kind. Deep down, he seems to have had something of the ‘Tory anarchist’ temperament that expects most human enterprises to turn into fuck-ups sooner or later, and does not altogether regret it. As he confessed in another context: ‘I must say I enjoy things going wrong.’

‘Enjoy’ and ‘enjoyment’ are terms that occur with a much more than average frequency in Pritchett’s prose, especially the overtly autobiographical writing. He is good about appetites, about what gives pleasure, but also about the sources of happiness, and maybe he found these things less far apart than traditional moralists would have them. He wrote as a man who enjoyed life, in the sense of finding it stimulating and interesting, but also as one who ‘enjoyed life’ in the sense of someone ‘enjoying good health’ – possessing it, being blessed with it, flourishing in it over a long period. As Treglown shows, more shadows had fallen across this life than the later Pritchett always acknowledged – perhaps more shadows than he had ever quite been aware of. But at the close, enjoyment remains the dominant note: Pritchett’s continuing enjoyment of human pathos and foible; his concern, in both his criticism and his fiction, with the reader’s enjoyment; and his own enjoyment of the life of a successful writer. He knew what he was about, in every sense, when he wrote the final sentence of Midnight Oil: ‘I have done, given my circumstances and my character, what I have been able to do and I have enjoyed it.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences