In Memoriam: V.S. Pritchett

John Bayley

It’s often said that the short story today goes with poetry. But the trouble with bringing poetry in is not only that the ‘poetic’ is a bad thing in prose but that it implies a degree of consciousness and concentration which the very best stories don’t seem to have. William Gass rationally observed that the story ‘is a poem grafted onto a sturdier stock’ but Borges decreed that ‘unlike the novel, it may be essential.’ That has an ominous sound.

None of these suggestions seems to fit the way in which V.S. Pritchett wrote his novels and stories. Many are absolute masterpieces, no doubt about that: but the master who wrote them did not think his own process deserved any extended comment. Never had a great craftsman, and one who was universally admitted to be such, so unpretending a persona. Nothing in him needed to build himself up. There seem to be no stories about him, no legend, no special atmosphere or locality which an admirer can feel that he haunts. Everyone knows what ‘Chekhovian’ means, or has come to mean, but ‘Pritchettian’, or ‘Pritchett-like’? No, one cannot imagine that becoming part of the literary vocabulary. So was there a style, and what was it, and how did it succeed so well?

It is here that the idea of poetry, the poetry of the short story, does give the necessary clue: and yet it must be obtained without any suggestion of the poetic, which is what Pritchett contrived. Elizabeth Bowen sometimes obtained the same sort of effect by different means. In one of her stories a married woman and a younger man, who know in their heart of hearts that their affair will soon break up, have spent Sunday afternoon on a common in Metroland, and as they make for the bus-stop they see a photographer taking a picture of a girl across a pond. Elizabeth Bowen moves her ‘atmosphere’ briefly into that of the photograph’s ambience: the picture will be called ‘Autumn Evening’, and will appear in a professional magazine as an art study in mood, symbolising the sadness of ending, and romance and the time of year. This, too, is how the lovers have seen themselves, and how the real pathos of their relation is merged into the kind of plangent sadness they can cope with, and the reader can recognise.

The probable source of this particular effect is Dubliners, in which Pritchett had once found even more inspiration than had Elizabeth Bowen. Such settings-up of poetry must be meticulously done, though seeming casual. If too casual they become jarringly offhand, sometimes a feature of the Kingsley Amis technique: ‘He noticed that the various lights of the High Street were reflected on the wet pavements in not too bad a way at all.’ The complex effect aimed at here – this ‘he’ has sensibility which the reader will recognise as that of the author, who is quite capable of that sensibility even as he frames it and sends it up – draws so much attention to itself that it becomes portentous instead of light-handed. The masters of this kind of narrative draw no attention to it at all. In Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Dog’ the pair have met, found themselves making love, and then taken a cab along the sea-front and sat on a bench together in the dawn.

Yalta was barely visible through the dawn mist; white clouds hung motionless on the mountain peaks. Not a leaf stirred on the trees, cicadas chirped. Borne up from below, the sea’s monotonous muffled boom spoke of peace, of the everlasting sleep awaiting us. Before Yalta or Oreanda yet existed that surf had been thundering down there; it was roaring away now, and it will continue its dull booming with the same unconcern when we are no more. This persistence, this utter aloofness from all our lives and deaths ... do they perhaps hold the secret pledge of our eternal salvation, of life’s perpetual motion on earth, of its uninterrupted progress? As he sat there, lulled and entranced by the magic panorama – sea, mountains, clouds, broad sky – beside a young woman who looked so beautiful in the dawn, Gurov reflected that everything on earth is beautiful, really, when you consider it – everything except what we think and do ourselves when we forget the lofty goals of being, and our human dignity.

  Someone – a watchman no doubt – came up, looked at them, went away. Even this incident seemed mysterious – beautiful, too. In the dawn they saw a steamer arrive from Feodosia, its lights already extinguished.

 ‘There’s dew on the grass,’ Anne said after a pause.

 ‘Yes, time to go home.’

 They went back to town.

In the friendliness and anonymity of his best tales Pritchett is often just like this: the same style of uninsistent genius. His admirable study of Chekhov, and particularly of ‘The Lady with the Dog’, does not actually mention this passage: but one can feel his sense of it, and the meaning it had for him, not only throughout the book, which is eminently compressed and factual, but throughout the whole span of his own narrative art. What he learned from Chekhov was not in the least how to be ‘Chekhovian’, but something much more precise and at the same time invisible: the art of blending, as author, into the sensibility of his characters without seeming to distinguish between that sensibility and the writing itself; to glide imperceptibly in and out of another’s sensibility; and invariably to put the objective detail at the correct spot, as Chekhov puts the watchman who comes up, looks at the lovers, goes away.

This mastery is present throughout all his narratives, short or long. An illustration of quite a different kind, but showing the same inseparable flow of character, narrator and situation, can be taken from Pritchett’s story called ‘The Diver’. The youthful narrator, an Englishman, is working for a small firm in Paris, but his ambition is precisely to write stories.

And what were these stories? Impossible to say. I would set off in the morning and see the grey, ill-painted buildings of the older quarters leaning together like people, their shutters thrown back, so that the open windows looked like black and empty eyes. In the mornings the bedding was thrown over the sills to air, and hung out, wagging like tongues about what goes on in the night between men and women. The houses looked sunken-shouldered, exhausted, by what they told; and crowning the city was the church of Sacré-Coeur, very white, standing like some dry Byzantine bird, to my mind hollow-eyed and without conscience, presiding over the habits of the flesh and – to judge by what I read in newspapers – its crime also; its murders, rapes, its shootings for jealousy and robbery. As my French improved, the secrets of Paris grew worse. It amazed me that the crowds I saw on the street had survived the night, and many indeed looked as sleepless as the houses.

Pritchett contrives to blend the ‘story’ elements simmering inside the young narrator (‘black and empty eyes’, ‘wagging like tongues’) with a more deep and comprehensive sense of town and people. The story is in some ways a reworking of Pritchett’s early novel, Nothing like Leather, drawing on his experiences as a young man in the trade. ‘After I had been a little more than a year in Paris – 14 months in fact – a drama broke in the monotonous life of our office. A consignment of dressed skins had been sent to us from Rouen. It had been sent to us by barge – not the usual method in our business.’ The narrator is both the young businessman with a proper sense of precision and a pride of professional decorum, and the literary aspirant coining phrases about Paris. The barge sinks near the warehouse and a diver is sent down to rescue the skins. In the course of the operation the young man is accidentally knocked into the water, fished out, and befriended by the colleague – probably mistress – of the boss, who runs a cleaning and mending shop nearby. In the course of lending him dry clothes she makes a heavy pass at him, and in the attempt to keep his end up he invents a story of having found a nude strangled woman when, at the age of 12, he was sent by his parents on an errand. A true Parisienne, the woman is fascinated, and in seducing him has the thrill of imagining he will strangle her. ‘Have you seen his hands?’ she says to the boss, who puts on a shrewd look.

Pritchett has a delicate sense of the way people live inside clichés, and only come out to give them a fresh emphasis. Gurov, in ‘The Lady with the Dog’, reflects on the beauty of life in the peaceful aftermath of a successful seduction, and Chekhov contrives not to ‘place’ him in the course of those reflections but to merge them into the space and meaning of the tale. In ‘The Diver’ Pritchett performs a similar operation, mingling cliché with symbol – on two national levels – to produce a work which dives almost involuntarily into the texture of different lives.

He once said about Hemingway, whom he much admired, that he discovered other people in his stories by a process of stylisation based on a single unitary fantasy: the Hemingway version of living. Pritchett himself learnt how to be stylish without drawing attention to it – making style an observed indication of other people. In Hemingway’s story ‘Indian Camp’, a traumatic birth and suicide, preceded and ended by an evening and dawn voyage across water, leave the narrator knowing that he ‘would never die’. Other people have that effect on the hero of the ‘eternal moment’, as fixed in such a tale. Pritchett, by contrast, leaves a plurality of existences to run on apart, after they have come together for the duration of his story.

Pritchett was an admirable critic as well as a superb novelist: novels like Mr Beluncle and the studies of Balzac and Turgenev are made to last. But the stories are of a wholly superior and indeed a unique manufacture. Like Kipling and Chekhov, he was interested in how people do their jobs, and what they think about them, but unlike the other two, he never drew attention to the fact. He was an expert at showing how love and obsession usually go with the nature of a job, or the daily grind; and his characters, like Mr and Mrs Fulmino in ‘When My Girl Comes Home’, never have to be displayed in the standardised light of emotion. Poetry is an invisible asset, suffusing lives which have no sense of it, and no conscious knowledge of what gives to living a space and a relish; but at the same time Pritchett never paraded oddities for our inspection – as a showman like Dickens does – or gave the impression of seeking out the ‘colourful’ aspects of human nature. On the contrary: his great gift is a beautiful accuracy and sobriety, as much in relation to people as to the events which determine their es-sentiality. Even Chekhov manipulates – the specifications of ‘The Lady with the Dog’ are openly unconvincing if we pay strict attention to them; and they are set up as arbitrarily as a magazine scenario. Isaac Babel, whom Pritchett admired and on whom he wrote a shrewd critique, can be shameless in his exploitation of consciousness in relation to event. As Pritchett pointed out, the peasant’s goose whom the narrator ruthlessly kills in one of his most famous tales of the Red Cossack cavalry, is in its context a wholly implausible and indeed merely literary property, for why have the narrator’s murderous companions, who mock him for his lingering bourgeois scruples, not devoured the bird themselves already? Pritchett had a sharp eye, both as critic and as craftsman, for the giveaway device in a seemingly stark and brutal narrative sequence – the kind of story that had come increasingly into fashion in his own time. He never cooked his own goose by giving way to it.

And he wrote his stories over a very long period. The earliest of them came out in England in the early Twenties, published in monthlies like the Cornhill, and in the then civilised and cultivated pages of the New Statesman. Respected periodicals at that time, even if their policies were largely directed towards ideology and politics, carried short stories as a matter of course. One imagines that it was some little while before these stories were recognised as having a special quality and character of their own. And it was some years before he brought out his first collection. The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories came out in 1930; a novel, Clare Drummer, had been published the previous year. There was rather a fashion at the time for novels with women’s names as the title – a leftover from realism: Germinie Lacerteux, Thérèse Raquin and, in England, George Moore’s Esther Waters – and Pritchett followed in the realists’ wake, his novel having no great individuality of its own. But the short stories were all the better for the lack of an author who put himself forward, and in time were recognised as coming from a master craftsman’s hand. His reputation was confirmed by succeeding volumes. You Make Your Own Life came out just before the Second World War (the title again has the mildly anonymous flavour of the period) and twenty and thirty years later came further collections – When My Girl Comes Home and The Camberwell Beauty. Collected Short Stories, and More Collected Short Stories, were published both in England and in America in 1982 and 1983.

Interspersed between were novels, memoirs, biographies of other authors, literary criticism, books of travel. Nothing if not prolific, Sir Victor’s achievement had begun already to look like that of a Victorian polycreator, a grand old man of letters. And it will be noticed, too, that his achievement begins now to take on a timeless quality, an air of belonging everywhere over a seventy-year timespan, but nowhere in particular. The manner and the subject-matter seem irrespective of age, or local taste, or the whims of the moment: there is no trademark, no logo to win immediate recognition. ‘No one alive writes a better English sentence,’ observed Irving Howe, and there is something peculiarly just about that, for no one could be less narrowly and definably English in outlook and manner than Pritchett. Howe’s verdict suggests a time when English, as such, was well-written as a matter of course by a large number of people: before authors and poets, and the language itself, hived off into doing and being their respective things. His fellow story-writer Elizabeth Bowen, whose skills he greatly admired, is apt to invoke the notion of the good sentence too openly, to obtain an atmosphere: brilliant as they are, her stories do not perhaps in the final analysis wear as well as his, for they depend too much on a bravura felicity of style which announces that the narrative has outsoared the simple business of storytelling.

Pritchett’s stories never do that. His style is always wholly subordinated to the tale; even its economy is unobtrusive. The poetry is entirely a matter of density of reference, a deft helping of the reader to inference, imagining whole lives and personalities in a single turn of phrase or scrap of dialogue. In this way a story like ‘A Trip to the Seaside’, from the 1989 collection A Careless Widow, has the redolence of a Pinter play, or a poem by Betjeman, but with these suggestions metamorphosed into the absolute originality of a short story creation. Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California that there was ‘no there, there’. In Pritchett’s tales there is always a ‘there’, all the more haunting and uncompromising for being so contingent.

‘A Trip to the Seaside’ is a gem. From the first word to the last – and the tale is only a few pages long – the reader is gripped conclusively, compelled to participate in the experience. A widower visits a small seaside town to see his former secretary, with a view to negotiating a possible second marriage. What happens is unexpected, and yet in some way inevitable. Pritchett’s mastery of the milieu, its thought and speech patterns, crowds out any need for explanation or description. A seaside setting was one of Elizabeth Bowen’s favourite locales, but she would not have resisted the lure of a few vivid paragraphs, transfixing the scene as a visual impression. Pritchett has no need for that: the whole place is there with barely a word said, just as the ‘consciousness’ of the secretary is made for ever visible by the note of pride in her voice when she tells her suitor that she got married to her new husband ‘when the divorce came through’. It is a staggering blow – the widower was hoping for a convenient marital follow-up with a docile former employee – but she has attracted another man enough to make him divorce his wife for her! No wonder when the widower leaves the resort by train in the last sentence he sees that the boats in the estuary ‘were flying no pennants and no flags’.

Pritchett was fascinated by trades, and the habits they engender. The hairdresser in A Careless Widow sees his customers as ‘tousled and complaining’, but leaving him ‘transfigured, equipped for the hunt again’. ‘They were simply topknots to him. When they got up he was always surprised to see they had arms and legs and could walk. He sometimes, though not often, admired the opposite end of them: their shoes.’ That sentence has the kind of perfection which Irving Howe had in mind: but like the notes in a late Beethoven quartet it in no way parades such perfection. The stories in A Careless Widow originally appeared in magazines – the New Yorker, Ladies’ Home Journal, Vanity Fair – but there is never a hint in them of the magazine short story formula, the telling phrase, the situation worked up.

He is a master of the odd and secretive vagaries of human nature, which emerge at defenceless or vulnerable moments. The careless widow’s eyes fill with tears when she enlarges not on the virtues of her husband but on a minor bit of irresponsibility she has long and loyally concealed. Pritchett never lost his humble passion for what occurs, a passion which makes his tales the reverse of Kipling’s. All his books are marked by a mute disinclination to present a world of his own that affects to be the real world. His Spain is not a personal fantasy, as Hemingway’s is. For the same reason he never claimed – explicitly or implicitly – to be telling the truth, as so many tellers of tales have done. He merely got on with the business of doing it. His reputation grew gradually, increasing with each book. He was not the kind of author who becomes famous overnight; and when his work became well-known it never identified or placed him. Now his stories speak for him, but they still do not claim a name for the remarkable man who wrote them.