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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in