Life at the Pastry Board

Stefan Collini

  • V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life by Jeremy Treglown
    Chatto, 308 pp, £25.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 7011 7322 X

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.

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