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V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life
What a price one pays for one's material," V. S. Pritchett wrote to his best friend and fellow author, Gerald Brenan, in the mid1940s. Pritchett and his wife had just had their respective parents to stay. "My father and Dorothy's mother are a pair of very low comedy characters and they devastate us. Dorothy's mother is raucous, ill bred & suspicious, my father is vulgar, hypocritical and never stops talking. It was awful."
He was joking, but he meant what he said about material, particularly in the case of his father. "He is so vulgar, so boring, so destructive," he said on another occasion. "I must write about him quickly, turn him into cash."2 He didn't need to remind himself. Cash was important. Pritchett was a serious imaginative artist, but first and foremost he was a professional writer, one who took intense pride in managing to support himself as that. His father, the spendthrift mythomaniac and spiritual confidence trickster Walter Sawdon Pritchett, in one guise or another provided some of Victor Sawdon Pritchett's best material.
There was plenty more. V. S. Pritchett watched and listened to people with the absorption of a psychologist, the opportunism of a collector, the unconditional affection of a man to whom other humans were his sole religion. In the mid-1980s, which were also his own eighties (he was born in 1900), he told an interviewer, "The human race is almost mythological: it's a perpetuator of myths. I have no religious interests, except for the fact that religion is psychologically and historically very interesting. . . . I think that life contains its meaning unaided. I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive. I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can't see the point of believing anything else."
The novelist Peter Vansittart recalled how even a private conversation with the erstwhile dockland clerk and adventurous traveler was like being in a crowd: "He seemed never far from the leather-works, the Spanish bar, Irish cabin, Corsican doss-house . . . Something about him invited confidences from shepherds, weekend Home Guards, colonels' daughters, suburban misfits on a spree, dockside boozers, aunts' lovers, sailors, malevolent or puzzled loners. . . ."
To Martin Amis, one of the things that distinguished the older writer's fiction was that he "went into ordinary people and showed us that they weren't ordinary. . . . [He] came away with their genius in all senses." However far Pritchett had moved from his social origins, "he didn't gentrify his imagination an iota. . . . Almost frighteningly intimate, he possesses his characters, he knows almost everything about them in a way that startles me when I look at him."
Pritchett was a small man with big appetites and energies. He was no glutton, but everyone who knew him well mentions his relish for good food and drink and comfortable surroundings. In his happiest years, which were many, he and his wife, Dorothy, took a Lawrentian-sometimes even a Rabelaisian-zest not only in their sex life together but in writing to each other about it. There's something of this interplay between hunger and connoisseurship in how he found material in everyone he met, everything he saw them doing or overheard them saying. They were used in the travel writing which was always an important component of his huge output, including his first book, Marching Spain (1928). They went into his novels (to be a novelist was his main early ambition, and at least one of the results, Mr Beluncle, ranks with any novel of the mid-century). They went, too, into the more than a hundred short stories which have seemed to other writers, from Eudora Welty to A. S. Byatt and William Trevor to John Updike, among the most original of their time, or of any time. A dozen of these stories, involving characters and situations closely based on Pritchett's early life, were in effect drafts for sections of the two books which made him most famous, and which will certainly last: his memoirs A Cab at the Door (1968) and Midnight Oil (1971). These portraits of the artist are also portraits of an age, a country, above all a class: the "lower middle" class. As Pritchett's career was to illustrate, in terms of creative potential that social group was the strongest-the hungriest-as well as the largest in the fluid England of the twentieth century.
Even Pritchett's literary essays are not only humane but human. He approached books as he approached people: with sympathetic and respectful curiosity, and with undoctrinaire discrimination. He was easily amused and, though not easily pleased, keen to be. In his time, he was the most influential "man of letters" in the English-speaking world, though he disliked the term (he preferred "writer"). He is as vivid, sharp, and funny a critic as Virginia Woolf, but he responded to a much wider range of writing than she did, both old and new. The reactions he recorded in his many thousands of reviews, radio talks, and lectures are still alive because, like his fiction, they are so sharply impressionistic. Despite, or rather because of, his relative lack of formal education-he left school before he was sixteen-he had read more than anyone else, while never losing touch with the environment he had come from.
The fact that it's often hard to draw a line between Pritchett's work in different forms, not least between fiction and nonfiction, points to the sheer range of his achievement. The career of this great fiction writer, autobiographer, travel writer, critic-and also, though not yet published as such, letter writer and diarist-spanned his century. He played a crucial part in the continuing growth of traditional literary forms during modernism and postmodernism, building as he did on the techniques of nineteenth-century fiction. At the same time, he carried on the supposedly fast-disappearing profession of a freelance critic, becoming an important broker in the literary exchanges between Britain, continental Europe, and the United States. In some of his responses to his social and educational formation, he both exemplified and helped to form his period. He has devoted fans everywhere in the English-speaking world, and of every age. Even so, if you mention the name V. S. Pritchett today, you have to be careful to distinguish him from V. S. Naipaul, or Terry Pratchett.
Pritchett would have been disappointed if he had known how his fame would decline in the years immediately following his death, but he wouldn't have been surprised or dismayed. Some of his best work was driven by his generous eagerness to show why this or that forgotten writer should still be read. Besides, if he saw the human race as "mythological," one of his myths of himself was that he was uninteresting. "Nothing continues to happen to me," he wrote in his early fifties. He was daunted by having just heard the English novelist Rosamond Lehmann and the American publisher Blanche Knopf discussing possibilities for Lehmann's next book. When Lehmann said, "I might write about George Eliot," Knopf replied, "Why, did anything happen to her? Is there any color in her life?"
It was an absurd question, not least because Eliot, like Pritchett, devoted so much of her career to showing that every human life is interesting. But in any case, Pritchett's modesty shouldn't be taken at face value. At the time when he claimed that nothing happened to him, he was actually going through a crisis in his personal life-one which is recorded in painful detail in his letters and notebooks. The disavowal was the equivalent of a physical gesture he had, a distinctly Edwardian one, of pulling his chin wryly and a little sideways into the folds of his neck. It was a sign which combined affability, reassurance, and mild self-skepticism. It was also comic, turning his face into a convulsion of malleable flesh. What would it become next? Would it disappear into his shoulders? And the movement had the effect of emphasizing his lips: what they were saying, how they were saying it, even what they didn't say (Pritchett sometimes seemed to use his mouth for listening). Meanwhile, though, the gentle pantomime distracted attention from the alertness of his quizzical gaze. Because one of its motives, conscious or not, was to allow him to watch better. Self-effacement was among Pritchett's professional tools as a writer, as well as part of his personal magnetism.
Both contributed to the impression he gave of unusual happiness. Overall, and in the end, V. S. Pritchett does seem to have been happier than most people. Yet the qualities that were often seen as happy in him-especially his zest and energy and humor, his innocent appetites-were, like his writing, far from simple in effect.
His emphasis on myth is important because, given how much of him went into his writing, the man has to be seen to some extent through his versions of himself. Myths are cumulative and progressive, and this was how Pritchett's repeated explorations of his family and upbringing worked. He was a performer, an anecdotalist, always improving and adding to his repertoire of self-revelation. His friend the diarist Frances Partridge said, "He was a bit of an actor, a great raconteur. . . . I see VSP always-when he was telling a story-acting movements, rather crouching ones, slightly grotesque. He wasn't a natural man. . . . I sometimes think he was an actor manqué and would have been a good comic."
So the showman in Walter Sawdon Pritchett lived on in his gifted son. In his seventies, "VSP," as he was always known, even gave readings from Dickens to audiences in America.7 This aspect of his personality sometimes bothered the writer, because he knew too well that performance could dispense with truth. He often pondered the negotiations between the two in autobiography, and came to believe that in writing about himself, there was "no absolute truth": "You write twenty pages and then you stop. Why is it that you are bewildered? Why do you have the sensation of being in a rowing boat in the middle of the ocean and have [sic] lost your oars? Who is this 'I,' you wonder; which of my many selves is writing?"
He concluded that, "like my storytelling mother, I was an inventive person. I was one of those . . . who invents himself and had not much capacity for self-analysis." In a BBC radio interview, he made the same point more strongly. "I inherit from my mother a tendency to turn everything that happens into a story and the story is a kind of lie, really."9 Perhaps he was thinking of the fact that in A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil he gives two completely different versions of his father's last words, neither of them-as was pointed out to him by his younger brother Gordon (in whose arms Walter died)-firsthand.
To tell Pritchett's unexpectedly complex story, then, it helps to start with the story of the stories he told about it. They took various forms. His parents' marriage, for example, was an obsessive theme not only of his published work but of his conversation and letters, especially his long, vivid, unguarded correspondence with Gerald Brenan. "I went to see my parents yesterday," he wrote in September 1950:
In a little dark suburban room piled up with new books, hundreds of them, that have never been read, newly bound volumes of Christian science publications, and so crowded with sofas, armchairs, desks & tables that one can hardly walk across it, sit my father & mother. She is white and skeletal, nervous and alert and the whole time she gazes at her husband with a hypnotised look of fear, desperation and hopelessness. He, spread in an armchair with his fat hands twiddling continuously on a spherical stomach, smiles continuously as he continuously talks about house property and what he said to the butcher. . . . My mother often opens her mouth to say a word, and a look of hatred comes over his face, a hatred all the more terrible because it is now mechanical and automatic. . . . The horrible notion of "one flesh" and the fight to be the tongue of it.
Like Pritchett's fictional characters, they are vividly, almost grotesquely present: that battling tongue could be a character in a Samuel Beckett play. But no one else who knew Walter and Beatrice seems to have thought of them in quite this way. This was partly a matter of family secrets. Victor's son Oliver, for example, was to be astonished by the stories of scams and bankruptcy his father wrote about Walter, who had impressed Oliver as "absolutely the epitome of virtue and uprightness." By this, Oliver wasn't, of course, implying that Victor's version wasn't true. Yet-if only in emphasis and degree-there was a subjective element in it. Oliver's sister Josephine remembered her Pritchett grandparents as much more ordinary than in her father's versions. The idea that Beatrice was downtrodden, so vehement in Victor's many accounts of her, didn't fit Josephine's recollection: "No, I remember her as being a sweet, funny old lady who liked to laugh." And Victor's younger brother Gordon felt strongly that the writer had exaggerated their mother's vulnerability and, with it, their father's faults.
To everyone, though, there was something magnificent about Walter's charlatanism. As Gordon recalled him,
He was an impressive figure. He had all his clothes made in Savile Row, but I don't think he paid for many of them. He would produce a soft leather case with a real gold rim all round it. Inside would be an engraved card: "Sawdon Pritchett" and, underneath, "The Athenaeum." He would walk in anywhere and say, "Well, I'd like four of those. Send me the account. Here's my card."
(The Athenaeum, needless to say, has no record of Sawdon Pritchett among its past members.) Gordon also remembered his father showing him a little book entitled How to Avoid Payment of Debt: "He said it had belonged to his father but I don't believe a word of it." Gordon was ninety-two years old when he told this story, and he had his own share of the family's appetite for myth-making,12 but there was nothing wrong with his memory. The useful pamphlet How to Avoid Payment of Debt. By a Solicitor was published in 1901. The first of Walter's bankruptcies was filed in that year.
Victor was then one year old. To the lower middle class, so desperate to be more middle than lower, bankruptcy was a stain-one which, intensified by the fear that it would happen again, spread through Victor's early years. In some ways, it was to color his whole life. Though it was a nightmare, and could lead the boy to feel suicidal, it was also a stimulus. For most of his long career, Victor was driven by the need to find intellectual and artistic scope without forfeiting financial security.Copyright © 2005 by Jeremy Treglown
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