V. S. Pritchett was one of the most admired, fun, talked-about writers of the 20th century: he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his work with prose. He was born in 1900, wrote till he died in 1997, and has been tidily forgotten ever since. This is a real shame.
VSP is like some British (though his voice seems robustly American) mix of Chekhov and Lorrie Moore: a short story writer whose eye is most often on the working class, he's always at least lightly comic, often hilarious and poignant, as well. Plus, he's a great stylist: Irving Howe said, "no one working in English writes a better sentence" than Pritchett, and Lionel Trilling added: "He's the best living British writer by such a wide margin" it hardly needed pointing out.
I could take up a lot of space wondering why he's no longer read — the stodgy name, the ill health of the short story in this country — but there can be be no set answer to a question like that. What is clear is that this man, who was ubiquitous in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, who had a 7.5-decade-long run of success, isn't read anymore. But buy his collected stories. Pick up "When My Girl Comes Home" or "The Camberwell Beauty." Better yet, pick up "The Diver" and read it alongside Isaac Babel's My First Fee. See how Pritchett takes a story idea from Babel (himself one of our century's short-story geniuses) and improves it; keeps the humor and the high-quality prose, but makes it both more realistic and sadder. He's probably in the top-ten English language writers of the 20th century. Read him.
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Darin Strauss is the author of the international bestseller Chang and Eng, the New York Times Notable Book The Real McCoy, and the national bestseller More Than It Hurts You. The recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, he teaches writing at New York University.
Books mentioned in this post
Darin Strauss is the author of Half a Life