A Working Life
By Jeremy Treglown
Random House, 334 pages, $25.95
Jeremy Treglown, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, gives us a thoughtful rendering of the life of "a small man with big appetites and energies," the English writer and critic V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997).
Victor, who was named after Queen Victoria and called V.S.P. thereafter, was one of four children born to Walter Sawdon Pritchett and his wife, Beatrice. Walter was a "spendthrift mythomaniac and spiritual confidence trickster" who would later make great copy for his son.
V.S.P. once remarked about his father: "He is so vulgar; so boring, so destructive. . . . I must write about him quickly, turn him into cash." Treglown observes that, in fact, it may have been V.S.P.'s fear of his genetic heritage and extravagant imagination that exaggerated his portrayal of Walter's charlatanism. This is an old game between fathers and sons. Other writers, James Joyce and Michael Holroyd, for example, also used their fathers' personalities as mines of good material.
Pritchett had a good but limited education. He left school when he was 16 and felt he had to read more than anyone else to make up for it. Treglown tells us that "as his knowledge grew, so did his sense of his own ignorance." He spent his life learning from people, their habits of speech and manners as he worked his way up the social scale. Pritchett had his own set of pretensions ("Oh to be a toff, a real snob. Oh to live in a Royal Enclosure"), but his best characterizations are of the "lower middle" class from which he came.
Pritchett's literary achievement is vast: fiction and nonfiction, autobiography; he was a travel writer, critic, letter writer and diarist. His output was immense. It included short stories and correspondent's work for the Christian Science Monitor based upon both his years in Ireland in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War and those in Spain, covering the rise of Franco.
In Treglown's portrait, the best quality of Pritchett's work is its ability to hover between "recording and imagining; between commenting on the processes of narrative, and with seeming unself-consciousness immersing himself in them." How did he achieve it? It was by means of what he called his "inner riot," an "imaginative solitude" that kept him writing. Publicly, his modesty about his art prompted a different response, probably to protect his privacy: "Nothing continues to happen to me."
Here is an example of Pritchett's writing that illustrates what amounts to his "automatic writing," a process that balances phrasing and nuance somewhere between "recording and imagining."
First, some background. After an unhappy marriage of nine years with his first wife, Evelyn Vigors, he took up with a 19-year-old who worked for Evelyn, Dorothy Roberts. It was love at first sight. Pritchett describes Dorothy, whom he calls "That Marvelous Girl," in a short story about their meeting.
"There was a gap between the ranks of heads and shoulders and he saw her brown hair and her broad pale face with its white rose look, its good-humoured chin and the laugh beginning on it. She turned round and she saw him as he saw her. There are glances that are collisions, scattering the air between like glass."
V.S.P. and Dorothy married after Pritchett's divorce from Evelyn came through. But they didn't exactly live happily ever after. Dorothy had long bouts with alcoholism, depression and jealousy. She had reason. Pritchett had affairs, including one longish one with an American divorcee, Barbara Wendell Kerr, whom he met while teaching at Princeton. But V.S.P. and Dorothy appear to really have loved each other and they surmounted the trials they imposed upon each other, stayed together and their love grew.
V.S.P. would like to have been known as a successful novelist, but his genius went beyond the scope of novel writing. His novel, "Mr. Beluncle," drawn partly from family recollection and about a father reckless with money, is said by Treglown to be "one of the most vivid, funny and painful British novels of the mid 20th century, and among the most neglected." Edmund Wilson thought him the best English writer of the century. Eudora Welty said of his short stories: "Their energy is everywhere and no other writer can touch it."
This is true. He is England's Balzac.
Pritchett could be scathing or flattering about other writers and critics. Of Graham Greene he said, "how careful he is to keep his people below par." About Mary McCarthy he wrote: "Ah, what a woman she is. Forty, I suppose, beautiful -- full of charm, original intelligence and with a terrifying tongue." He described Lionel Trilling as a quiet Herbert Readish fellow, with a whining, martyred wife "with all psycho-analysis popping out of her harrowed eyes." Of Norman Mailer: "intelligent, charming, drunk."
After Pritchett's mother, Beatrice, died, Walter, the author's father, still avaricious, complicitous and given to reminiscence, tried to put the arm on his sons for money to take a world cruise or to buy a house for him that he liked. V.S.P. summed this all up on in a piece called "Just a Little More," in which the father says: "you look in the larder and you can't be bothered. There's a chop, a bit of bread and cheese, perhaps. And you think, well, if this is all there is in life, you may as well finish it."
V.S. Pritchett's great genius was that he finished everybody's portions in his fiction, stirring and combining diverse offerings into an incomparable feast for the reader.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer.