Robert Fulford's column about V.S. Pritchett

(Globe and Mail, April 2, 1997)

In V.S. Pritchett's story, "The Diver," a would-be writer, much like the young Pritchett, wonders anxiously when his life will begin. He's 20 years old and he's gone to the trouble of escaping from provincial England to Paris, but he's barely glimpsed happiness. He's mired in an office job and he can't get started with women: a sheet of glass seems "to come between me and any female." Literature has proven equally elusive: whenever he sits down to write, the English language closes "its sullen mouth."

An accident rescues him. He falls into the Seine, and after he climbs out, a woman he knows slightly takes him home, finds him dry clothes, and admits him to her bed. Before they have sex, he seizes her attention by inventing an elaborately morbid tale about coming upon the body of a murder victim during his childhood. As he marvels at his own mendacity, he sees the power that narrative holds over her horrified imagination, a power he apparently possesses. At the end we know that he has emerged as an adult, a persuasive liar, and a storyteller.

The sheet of glass and the language with a sullen mouth--those are pure Pritchett, homely metaphors for complex frustrations. Currents of energy connecting sex with danger and death are even more Pritchettian. His career as one of the great short-story writers began in the 1930s with a grotesque and death-haunted but funny piece, "Sense of Humour." It was inspired by an acquaintance, the son of an undertaker, who used to take girlfriends driving in the hearse. Pritchett imagined an undertaker's son who steals a mechanic's girlfriend. The mechanic dies in an accident while pursuing them. The salesman drives the hearse carrying the mechanic's body back to his home town, with the girl beside him. They are now lovers, and happy together.

That story was widely rejected and seemed unpublishable, but finally it sold, for three pounds, to New Writing--and made Pritchett's reputation. Eventually it appeared in dozens of anthologies in many languages. Decades later, critics were still disputing its meaning. When Pritchett himself discussed it in old age, he remained unsure of its implications. That was his way: he followed his intuition and never claimed entirely to understand it.

Sir Victor Swadon Pritchett, the author of 40 books of fiction and criticism, died on March 20 in London, at the age of 96. Born when Queen Victoria sat on the throne, he outlived by many years his generation of English writers--Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, and all the rest. At the age of 71 he wrote that the passing of time was turning him into nothing more than a curiosity. As it happened, however, there were many stories and articles still to come. Far into his 80s he remained a star critic in the New York Review of Books and his last collection of stories, A Careless Widow, appeared when he was 89. But longevity, while delightful for his grateful readers, was far from his most striking quality.

In his youth, as he said, "I was fanatical about writing: the word and the sentence were my religion." But what were the purposes of words and sentences? Once he asked H.G. Wells if a writer could use lower-class characters without making them figures of fun. "No," said Wells. Pritchett disagreed, and Pritchett was eventually right. In the 1940s, English literature ceased to regard the lower classes as inherently funny; and after a few more years it was the rich who seldom appeared in serious writing except as clowns. Pritchett had the generosity of spirit to take his characters as seriously as they took themselves. Fiction writers, he argued, should speak for people, "make them say or reveal what they are unable to say..." He learned that much from the Russian writers, whom he studied all his life, writing books on Chekhov and Turgenev. He was called a traditional English writer, but he always felt that whatever originality he possessed was "due to having something of a foreign mind."

The son of an unreliable and sporadically employed salesman, he had to leave school at 15 and go to work in the leather trade. In his 20s, living in France and Spain, he taught himself journalism. It didn't make him happy. In his 30s he suffered from indigestion and other nervous ailments. "I was often sitting with the crowd of Out Patients at hospitals, waiting to be X-rayed. My duodenum twanged." He was finally cured, by "success in love, and in my work." His second marriage was lastingly happy, and professional success, once it came, never departed. For the New Statesman in the 1940s he poured out hundreds of articles about literature; as he put it, "a critic emerged from the hack." Eventually Gore Vidal said he was the best critic in the English language. Editors competed for his travel pieces. Elizabeth Bowen said he was the most important English practitioner of the short story. Some years ago, the critic Frank Kermode said he was the finest English writer alive.

He produced two masterly books of memoirs, The Cab at the Door, about his youth, and Midnight Oil, about becoming a writer. In Midnight Oil he wrote, "A work of art is a deposit left by the conflicts and contradictions a writer has in his own nature." He said he wrote as a means of discovery, and what he was discovering, over 75 years, was his own nature as it grew and reacted in response to literature and life. V.S. Pritchett was a shining example of a writer who slowly carved his way to a personal version of the truth and left behind a temple built from shrewd observations and fleeting insights.

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