You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Midnight Oil

V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life

By Jeremy Treglown

(Random House, 334 pp., $25.95)

Victor Sawdon Pritchett was born in 1900 and died in 1997. His writing life occupied about seventy-five years of that span, during which he worked almost every day: the list of his publications includes five novels; two exemplary memoirs; a hundred or so short stories; travel books about Ireland, the United States, London, and, especially, Spain; studies on Chekhov, Turgenev, and Meredith; thousands of reviews and thousands of letters. In his prime he was loved and admired as much in New York as in his native London, and for years it was almost commonplace to describe him as the best of living English writers. Now, less than a decade after his death, VSP, as he was universally known, is almost, if not quite, forgotten. (The initials V.S. now belong to Naipaul.) This posthumous occultation is the more surprising in that there remain alive, on both sides of the ocean, many literary people who knew Pritchett well, and many others who, like myself, had a more distant but still cordial relationship with him and joined the chorus of praise.

It is to be hoped that Jeremy Treglown's biography will arrest this slide into premature oblivion. He has interviewed Pritchett's friends, and studied the loaded archives in the New York Public Library, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Texas, and numerous British collections. It is not easy to see what more he could have done, short of writing one of those thousand-page biographies that are wanting in nothing except discrimination and skill. He recounts Pritchett's quiet-seeming but still extraordinary life with sympathetic care, and he deals sensitively with the writings, especially when discussing the stories, which used to be thought of, and surely will be again, as among the best in the language.

I had not expected to be surprised by Treglown's book, having accepted VSP as most did who were not intimates—a genial, marvelously well-read clubman, a writer who took his own independent bearings on past and present and was modern without being modernist: a model to younger reviewers and critics, though by general consent in a virtually unapproachable class of his own. What first surprised me was the way Treglown's account of the writer's youth supplemented and altered Pritchett's own accounts of it; and after that, the portrait of the older Pritchett as a passionate man, often anxious and for long periods deeply unhappy—a man cursed and blessed by his marriages, professionally and socially successful yet never financially secure. Even in his most celebrated years he could not live by his books alone, and remained dependent on journalism, which he continued throughout his life to produce in astonishing quantities.

Pritchett had from the outset aspired to be a professional writer, always claiming the right to be both an artist and a man who, like other professionals, was entitled to the rewards earned by people who do difficult jobs. He liked to say that his reason for studying the idiosyncrasies of other people was that he could turn them into cash. His extravagant and frequently bankrupt father was chief among his victims. Treglown suggests that Pritchett was rather hard on the amusing old fraud, who lavished money on himself but made Victor leave school at sixteen. But Victor was a genuine autodidact, already as a boy an insatiable reader and a good linguist; and although he sometimes expressed regret at having missed a formal education, he seems not to have had much need of it. And in one respect the father may have proved helpful, for his membership in the Christian Science movement steered Victor into his first journalistic job, with The Christian Science Monitor. That contact may also have kindled Victor's enduring interest in the strange forms sometimes taken by popular religious sentiment.

He published his first story, unsigned but initialed "VSP," at twenty-one, about the same time he began to work regularly for the Monitor. Abandoning his first job in the leather trade, he went to live and write in Paris. This, as Treglown remarks, was the time when Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and Joyce dominated the modernist Parisian scene, but Pritchett knew nothing of them. Isolated in Paris, he continued his strenuous course of selfeducation. In 1923, his newspaper sent him to cover the civil war in Ireland, and later directed him to Spain, a country that was to become extremely important to him. Then, when they moved him to Boston, he walked in the Appalachians, meeting and writing about people he called "America's only peasantry." These encounters, says Treglown, were good preparation for his later writings about Spain.

Before this first American visit, Pritchett married an Anglo-Irish woman. Although the marriage lasted many years, it was more or less permanently unhappy, owing to sexual incompatibility. Evelyn shared some formative years and some hard times with Pritchett, but later he had little to say of her, and she more or less disappears from the record. She was instrumental, by chance, in his meeting Dorothy Roberts, the woman who was to be his second wife, his secretarymanager, the dedicatee of almost all his books, and the mother of his children. The union with Dorothy began like a sexual thunderclap and long remained a great success in that department. By a rare disposition of providence, exactly the same thing happened to Evelyn when she married again. A Pritchett might plot a story on this happy coincidence and fill it out with startling details. Whether the correspondence of Evelyn and her partner matched the sexual candor of the Pritchetts' may be doubted, for the letters of VSP and Dorothy, as here reported, seem to rival those of James and Nora Joyce. Happy days! But miserable times followed when Dorothy became seriously alcoholic. Occasionally VSP chose to leave home, but with the support of Alcoholics Anonymous his wife recovered, and the remainder of their lives seems to have been quite abnormally contented.

Pritchett was not absolutely faithful, and he had a particularly serious affair with Barbara Kerr, whom he met in New York. It was in progress when Dorothy was in hospital drying out, and news of it caused her to relapse. The affair continued at intervals and made both participants happy, but eventually he ended it with an unforgivably frigid letter of dismissal, here reprinted—a reminder that somewhere beneath his genial appearance VSP had a chilly egotistical streak, as some who worked with him have testified.

It was possible, of course, to know the Pritchetts and know nothing of all these disturbances. VSP seems to have confided only in his friend Gerald Brenan, another writer with a passion for women and Spain. And Spain could also cause Pritchett emotional difficulties. His long association with The New Statesman, the left-wing weekly, did not persuade him to volunteer, as Orwell did, for service in Spain during the civil war. Treglown says that Pritchett knew the country and its politics too well to be as uncritical of the Republican cause as his colleagues; as he himself remarked, he distrusted "the easily raised emotions of the ill-informed." He might also have thought it irresponsible to get mixed up in the war when he had recently started a family. And perhaps, as Andrew Marvell said of the English civil war, he thought the cause too good to have been fought for. Treglown concludes that he loved the landscape and the literature of Spain better than its politics. Anyway, he stayed home.

In his own and the century's forties and fifties, VSP was at last enjoying a life appropriate to a successful professional, but he never stopped working, never felt he had enough in the bank to slow down a little. He wrote for many periodicals, but his base was at The New Statesman in its greatest days, now long over. The journal had a regular feature named "Book in General," a "middle" of some 1,500 words, not a review but an essay on some important writer, and Pritchett was by far the most frequent contributor. Samples of his work can be seen in his collections The Living Novel (1946) and The Working Novelist (1965). Almost everybody who has tried his or her hand at this kind of writing—brief, packed but elegant, ranging from Richardson to Dostoevsky and Wharton to Musil—acknowledges his extraordinary skill. Here, picked almost at random, are some lines from an essay on Middlemarch:

In Dr. Casaubon George Eliot sees that tragedy may paralyse the very intellect which was to be Dorothea's emancipation. Much of herself (George Eliot said, when she was accused of portraying Mark Pattison) went into Casaubon, and I can think of no English novel before or since which has so truthfully, so sympathetically and so intimately described the befogged and grandiose humiliations of the scholar, as he turns at bay before the vengeance of life. Casaubon's jealously is unforgettable, because, poisonous though it is, it is not the screech of an elderly cuckold, but the voice of strangled nature calling for justice.

Nowadays the tone of these essays—the bookman's civilized discourse—may seem a shade old-fashioned, as it did to a younger generation of journalists when they took over at the Statesman and wanted VSP to have a less central role. "Books in General" was occasionally entrusted to younger writers, including me. The master was not entirely pleased by this development, but he managed to be generous.

After all, he had many other outlets. Chief among them was The New Yorker, which printed many of his stories and also used him as a reviewer. He was clearly regarded as a valuable contributor, and he entered into an agreement to give the magazine the first reading of his stories. But New Yorker editors tended to be severe and they expected compliance from their authors. Pritchett submitted to various ethical and grammatical constraints, and dealt with the understandable criticism that his stories were so often concerned with un-American types and characters. "When My Girl Comes Home," a work of scrupulous imaginative development that he later chose to call his best story, was turned down by The New Yorker, and so were a good many others.

Pritchett seems to have been less troubled by rejections and heavy editing than might have been expected. A part of the reason for his acquiescence was probably financial. He once remarked to me that a story might take a month to write; if it was accepted by The New Yorker the payment would be enough to support life for at least a month, but if it was turned down in America he would be lucky to get L50 or so for it in London. He had reason to be grateful to America: in his most prosperous days a large proportion of his income came from there, and he spent more and more time at American universities and colleges such as Princeton and Smith. He came to love the country and even loved its editors. With Roger Angell, the New Yorker editor with whom he was most concerned, he formed a close friendship, sometimes agreeing to follow his advice not only in respect of local detail but even when Angell suggested major structural changes in important stories.

Treglown's account of this relationship is augmented by an interesting article by Jonathan Bloom in a recent issue of The Sewanee Review. Pritchett accepted that Angell's imaginative editorial interventions in a story called "On the Edge of the Cliff" were improvements, but when it appeared as the leading item in the collection of stories that Pritchett published in 1960, much (though not all) of the original text was restored. Pritchett did not always capitulate and must sometimes have felt that in the end he himself was the expert and should have the last word. But he and Angell worked together for more than forty years, Angell growing less intrusive and VSP more assured. "I think your criticisms miss the point," he wrote on one occasion. "I am therefore disinclined to revise and re-submit [a story called "The Camberwell Beauty"]. It will be the making of the completed volume as it stands." But twenty-three of the eighty-three stories in the Complete Collected Stories of 1990 appeared first in The New Yorker, so it would seem that, despite such moments of chill, both sides were happy with the arrangement. That so many of Pritchett's stories have English settings and a strong English flavor suggests an admirable degree of intelligence and experience in editors who, however haughty, still valued the aesthetic qualities of the work.

As for VSP, he learned his trade in the early years of the century, when the short story still flourished. He worked as a craftsman, always revising, adding rich detail to the main idea, yet seeing the stories as poems—sonnets, he once said—with strict formal obligations, compressed and complete. He was a master of the commonplace, but also of its transfiguration. This was sometimes comic in a Dickensian way: a thin man sitting down on a sofa folds up "like a small piece of human trellis." Sometimes the effect was more lyrical. The commonplace exists to be transfigured, as in the early, seminal story "The Saint," in which a missionary from The Church of the Purification falls into a river. He lies down in a buttercup meadow to dry out, and when he gets up his blue suit has been turned golden by buttercup pollen. An odd, tedious man is transfigured, becomes an image of the beauty that may be conferred by fiction, by poetry, on lives that may be commonplace, crooked, greedy, ignorantly religious.

Martin Amis, one of a later New Statesman crowd, spoke of Pritchett's fiction as having "a freakish certitude," which is itself an expression of freakish exactness. Pritchett's fiction is alive with accurately placed surprises, some of them tiny conceits that light up a sentence and startle the reader, some major plot reversals that alter a whole life. He did not confine fictional beauty to any social class, because he admired "the amount of moral energy, even heroism, that ordinary people put into making their love and marriages survive the attacks of contemporary life." And, as Amis also noticed, he wrote about women with "a curious inwardness."

Jeremy Treglown is a good critic as well as an industrious and sympathetic biographer. When he turns his attention to the fiction and the two volumes of autobiography he speaks of them with inwardness, as works of art, and places them accurately within the context of VSP's long, joyful, laborious, and at times tormented life.

Frank Kermode is the author or editor of more than 60 books. His most recent work is Concerning E.M. Forster.

This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.