Books: Cocky Olly and the Bloomsberries

THE PRITCHETT CENTURY: Selected Writings of V S Pritchett, Chatto pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Am I wiser in my old age?" V S Pritchett (born 1900) asked himself at 80, in his essay "As Old as the Century", a question he answered with characteristic honesty: "I don't know." But he thought that for him "love itself" had become "more mysterious, tender and lasting", and that he had a "new sensation": that "living people were a wonder".

When he wrote these lines, he still had ahead of him, before his death on March 20 1997, two of the finest books: his biographical study of Chekhov (1988), a writer to whom he had often been compared, and a volume of stories, A Careless Widow (1989). This contains in "Cocky Olly" (included in this volume) a wonderful specimen of his art; the story is not only a recreation of childhood and its bewildered perceptions of the adult world (the title refers to a childish game resembling Prisoner's Base), it is a vivid metaphor for certain aspects of English cultural life - in this case, based as it surely is on the Partridge household at Ham Spray, for Bloomsbury and its uneasy legatees.

All the best Pritchett stories work on this double level, and move backwards and forwards from the amazingly detailed particulars of both eye and ear to the cultural and universal general. But re-reading "Cocky Olly" and other productions of Pritchett's later years, one is struck not only by their range, their variety of both subject and mood, but by their inner consistency. It may have seemed to Pritchett in his old age that he now had different attitudes to love and the uniqueness of individuals; to us who have the privilege of reading through this admirable selection of his writings (with introductions by John Bayley and by his son, Oliver), it is the ultimate unity of his work that most impresses.

Pritchett has made us familiar with the circumstances of his early life in his two lively and luminous memoirs, A Cab at the Door (1968) and Midnight Oil (1971); his feckless father of Yorkshire stock, a restless (and unwise) seeker after religious revelation, and his garrulous London mother created an atmosphere of fantasy-spinning and story-telling which he drew on all his life. Leaving school at 15 to enter the leather trade (which inspired later short stories and a novel), Pritchett became in his twenties a roving foreign correspondent, releasing himself through this work (precarious though it often was) from the tensions of an emotionally charged home and the imprisoning English class system.

Essays in this volume vividly create the effect on him - and on his burgeoning sense of himself as a writer - of the Appalachians and of Spain. As someone who himself received transforming imaginative awakening in both these regions, I can only marvel at Pritchett's precision of thoughtfully selected observation, combined with an ability to define atmosphere, and to relate incident or spectacle outwards, to wider patterns of life. In the Appalachians, where "on that vast shield of mountain forest the silence was positive", Pritchett consoles himself with all the tales he has heard of a mountaineer character, Gash Alison, who becomes for him (and us) the epitome of the human capacity (anywhere) to assert individuality, and of the inadmiration this arouses: "Thar hain't no one the like o' Gash Alison. He's the travellin'est man I ever seed ... 'Boys,' he says, ' ... I'll jes be shacklin' round till I'm as ol' as you-uns is, grandfer.'"

Pritchett however did not go shackling round. Londoner through early experience, he returned to England to be a Londoner for almost all his working life, and in a marvellous tribute to the city in this book gives us a further key to that doubleness which makes his art so richly rewarding. If he is an intimate the city, as his short stories so amply reveal, he also has to confess: "It is impossible to be exact about London because no one really has ever seen it. Once in, we're engulfed. It is a city without profile, without symmetry; it is amorphous, like life, and no one thing about it is definitive."

It is this refusal to be definitive (while in possession of huge reservoirs of knowledge) that gives the best of his work its greatness. Pritchett's own favourite among his stories (according to his son), "When My Girl Comes Home", has long been mine too (though his wife's favourite, the subtle and fascinating study of adultery, "The Fig Tree", must run it close). The very donnee of the work suggests its concern to abstain from allocation of truth or righteousness to any one quarter: a young woman, long thought to have suffered appallingly in the War for part of which she was presumed missing, turns out to have accommodated herself very comfortably during its course, even to the point of having married a Japanese. So myths have to be unmade, new judgements exercised. Yet Hilda's conduct, like her deeper nature, continues throughout this quite long story to elude us, precluding either castigation or admiration. In the last paragraph we learn that an American has written a book about Hilda and what happened to her. "It wasn't about Japan or India or anything like that. It was about us." And that is the subject of Pritchett's own oeuvre, as solid a body of humane humanist writing as our century has to offer.