Books: A week in books

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I think I have already read my favourite book of 1998. V S Pritchett died, aged 96, in March; the great twin volumes of his Complete Stories and Complete Essays published early in this decade dwarf most contemporary work like the dome of St Paul's above the seething City streets where the young Pritchett roamed, watched and wrote. This modest oracle, who well into his eighties could respond to the arrival of a Rushdie or a Mrquez with the gleeful vim of some ultra-bright teenager, started out as an Edwardian Londoner and (in some respects) stayed one. "I coughed my way through a city stinking, rather excitingly, of coal smoke, gas escapes, tanyards, breweries, horse manure and urine", runs a typically gorgeous sentence from an essay he wrote on turning 80.

Now Chatto have cut generous slices from both collections, mixed in a feast of travel writing, a soupcon of biography and servings of those matchless memoirs of hard times and great expectations, Midnight Oil and A Cab at the Door. This sampler, The Pritchett Century, appears early in the new year (pounds 25). Meanwhile, Vintage has just issued a bumper selection of 31 Pritchett tales as The Lady from Guatemala (pounds 7.99). Radio 3 transmits a feature devoted to him at 5.45pm tomorrow with tributes from the likes of Pinter, Barnes and Martin Amis, who says that Pritchett "wrote about people as if he knew exactly what they dreamt every night".

The stories, with all their sublime and saucy tragicomic bite, give the English canon its only real rival to Chekhov's short fiction. As for the criticism - composed to strict deadlines, mostly for the New Statesman, over nearly half a century - it stands with Johnson and Hazlitt as one of the shrewdest, broadest bodies of non-academic commentary in the language, with sympathies that stretch from Cervantes to Naipaul.

"Non-academic": there's the rub. Pritchett taught from time to time but distrusted what he called the "specialised ironmongery" of litcrit (a phrase that summons up that outwardly respectable, inwardly romantic London universe of trade that inspired him over a lifetime).

Shamefully, the pedagogues passed over this giant in our midst while haring after modish mediocrities. No teacher of any kind ever mentioned Pritchett to me. So maybe the fledgling Pritchetts of our time should return the compliment and, like him, educate themselves. His apprenticeship meant years of foreign travelling to free himself from "the sticky English class system", working in unsmart jobs alongside people of all kinds; and reading, voraciously, with a fine disdain for the diktats of the cultural mafiosi. If they did the same, literary wannabes would never dream about a stint at creative-writing school again.

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