Obituary: Sir Victor Pritchett

P. N. Furbank
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:05

For surprisingly many years V. S. Pritchett (Sir Victor Pritchett) was the best short-story writer and, equally, the best impressionistic literary critic in Britain. He was also the author of a very distinguished travel-book, The Spanish Temper (1954), five estimable novels, and a memorable two-volume autobiography (A Cab at the Door, 1968; and Midnight Oil, 1971). But the fact that his reputation was always high and suffered no great fluctuations tended to obscure the real distinction and importance of his achievement.

As a short-story writer Pritchett attached a very high value to the "ordinary". He was occasionally said to cherish eccentrics, but this was a mistake, as he himself remarked. He was not interested in prodigies and monsters and was not driven by obsession, or at least on the scale of a Balzac or Dickens. What interested him was ordinary people, that is to say unique people, and the temporary or momentary relationships and bizarre conjunctures into which life has a way of thrusting them.

His characters tend to be people who have been knocked about by life and bear the record of it in their body and features - people who, moreover, clutch at some favourite and pathetic life-myth, just to hold themselves together. His tone is rueful, and in A Cab at the Door he throws out the remark: "I think most of my stories have been laments." This is not quite how they strike the reader, however. For, we find, the strange relationships and conjunctures in his stories, come complete with "rules"; they are very far from meaningless and, as likely as not, generate a curious, unprepared- for glory and beauty of feeling.

A story of his was often sparked by some casual or banal everyday phrase, as in "You Make Your Own Life", or a queer and unguarded one, as in "Many Are Disappointed" - accidents of ordinary speech seized on in much the same spirit as the accidents and collisions of providence. It is a trait which Pritchett shares with Hemingway, and he acknowledged a debt to the early Hemingway.

His literary journalism was, in a way, a product of the Second World War. There was a shortage of new books, and thus week by week, in the New Statesman, Pritchett would produce a "middle" on some dead or classic writer. The choice of topic, very likely, would come from the literary editor, Raymond Mortimer; and at all events the whole inspiration and challenge lay in coming to an author fresh, perhaps in almost complete ignorance.

A neat biographical tie-up suggests itself here. For the continual refrain of the young culture-hungry and culture-fearing Pritchett, as depicted in A Cab at the Door, was the groan: "Oh, not another writer!" and "I shall never catch up"; and these weekly New Statesman essays represented a most cheerful and triumphant "catching-up", and indeed going-beyond. Pritchett was always proud to regard himself as a man of letters and as one who came "at the tail-end of a long and once esteemed tradition in English and American writing", that of the metropolitan and non-academic writer for the "common reader". It seemed to him a blessing that he escaped university, and this was no defensive posture: he genuinely distrusted what went on in university literature departments and remarked in A Man of Letters (1986): "Even now, I am shocked to hear that literature is `taught'."

There is a loose pattern to Pritchett's literary essays. Two thousand words just give time to make a quick tour round a classic author, but by no means too much time: hence there will be much dependence on epithets - "the gorgeous, garrulous Huck", or "Her [Edith Wharton's] prose has a presentable, cold pomp". Much use, too, will be made of the suggestive paradox, which floats unasked into Pritchett's mind in the act of writing: for instance, "Kipling is our first American writer."

Usually there is a sober and informative feeling-of-the-way, and then at certain happy point the prose takes wing: it mounts in a flurry of opportunistic verbal conceits, a kind he made peculiarly his own. For instance, speaking of Ford Madox Ford:

except in his two best books, he had so many ideas that he was exhausted by the time he got to the page. He had not the breath. He creates the spell of someone always on the move; the pen itself was expatriate.

In an uneffortful way, again, he could be memorably witty. One remembers his engaging comment on George Eliot:

Hers is a mind that has grown by making judgements as Mr Gladstone's head was said to have grown by making speeches.

He laboured over his stories, burning much midnight oil, and threw off his literary essays with ease; nevertheless these two sides to his writing have many affinities - among them, of course, his own belief that "I am a writer who takes short breaths". The literary essays represent a kind of innocent promiscuity, a series of casual relationships entered into with zest and terminated with too much regret or backward look. As a critic, and equally as a tale-teller, he is absolutely not a generaliser and shows little desire for a philosophy of life or theory of literature.

The important thing, for him, was not to get stale, and he never did get stale, being kept going by a certain toughness and euphoria and by sheer delighted curiosity. His life, though not in the least an ivory- tower affair, was, unlike Hemingway's, lived in perfect harmony with books.

On this his own comment may taken as just. "I have always thought of myself - and therefore of my subjects - as being `in life', indeed books have always seemed to me a form of life, and not a distraction from it."

P. N. Furbank

To have been born over a toyshop in Ipswich seems an appropriate entry for Victor Pritchett, who retained for nearly a century a child's fresh vision and capacity for enjoyment, writes Lettice Cooper.

A young man working in the leather trade to which his father had consigned him at 15, he wanted to go and earn his living in Paris "because it would be different". "How different?" "Well, in France a street would be called a rue." The reply was typical of someone who from the age of 10 had been preoccupied with words, a happy preoccupation which was to last him all his life.

Victor Pritchett was a very distinguished author who remained modest, and who, perhaps because of this, fully enjoyed his success. His devoted and much-loved wife, Dorothy, tells a story of his knighthood. The letter offering it to him arrived when he was away from home, and she was opening his mail. Knowing that the first thing he would do on his return would be to get a clean shirt out of his cupboard, she hid the official letter among his shirts. Waiting below she heard his shout of joy as he ran downstairs to share his news with her.

As a child Pritchett spent many holidays with his Yorkshire grandmother at Jedburgh. He loved travel, as a young man, especially in Spain, for which he always had a strong feeling. "It was a country that made a person of you." Late in life he loved the Cornish cliffs; he relished any place from which he could watch the movements of the sea, as from the window of his study on the fourth floor in their tall late-Nash house in Regent's Park Terrace he watched the movements of the clouds.

Even in his late eighties he used to climb the stairs every morning at 9am to this eyrie, wishing that he did not need at his age to go on writing for his living. But once he had reached his desk, and filled the small pipe he always carried in his pocket, all regrets vanished, and he was surprised when Dorothy called him down to lunch at one o'clock.

She had spent the morning answering the telephone for him, typing his manuscripts, on which, to his regret and hers, his handwriting grew smaller and more difficult to read with every week of his life, but they enjoyed laughing over the mistakes together. He always enjoyed laughter. He wrote once that it seemed to him like "the sexual act which is perhaps the laughter of two bodies". Laughter, he thought, wakes up the mind, and I have seen him in a few minutes' amusing speech shake a dull meeting into active life.

He belonged to no organised religion. He was not acutely interested in politics; he did not want to write about them. He had a private myth about frontiers. It sprang perhaps at first from his immense enjoyment of travel. Romance was to cross a border, but a frontier became for Pritchett something more unconscious, and though he talked to me about it I was not sure that I understood all that it meant to him. He was glad that he lived in a kind of frontier, the beautiful houses in Regent's Park Terrace, and the people who lived in them being only just round the corner from the crowded, bustling streets of Camden where Pritchett often went in the afternoons to do some of the household shopping.

Here he sometimes saw a face or heard a scrap of conversation which turned out to be the germ of a short story. Was the frontier the passage from the surface to the equally true but far richer world of his creative imagination?

Victor Sawdon Pritchett, writer and critic: born Ipswich 16 December 1900; FRSL 1959; CBE 1968; President, International PEN 1974-76; Kt 1975; President, Society of Authors 1977-97; CLit 1988; CH 1993; married 1936 Dorothy Roberts (one son, one daughter); died London 21 March 1997.

Lettice Cooper died 24 July 1994

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