Pritchett, (Sir) V(ictor) S(awdon)
PRITCHETT, (Sir) V(ictor) S(awdon)
Nationality: English. Born: Ipswich, Suffolk, 16 December 1900. Education: Alleyn's School, Dulwich, London. Family: Married Dorothy Rudge Roberts in 1936; one son and one daughter. Career: Worked in the leather trade in London, 1916-20, and in the shellac, glue, and photographic trade in Paris, 1920-32; correspondent in Ireland and Spain for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston, 1923-26; critic from 1926, permanent critic from 1937, and director, 1946-78, New Statesman, London; Christian Gauss Lecturer, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1953; Beckman Professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1962; writer-in-residence, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1966, 1970-72; visiting professor, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1968; Clark Lecturer, Cambridge University, 1969; president, PEN English Centre, 1970; visiting professor, Columbia University, New York, 1972; president of International PEN, 1974-76; president, Society of Authors, from 1977; writer-in-residence, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 1981. Awards: Heinemann award, for non-fiction, 1969; PEN award, for nonfiction, 1974; W. H. Smith award, 1990; Silver Pen award, 1990; Elmer Holmes Bobst special award (U.S.), 1991. D.Litt.: University of Leeds, 1972; Columbia University, 1978; University of Sussex, Brighton, 1980; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985. Fellow, 1969, and Companion of Literature, 1987, Royal Society of Literature; honorary member, American Academy, 1971, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1971. Died: 1997.
Complete Short Stories. 1990; as Complete Collected Stories, 1991.
Complete Collected Essays. 1992.
The Pritchett Century. 1997.
The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories. 1930.
You Make Your Own Life. 1938.
It May Never Happen and Other Stories. 1945.
Collected Stories. 1956.
The Sailor, Sense of Humour, and Other Stories. 1956.
When My Girl Comes Home. 1961.
The Key to My Heart. 1963.
The Saint and Other Stories. 1966.
Blind Love and Other Stories. 1969.
The Camberwell Beauty and Other Stories. 1974.
Selected Stories. 1978.
On the Edge of the Cliff. 1979.
Collected Stories. 1982.
More Collected Stories. 1983.
A Careless Widow and Other Stories. 1989.
Clare Drummer. 1929.
Shirley Sanz. 1932; as Elopement into Exile, 1932.
Nothing like Leather. 1935.
Dead Man Leading. 1937.
Mr. Beluncle. 1951.
The Gambler (broadcast 1947). In Imaginary Conversations, edited by Rayner Heppenstall, 1948.
La Bohème, adaptation of the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, music by Puccini. 1983.
Essential Jobs (documentary), 1942; The Two Fathers, with Anthony Asquith, 1944.
The Gambler, 1947.
Marching Spain. 1928.
In My Good Books. 1942.
Build the Ships: The Official Story of the Shipyards in War-Time. 1946.
The Living Novel. 1946; revised edition, 1964.
Books in General. 1953.
The Spanish Temper. 1954.
London Perceived. 1962.
Foreign Faces. 1964; as The Offensive Traveller, 1964.
New York Proclaimed. 1965.
The Working Novelist. 1965.
Dublin: A Portrait. 1967.
A Cab at the Door: Childhood and Youth 1900-1920. 1968.
George Meredith and English Comedy. 1970.
Midnight Oil (autobiography). 1971.
Balzac: A Biography. 1973.
The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev. 1977.
Autobiography (address). 1977.
The Myth Makers: Essays on European, Russian, and South
American Novelists. 1979.
The Tale Bearers: Essays on English, American, and Other Writers. 1980.
The Turn of the Years, with Reynolds Stone. 1982.
The Other Side of a Frontier: A Pritchett Reader. 1984.
A Man of Letters: Selected Essays. 1985.
Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free. 1988; as Chekhov: A Biography, 1990.
At Home and Abroad (essays). 1989.
Lasting Impressions: Selected Essays. 1990.
Editor, This England. 1938.
Editor, Novels and Stories, by Robert Louis Stevenson. 1945.
Editor, Turnstile One: A Literary Miscellany from the New Statesman. 1948.
Editor, The Oxford Book of Short Stories. 1981.*
Pritchett by Dean R. Baldwin, 1987.* * *
Considered one of the finest writers of short stories in English in the twentieth century, V. S. Pritchett was very much a writer's writer who placed great importance on technique, linguistic vitality, and the necessity of close observation to record life in all its many moods. His methods are summed up in a general statement about the modern short story in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories: "Because the short story has to be succinct and has to suggest things that have been 'left out,' are, in fact, there all the time, the art calls for a mingling of the skills of the rapid reporter or traveler with an eye for incident and ear for real speech, the instincts of the poet or the ballad-maker, and the sonnet writer's concealed discipline of form."
It is instructive to compare Pritchett's own advice with the story he has selected for inclusion in the anthology. "Many Are Disappointed" was first published in his collection The Sailor, Sense of Humour, and Other Stories, and it is a typical example of the combination of realism and imagination he brings to his best writing. Four men, all office workers, dream of the beer to come at the end of the day's hard cycling but are only offered tea when they reach the tavern—hence the story's title. Other than that, nothing else happens of any note, but the story remains in the mind because the characters are vividly realized, their speech is natural and idiomatic, and the background details have been vivaciously sketched. Although the language of the story is not poetic in the strict sense, it is rich with the instincts of poetry, and it has a lingering sub-text that leaves the reader feeling that there is more to the characters—and what has happened to them—than has been revealed in the story.
Pritchett's shrewd observation and his compassion for his characters have led critics to compare him to Charles Dickens, and there is much to the conceit. The resemblance is particularly acute when the background is London, especially the city itself, and when the characters are lower middle-class office-workers or commercial travelers. Above all he is sympathetic to his creations, not merely breathing life into them—as Dickens did to his best characters—but also remaining sensitive even when they are outsiders or behave in a bizarre manner. Saxon in "Our Oldest Friend" exemplifies this type, as does McDowell during the painful yet comic set-piece interview in "The Vice-Consul." In this respect, with his ability to remain involved with characters who are basically flawed or foolish, H. G. Wells also comes to mind—although the influence is felt more strongly in his novel Mr. Beluncle than in the short stories.
Many of Pritchett's best short stories are psychological studies of unworthy enthusiasms, and they build up to comic scenes that dispel any possibility of impending gloom. The insufferable businessman father in "The Fly in the Ointment" is a good example. As he tumbles through a maelstrom of emotions during the uneasy confrontation with his son, his sudden attempts to kill a fly lighten the mood by revealing a mass of petty obsessions. The tone is sympathetic, the analysis of the two characters incisive but understanding. The same is true of the vulgar and garrulous married couple, the Seugars, in "The Landlord": although they are snobbish and vain and deserve to be duped by their odd landlord, they retain the reader's compassion mainly because they are utterly believable.
Pritchett's ability to catch the rhythms and patterns of speech is also central to his art. Whenever Mr. Seugar opens his mouth he becomes the effusive suburban shopkeeper whom his wife despises yet needs for her own financial security. His overeagerness and her lack of refinement help the reader to overcome the disbelief that they could simply walk into a coveted house and buy it from a stranger. (The contrast between their crudeness and the landlord's prim silence underlines the odd nature of the subsequent relationship.)
Indeed, most of Pritchett's characters reveal themselves initially through the way they speak. This can range from the virtuoso performance of Mr. Pollfax, the dentist, who uses his patient's enforced silence to mask his true personality ("The Oedipus Complex"), to the suburban pretensions of the faintly absurd characters in "The Accompanist."
During the dinner party, which is the centerpiece of the latter story, the conversation around the table is given an added edge by the knowledge that two of them, William and Joyce (a married woman), are having a clandestine affair. This use of a subtext is also typical of Pritchett's unobtrusive approach to the short story, for it becomes increasingly clear that although Joyce is willing to have a sexual relationship with a man who is basically an outsider, she is finally more committed to upholding the values of her own social class.
Above all Pritchett is able to keep a sufficient distance from his subject: he observes and accepts his characters without casting blame or becoming overly involved in their actions. This does not imply coldhearted cynicism; rather, Pritchett remains a detached yet humorous observer who casts his eye on whatever life has to throw at him with irony, sympathy, and not a little humor.