Frank Kermode began his excellent review of this fat and feisty volume with a statement that is at once factual and wildly misleading: “Sir Victor Pritchett is a Victorian.” To be sure, Pritchett was born in 1900, when the Good Queen still sat on the throne and the sun never set on the empire, a time so distant that it seems almost fabulous. But there is nothing “Victorian” about V.S. Pritchett. The moral severity or hypocrisy (in a word, puritanism) that one associates with Victorianism is utterly foreign to his nature and to his work; for that matter, so too is the didactic urge to espouse some cause or other, correct the mistakes of both God and men, or propose a transvaluation of all values, beginning with those of the stuffy middle class—that is, the sort of urge that propelled such anti-Victorian Victorians as G.B. Shaw and D.H. Lawrence. No such animus moves Pritchett. His sole mission is to depict the antics, both comic and somber, of his countrymen at work and play. He would doubtless agree with Joseph Conrad that the writer’s task is, “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything,”
Pritchett was fortunate, I believe, in having been born into the lower middle class—fortunate in that he has never felt the need to defend or rebel against his childhood conditioning. Though conscious of all the factors that determine one’s class in his highly class-conscious homeland, he has thus been free to employ his time in observing his compatriots, high and low, and then giving to his observations the dramatic shapes necessary to the art of storytelling. The son of a traveling salesman, he spent his childhood in the provinces and various London suburbs. At the age of 15 he left school and began working in the leather trade. When he was 21 he went to Paris where he worked in the photographic trade and then, again most fortunately for his career, became a journalist, living first in Ireland and then in Spain. All the while he was, of course, banking the precious materials that he later used in the writing trade that he has practiced for nearly seventy years. Although he has written several novels, books of literary criticism, and biographies (of Balzac, Turgenev, and Chekhov, writers from whom he has probably learned most), he is best known for his short stories, which began appearing in the 1920’s. In this most recent volume of stories—his 15th—he includes the 82 tales, by no means all he has written and published, for which he wishes to be remembered. I can think of a few writers—Maupassant, Chekhov, Mann, Kipling, Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and maybe two or three others—who have written more famous (that is, memorable) stories, but no one has ever written so many good ones, the kind that can be reread with undiminished delight.
While reading these stories, never more than two or three at a sitting, I was unable to detect any great technical difference between those of the early, middle, and late periods—that is, between those of the 1930’s and on through the next five decades. There may be slightly more dialogue and fewer descriptive passages in the late tales, and, rather oddly, the last stories (they are chronologically arranged) have rather more to do with sexual concerns than the early ones. For example, in “The Diver” (1974), the narrator gives a hilarious account (probably more or less autobiographical) of an embarrassing but nonetheless educational encounter that took place when the speaker was 20, living in Paris, and trying to convince himself that he was a writer. A salty yarn more humorous than lubricious, the story has been told a thousand times but never with more élan.
The impressionistic manner of some of the early stories, which are more nearly sketches, reminds one of Stephen Crane or, in “The Evils of Spain,” of Hemingway. It was difficult, of course, to set a story in Spain in the I930’s without aping a mannerism or two that originated with Papa, and in Pritchett’s sketch there is more than a hint of parody. By the way, I think Pritchett a better writer than Hemingway. He is not nearly so sentimental or “romantic” (in the sense of being egotistic or self-centered, of making the reader constantly aware of who is telling the story and how he’s telling it; in brief, Pritchett is never victimized by his style). More, he has a better grasp of character than Hemingway did, to say nothing of a wider variety of characters. Above all, in his realism there is ample room for the play of humor, and when his characters do or say something absurd, as is frequently the case, they seem simply to be revealing what is in their makeup rather than some view imposed upon them from outside. The Spanish tale begins with three staccatos; “We took our seats at the table. There were seven of us. It was one of those taverns in Madrid.” From there we see and hear the men, each listening only to himself, trying to order fish for dinner. Ludicrous? Of course it is. But nonetheless diverting.
Pritchett’s descriptions often act as grace notes in the stories. For example, in “The Chestnut Tree” the narrator recalls his boyhood job at a leather merchant’s firm, where the daily arrival of the two lady bookkeepers was an eye-opening experience. The elder of the ladies looked “like a swan and thought so herself”: “She was curving and sedate. With the sleepy smile of one lying on a feather bed in Paradise, with tiny gray eyes behind the pince-nez which sat on her nose, with the swell of long low breasts balanced by the swell of her dawdling rump, she moved swan-like to her desk. But not like a swan in the water; like a swan on land. She waddled. Her feet were planted obliquely. One would have said that they were webbed.” In “Things as They Are,” a bitter tale of two working women on their day off, getting crocked in a public house before noon and lamenting, first, the fleas that had robbed one of sleep the night before and then the loves that both had lost but could no longer clearly recall, Pritchett sets the tone with this description: “Margaret’s square mouth buckled after her next drink and her eyes seemed to be clambering frantically, like a pair of blatant prisoners behind her heavy glasses. Envy, wrong, accusation, were her life. Her black hair looked as though it had once belonged to an employer.”
The very best of the stories tend to be the longest—for example, “Blind Love,” “When My Girl Comes Home,” “The Necklace,” “The Spree,” “Tea with Mrs. Bittell,” and three related tales narrated by a young baker, mainly concerned with the puckish behavior of a racing car driver named Noisy Brackett and his well-to-do wife, who spends her days trying to keep Noisy on a marital leash. But that is to name only a few of the best. If you have room for only one more book of fiction on your shelf, this is the one to get.
[Complete Collected Stories, by V.S. Pritchett (New York: Random House) 1221 pp., $35.00]