Sunday, October 15, 1989

A Conversation With V.S. Pritchett

It is impossible to exaggerate what this 1989 meeting meant to me. It was like visiting Shakespeare. Parts of our conversation were later misquoted grievously by the Paris Review, but I wrote this profile originally for East-West, the magazine of the airline Northwest Orient. 

Great writers always live in the past, never in the present: this is how we keep them at arm’s length. Which living writers can we say confidently will have a reputation in fifty years? A safe bet—no living storyteller is more revered by fellow-writers—is V. S. Pritchett. An adventurous and well-traveled Londoner, and Sir Victor Pritchett since 1975, he is at 89 as old as the century and still going strong. This year he publishes a book of essays of South American journeys and a new volume of short stories, A Careless Widow. He has never had a best-selling novel and probably doesn't care; his short stories are among the greatest in English.

His style is so chameleonlike as to be nearly impossible to pin down. His stories are always full of people marvelously talking. His prose has something of Chekhov’s audacity combined with a poet’s charged images and an unfailing humor. His language is athletic and full of surprises. (“The thing is to keep it running well, keep it lightly clad.”) It is not surprising that early on he was fluent in French and Spanish, for many influences are alive in him, including the twin polar caps of Ireland and Russia. It is nearly a truism to call him our finest literary critic; for a half-century he has made a living by darting back and forth from the short story to the critical essay like a bee pollinating flowers. Pritchett sometimes seems less a single writer than all literature. Consider the openings to six short stories; they might almost be by six different writers:

I agree that my wife is a noise and a nuisance, especially in a seaport and sailing place like Southhampton. Even her little eyes long for trouble.
“Our Wife”

Under the blades of the wide fan turning slowly in its Yes-No tropical way, the vice-consul sloped in his office, a soft and fat man, pink as a ham, the only pink man in the town, and pimpled by sweat.
“The Vice Consul”

"Just checking up on the necklace your wife brought in this afternoon," the older of the two detectives said to me when we got to the police station. He was sucking a peppermint and was short of breath.
“The Necklace”

When I was seventeen years old I lost my religious faith. It had been unsteady for some time and then, very suddenly, it went as the result of an incident in a punt on the river outside the town where we lived.
“The Saint”

In the morning the Corams used to leave the pension, which was like a white box with a terracotta lid among its vines on the hill above the town, and walk through the dust and lavish shade to the beach.
“Handsome Is As Handsome Does”

The old man—but when does old age begin?—the old man turned over in bed and putting out his hand to the crest of his wife's beautiful white rising hip and comforting bottom, hit the wall with his knuckles and woke up. 
“The Spree”

Pritchett's short stories are like awakenings, and they are his great achievement, published over six decades in eight collections. As Eudora Welty put it, "Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language."

Pritchett lives with his wife of fifty years, Dorothy, near Regent’s Park, in London, in a narrow house whose top floor holds two studies where he still puts in a full day of work. In person he is a small, energetic man ("a country doctor," wrote Paul Theroux), with a lively luminous face and a lopsided grin that takes donkey’s years off him. Words come out of him quickly, easily and precisely. This is a man who enjoys talk and enjoys people.

He has about him the eager intelligence of the resolutely self-educated man. He has written acutely of his first half-century in two volumes of autobiography, A Cab At The Door and Midnight Oil. At fifteen he left school, at his father's insistence, to work in the leather trade. It gave him a determination to make his own way, an independence of thought that would serve any writer well. At twenty Pritchett ran off to Paris, where he “lived an abysmal bohemian life and wrote a terribly pretentious and mannered prose.” He supported himself as a salesman in shops. Later he went on to stints as correspondent on the Irish Rebellion (he saw Yeats rehearse at the Abbey Theater) and as a journalist in Spain, where he knew most of the generation of ’98. All these places penetrated and nourished and shook him.

"I always wanted to be foreign, starting when I was very young. My father came from the north of England and my mother was a Cockney and came from London. Nothing could be more different than those two people. I wanted to escape Englishness at that time because, after all, I’d had Englishness up to here. And also there was another thing. I went to ordinary schools. I didn't go to one of the grand ‘public’ schools. The difference between those people and myself was not one of class, but of the way you think. And I thought their way of thinking was not in the least suitable to someone who wanted to be a writer. They've got a lot of arbitrary rules of society and to the writer nothing should be arbitrary. And I like foreign languages. I was very good at learning foreign languages. I was very anxious to speak Spanish or French as perfectly as I could; if I got mistaken for a Frenchman I was very happy. Very conceited. But I did find that foreign languages made my own English language more interesting.”

His first book, Marching Spain (1928) was a travel book about walking across part of Spain. (Pritchett has kept up his travel writing, publishing three books in collaboration with the photographer Evelyn Hofer, on Dublin, London, and New York, and a collection of essays of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor called Foreign Faces.) Soon after, he published a couple of novels, Clare Drummer (1929) and Shirley Sanz (1932), both long out of print. He says now, “I've never had the courage to (re)read them."

It was around this time that Pritchett published his first short stories. He claims it was Irish writers like Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, and Frank O'Connor, who really showed him what the short story could be. “They made a decisive effect on me. All those people are absolutely born short-story writers. I really wanted to be a short-story writer because I thought I was a man of short breath, I hadn't got the breath to last for a novel. Listening to common speech got me going. If you're good at languages or try to be good at languages, ordinary speech is what you listen to most of time. You're forced to listen to what any Frenchman says, rich or poor, what any Spaniard says—he may be a plowman or an idiot or a playwright. Irish dialogue is terribly good, the common speech is very good indeed. And it seemed to me that if one could write like that, but do it in English, that would be the thing.”

Pritchett’s dialogue is his miracle, his greatest conjuring act. “It comes to me naturally to want to write things in dialogue. I'm not a plot writer, I find it very difficult to invent a plot of any intricacy. Much more exciting to me is the intricacy, the plot-form of dialogue. The speaker is making up his drama as he goes along, and he doesn't know how good he is or how bad he is. I can't write poetry to save my life. Dialogue is the nearest I can come to the poetic.”

Though Pritchett doesn't regard himself as a novelist, he has written two extraordinary novels, both recently reissued. Dead Man Leading (1938) concerns a doomed expedition to find a missionary explorer who vanished down the Amazon seventeen years earlier. The son, an explorer himself, in a kind of masochistic adventure, leads the party, accompanied by a reporter with whom he shares a lover in England. Theroux has pointed out that it “sometimes seems like a version of English society feverishly disintegrating in the tropics." Pritchett’s approach is to describe the jungle in urban images, to establish "among all these relationships that the imagery of the Amazon is the imagery of England.”

Mr Beluncle (1951) bears more resemblance to Pritchett's short stories. A loosely autobiographical family novel, set in London, the central figure is based on Pritchett’s father. Mr. Beluncle is in some sense a modern Micawber, propelled by belief in his Christian Science, belief in his role as head of the family, belief in his own versatility. He has been called eccentric, as have many of Pritchett’s people. "They do not seem so to me," he has written, "but very native English in that they live for projecting the fantasies of their inner, imaginative life… I have always thought it the duty of writers to justify their people, for we all feel that for good or ill, we are exceptional and justified in being what we are.”

When we met, Pritchett elaborated on this idea of treating each character fairly. "I hesitate very much on sweeping judgments. A human being is rather like a tune: he has various notes in his emotions, in his thoughts, in his life. Some are his best, some are not his best; some are ripe, and others—”

I asked about his private craft of writing, about the process each short story goes through. “I do rewrite quite a lot. I write longhand always, my typing is absolutely hopeless. I make several false starts, or perhaps it starts right but it doesn't go on right. Then I’m suddenly able to go on once more. It's erratic. Certainly once I get going, then I do write really quite fast. Invention invents itself. You've got to get yourself into it. One is very dull when one starts. You have to give yourself several good kicks in the behind.”

For years Dorothy Pritchett has typed her husband’s many drafts. "My work would stop if she didn't type these things for me. I go through and alter a good deal so she has to do it again. I work every day of the week, simply because journalism does that to you. You always have to work on Sunday, so that makes up the week. It makes you quite different from anyone else. I find that writing takes a lot of time. I write most of the time. I've always had to earn my living, and writers were ill-paid—they still are—so I've had to keep producing.”

Along with seven volumes of critical essays—many of them written at the rate of one a week for The New Statesman since the war—Pritchett has written full-length critical biographies of Balzac, Turgenev, and (last year) Chekhov. No one is better at illuminating a writer. Because Pritchett is always generous and yet incisive, and because he writes of those works which have “elated” him, in the end he sends you back to the books themselves.

As a critic he has little interest in scholarly doctrines. “None whatever. I don't write in an academic way. I might've caught it if I’d been to a university. It's like a flu. Now I'm so covered in honorary degrees I feel almost ashamed."

I asked what he was working on now.

“I was reading through one story which was not quite right. Rather long. I'm getting long-winded. I'm trying at the moment to think of something very short. I wrote one which hasn't been published. A Family Man. A girl who is very, very honest, and suddenly someone knocks on her door on a stormy night. A woman has come and accuses her of sleeping with her husband—which she has done, in fact. And the girl is absolutely taken aback. And she makes up a marvelous denial and is so carried away by her own denial that she convinces the lady. She even invents her father—”

Suddenly, in his book-lined sitting room looking out on London rain, Pritchett was transformed. Standing up, hands in his pockets, he took on all the voices and his story came to life before me.

“The lady says, ‘Well, who lives in that room?’ And the girl says, ‘My father, please don't disturb him.’ ‘Wouldn't he like a cup of tea?’ ‘Just a moment, I’ll go and see.’ Then he's not there, there's nobody there. ‘He must've gone for his little walk.’ ‘Ah, you've got to keep your eye on them,’ says the lady. Suddenly they’re allies.”

On the verge of ninety, V. S. Pritchett is still making up stories, still writing like an angel. As he put it: invention invents itself.

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