Friday, June 12, 2015

V.S. Pritchett: Neglected British Master of the Short Story

Two observations on which most writers and critics agree about V.S. Pritchett are:  (1) He was one of England's best short-story writers. (2) He has always been unfairly ignored. 
Dean R. Baldwin, in one of the few studies of Pritchett (V.S. Pritchett. Boston: Twayne, 1987), rightly observes that neglect of Pritchett is largely due to the fact that his most lasting contribution are his short stories. The fact that "neglect" and "short stories" somehow often seem to be linked should be no surprise to readers of this blog, who know that short stories have often been ignored because of a critical bias for the big over the small, action over language, and the social over the artistic.
Because I have battled these biases throughout my career, I am always delighted when a publisher has the gumption to go against them and makes forgotten short-story writers newly available.
Turnpike Books (London), who has previously published handy handsome paperback collections of A.E. Coppard (Weep Not My Wanton) and J. B. Priestly (What a Life!), has now published a selection of eight stories by V.S. Priestly entitled On the Edge of the Cliff.  They were kind enough to send me a copy.  I posted an essay on the Coppard collection earlier on this blog.
Not to be confused with a Random House 1979 edition of the same name (the title of one of the stories), Turnpike's edition of On the Edge of the Cliff, contains eight of Pritchett's most memorable stories. In addition to the title story: "Wheelbarrow," "Citizen," "The Wedding," "The Speech," "A Debt of Honor," "The Cage Birds," and "The Skeleton."
If you associate British short stories with genteel drawing room comedies or superficial social satires, then you haven't read V. S. Pritchett. In the opening story, "Wheelbarrow," for example, the central character is a "natural destroyer," who looks like some "hard-living, hard-bitten doll," a taxi-driver, who "captures" a woman and takes over assisting her ready an inherited house for sale. Squatting like an imp or devil, he tells her about a vision he had in a mine that converts him from being a gambler and a fornicator to a pious Christian. The story becomes a back-and-forth battle between the two involving temptation, lust, coveting, avarice. It is a classic example of how the short story creates a "realistic" story that is simultaneously a mythic story that focuses on the "secret life."
Adrian Hunter, in his 2007 book, The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English, suggests that Pritchett regards the short story "fundamentally at odds with the English cultural imaginary," which is ruminative. Hunter explains Pritchett's failure to find respect in the academy by locating him unpalatably between modernist formalism and old fashioned social satire.
In the Introduction to the Oxford Book of Short Stories (1981), Pritchett says the short story springs from a poetic rather than a prosaic impulse, which suggests that things that are left out are there all the time and that it approaches the mythical.  The short story writer, he says is not sustained by the discursive like the novelist but rather the distinctiveness of his voice and the ingenuity of his design. He says a good storyteller knows he is putting on a "personal, individual act."  The short story, says Pritchett, knows that our "restless lives achieve shape at times and our emotions have their architecture."
In one of the most recent pieces on Pritchett, (New Statesman, 6 February 2012), the great short story writer William Trevor agrees with Elizabeth Bowen that the form is "a child of our time," at the very "heart of modernity" in its "matter-of-fact brevity," its "sense of urgency, its glimpsing manner, its stab of truth."  All of this, he says, was waiting for V.S. Pritchett, who "gratefully reached out for it, prized it, and indelibly left his mark on it." And indeed, Pritchett has shown himself more appreciative and proficient in the unique characteristics of the short story than most British writers of the twentieth century.
In a 1953 piece in Harper's Bazaar, Pritchett noted that whereas novels are bemusing, the short story, on the other hand," wakes the reader up.”  Like other short story writers before and after him, Pritchett argues that the form answers the "primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience." 
In a 1985 interview (John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview.  NY: Methuen),  he says he likes Chekhov's stories because they are so open-ended and he tries to do that too, to leave things hanging.  "it's terribly difficult for English writers to do, since some sort of practical or responsible sense works against it.  We tend to lack the courage to leave it like that, and we don't know what 'that' is."
In the same interview, Pritchett says, "Writing short stories is like writing sonnets or a lyrical poem: it's strictly disciplined, it has to be highly concentrated, and it has to suggest a world much larger than it appears to be doing in its space.... I have always wanted to pursue intensity, and a long time ago I became infatuated with the Idea of 'essences'--essences of behavior--which I got out of reading Croce in Spanish. Croce made a great impression on me as a young man, and I thought: 'Yes, I don't want the whole cake, I want the essence.'"
Pritchett says one of the delightful things about the short story is it is like looking a picture, for you can see the whole thing at once. He also says its intensity attracts him. In his introduction to a collection of Mary Lavin's stories, he said that the Irish short story writer tends to concentrate on the discrepancy between ordinary, everyday life and the self's hidden life."
In the Preface to his Collected Stories (1982), Pritchett talked about how story-writing was "exacting work," and that so-called "real life" is "useless until art reveals what life merely suggested." He says that although he laboured at novels, he was really attracted to "concision, intensity, reducing possible novels to essentials." He adds that he has always thought the short-story writer is a mixture of reporter, aphoristic wit, moralist and poet—though not "poetical." He says the short-story writer is like a ballad-maker and in the intricacy of his designs like a writer of sonnets, like an architect.  The short story, he argues, is not simply read, but re-read again and again.
If you are familiar with my own discussions of the short story in this blog, and in my essays, reviews, and books, you will also find Pritchett's comments on the form familiar. The characteristics of the form Pritchett identifies, and which I have argued for over the years are as follows:
1.      The short story is poetic rather than prosaic.
2.      Things that seem left out are there all the time in short stories.
3.      The short story approaches the mythical. 
4.      The short story is sustained  by the distinctiveness of the writer's voice.
5.      The short story is sustained by ingenuity of its design.
6.      A good storyteller knows he is putting on a "personal, individual act."  
7.      The short story knows that our lives achieve shape at times and our emotions have       their architecture.
8.      The short story reflects a primitive craving for art and beauty of shape, the longing       to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience. 
9.      Short stories are like lyrical poems--strictly disciplined, concentrated.
10.  The short story must suggest a world larger than it appears to be doing.
11.  The short story is not simply read, but re-read again and again.
12.  The short story deals with "essences" of behavior.
If you appreciate the short story and have not read V. S. Pritchett's short stories, Turnpike Books' Edge of the Cliff is a good place to start. He knew the form well—perhaps too well to be well-received by popular readers who prefer long rambling "real life" or academic critics who prefer social significance.


Jason Makansi said...

I thought this would add to this discussion:

I was reading an old NYer article (Louis Menand) on the art of short fiction (mostly about Updike) and it digs into the "magic" I have resigned myself into accepting about a "great" short story. Here are excerpts: " [referring to baseball players]...a disproportion mastered by a difficult but, to the ordinary observer, almost invisible technique...a short story's aim is to create an 'effect,' by which [Edgar Allen] Poe meant something almost the end there has to be the literary equivalent of the magician's puff of smoke, an outcome that is both startling and anticipated...a general sense of Whoa!, not exactly a term of art. You know it when you feel it though...the whole idea is to make language perform its own little supernatural could say the complexity of the machinery used to produce this is hidden beneath the surface of the writing, expect that the writing is the machinery just as sex is only bodies."

Ann Graham said...

I was lucky to pick up 3 volumes of Pritchett's work when my local library had a de-accessioning sale. I'll be taking the Collected Stories volume on my vacation. Thanks for the Pritchett essay as well as the short story month essays.