- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

V. S. PRITCHETT: A WORKING LIFE

By Jeremy Treglown

Random House, $25.95, 334 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN

V.S. Pritchett, that widely respected, eminently sensible, remarkably unremarkable all-purpose writer is the third literary figure whom biographer Jeremy Treglown has chosen to pluck from the sidelines and nudge into the limelight. Mr. Treglown’s first subject was Roald Dahl, who achieved his greatest success with his books for children. Next, Mr. Treglown examined the life and works of one of 20th-century English literature’s most elusive characters, the esteemed experimental novelist Henry Green, whose strange and original style, like the thickets of brambles around Sleeping Beauty’s palace, renders his oeuvre too recherche for all but the most dedicated readers.

Plain-spoken, down-to-earth, hard-working, and certainly neither experimental nor recherche, Victor Sawdon Pritchett seems in many ways Green’s opposite. Where Green could afford to wait until inspiration struck, Pritchett who was forced to leave school at 16, knew that he had to write in order to make a living. Green was a wealthy aristocrat, able to write when and what he wished, able and willing to generously assist other writers. He was also a charming, indefatigable womanizer and a falling-down-stairs alcoholic who seemed like a drunk even to his booze-loving contemporaries.

Pritchett was a product of the lower middle class, and as Mr. Treglown suggests, his career can serve to exemplify the creative potential unleashed in and by that social group in the fluid England of the 20th century. Indeed, Pritchett’s life (1900-1997) all but spanned that century. What Mr. Treglown finds remarkable — and impressive — is the extent to which this long life was also a happy one: “When Tolstoy wrote the famous opening of AnnaKarenina, it was already conventional to believe that unhappiness is more distinctive, more interesting. ‘Happiness writes white,’ the saying goes. The poets of Augustan Rome thought differently: meditations on what makes a happy life are common in Latin poetry.”

Although Pritchett’s life was also ‘happy’ in the sense of being relatively fortunate, relatively free from the tragic losses inflicted by war, illness, malice, or accident, what Mr. Treglown’s cogent account of it shows us is that Pritchett faced many of the same problems that hampered and sometimes destroyed other people, but that he handled them in a way more conducive to happiness.

Like many other members of the artistic-literary-intellectual set, Pritchett and his second wife, Dorothy, subscribed to what might be called a Bloomsbury sexual ethos. Indeed, Pritchett, who in person conveyed the impression of a rather dry, almost asexual being, had been much influenced in his youth by reading D.H. Lawrence, and his correspondence with Dorothy reveals the importance they both attached to passion, physical and emotional.

In accordance with the Bloomsbury creed, the Pritchetts had what in principle was an open marriage. Neither wished to impede the other’s freedom to explore other relationships, and when these occurred, each tried hard to behave with understanding and generosity. Venturing into what have so often proved to be treacherous crosscurrents, the Pritchetts had enough common sense and common decency to keep their heads while so many marriages in their milieu were being wrecked.

The Pritchetts were almost legendary among their friends for having a happy marriage. Yet despite all that their union had going for it — mutual admiration, sexual chemistry, love, devotion, and the genuine concern of each for the other, there was a time in the 1950s when it was in serious jeopardy. During the war, while Victor was often in London doing BBC broadcasts and hobnobbing with fellow literati, Dorothy, stuck in the country with the children, took to the bottle. After the war, Victor became involved with a beautiful and intelligent American woman, Barbara Kerr, and at one point, despairing over his wife’s inability to break free of her addiction, considered leaving her.

But unlike so many others — Henry Green, Dylan and Caitlin Thomas — Dorothy finally found the help she needed from Alcoholics Anonymous (at that time still a somewhat exotic American invention). She gave up drinking (and her 60-cigarette-a-day smoking habit), he gave up Barbara, and the marriage not only survived but thrived.

Like many a writer with serious literary aspirations, Pritchett hoped to make his name as a novelist, and the novels he wrote were well-regarded and are still well worth reading. But writing for journals was his primary means of support, and thanks to his high visibility in such outlets as The New Yorker, The New Statesman, and The New York Review of Books, he found a wider audience as a critic and short story writer.

As a critic, he was resolutely old-fashioned, which made him something of an anomaly in an age increasingly influenced by academicians and theorists. In his (and the century’s) 70s, he turned to biography, producing full-scale works on Meredith, Balzac, Turgenev and Chekhov. Finally, with a kind of poetic justice, the books that won him the greatest acclaim were his memoirs: “A Cab at the Door” (1968) and “Midnight Oil” (1971).

Mr. Treglown writes perceptively about Pritchett’s works, and, like any good biographer, he talks up his subject’s artistic achievements, though he goes a bit overboard in calling Pritchett “an English Proust.” More interesting is his account of the problems Pritchett encountered as a freelance writer trying to support himself by his work. Creative independence often had to take a back seat to getting published and paid.

Pritchett was able to publish many of his stories in The New Yorker, but he had to contend with its prudish editor William Shawn, whose objections to even the mildest and most discreet of references to topics like homosexuality made it difficult to write honestly and authentically. If the price of appearing in The New Yorker was deleting material Shawn found objectionable, Pritchett was prepared to pay it. He must have felt he simply couldn’t afford not to.

Somewhat like George Orwell, whom he knew and liked, Pritchett was a leftist perennially wary and critical of the Left. His “strong Socialist bias,” as he called it, fueled his commitment to the idea of “a common culture, a common language” that could be shared by all. But he was also in many ways a cultural conservative, a writer much in sympathy with the achievements of the great Victorians. “Every new idea is a war; every old one peace,” he declared (incorrectly, I’d say) in “Marching Spain,” his 1928 account of travels in that country.

When writing wartime propaganda about British shipbuilding, Pritchett sympathized with the men who were made to feel uncomfortable by the influx of women taking on traditionally male jobs. He was opposed to admitting women to his favorite London club. Mr. Treglown rather lamely points out that unlike other club men who cold-shouldered encroaching females, Pritchett was warm and friendly towards them. He liked women and enjoyed their company. Still, he seems never to have overcome his essential bias. Even in the 1980s, when feminist publisher Carmen Callil was eager to publish his work, he seems to have regarded her with undue suspicion.

Can the reasonably happy life of a sensible man make for an interesting biography? Mr. Treglown’s belief, contra Tolstoy, is that it can. Thanks to his talents as a biographer, his skillful organization of the material, and the lively, crisp style in which he tells it, Pritchett’s story is indeed an interesting one.

There are a few odd lapses, however. In his eagerness to get to the main story, perhaps, and not become enmeshed in the minutia that make many a biography heavy going, Mr. Treglown slights Pritchett’s earlier years. He never tells us, for instance, exactly what sent Pritchett to Paris in the 1920s, nor does he explain why Pritchett doesn’t seem to have been concerned about the possibility of being drafted to fight in World War I.

And although Mr. Treglown, a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement who is now a professor at the University of Warwick, has also taught at Princeton and Caltech, he’s a little weak on American geography, locating Berkeley, where Pritchett taught, in southern California. But these minor flaws seem even smaller beside his overall accomplishment: an absorbing, intelligent, fair-minded, and wonderfully readable story of a long, happy, and definitely interesting life.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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