Tuesday, May 19, 2009

`An Impulse That is Essentially Poetic'

Nige reminds us of the blessing who was V.S. Pritchett, the English essayist and fiction writer born with the last century, its resident for more than 96 years, and author of some of its best stories and criticism. Nige is rereading the first volume of Pritchett’s memoirs, A Cab at the Door (1968), in which Pritchett credits Ford Madox Ford and the journal he edited, The English Review, with sparking his youthful interest in literature. Nige writes:

“Suddenly young Victor's imagination is awakened; he becomes a reader - and determines to be a writer. Pritchett's account of this awakening, and of his early reading, is wonderfully vivid - the amazed discovery of a raging hunger the existence of which had been entirely unsuspected. In his case, the overused term 'voracious reader' is no exaggeration; he is a ravening reader.”

I number Pritchett among my essential teachers, setting him in a book-lined room beside Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. They presented attractive models of reading and writing for a would-be autodidact, and were always generous with enthusiasms. Thanks to Pritchett I came to read José Maria de Eça de Queirós, George Gissing, George Meredith, Benito Pérez Galdós, Giovanni Verga and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. Pritchett seems a very English writer to this American reader, though he claimed his success was “due to having something of a foreign mind.” Whitney Balliett counted him, with A.J. Liebling, among his “non-musical heroes.” Like Coleridge, Pritchett never earned a university degree, and that has always charmed me. He worked as a leather buyer and a shop clerk, and once walked across Spain. His Complete Short Stories and Complete Collected Essays are mandatory civilized reading. In the second volume of his memoirs, Midnight Oil (1971), Pritchett writes:

“…presently I saw that literature grows out of literature as much as out of a writer’s times. A work of art is a deposit left by the conflicts and contradictions a writer has in his own nature. I am not a scholarly man; and I am not interested for very long in the elaborate superstructures of criticism. Some of my critics speak of insights and intuitions; the compliment is often left-handed, for these are signs of the amateur’s luck; I had no choice in the matter. Anyone who has written a piece of imaginative prose knows how much a writer relies on instinct and intuition.”

In the same book, Pritchett, a master of comic realism in his short fiction, who wrote only one first-rate novel (Mr. Beluncle), explains the attraction of writing stories:

“There is the fascination of packing a great deal into a very little space. The fact that form is decisive concentrates an impulse that is essentially poetic.”

Pritchett’s off-hand digression suggests why some of us go on writing.

1 comment:

Francis said...

Thanks for this. Pritchett, Davenport, and Kenner were also, precisely, my formative influences, and they continue to be my main influences (however vastly inferior my own writing is to theirs) even though I write about the visual arts and not (usually) literature. Is there a Pritchett of architectural criticism? John Summerson, maybe? (Another autodidact with a gently masterful style.) I only know it is Pritchett who sits on my shoulder, directing my sentences, smiling (never scowling) at my ineptitude.