Writing at age seventy in Midnight Oil (1972), the second volume of his memoirs, V.S. Pritchett gives a clear-eyed assessment of youth:
“To be young is painful but exhilarating: to be certain and to pass into uncertainty and on to new certainties; to be conscious of the changes from one hour to the next; to be intolerant of others and blindly interested in oneself. It is so hard to remember youth, simply because one loses dramatic interest in oneself. One is harsh; one is all sentiment.”
“Dramatic interest” is shrewd. No one sheds self-interest for good but one’s sense of fatedness, of standing among the anointed, must pass. Prisons are filled with people unwilling to accept their ordinariness. The toughest part of growing up is feeling unprepared, not knowing the world’s expectations and the mundane skills of living. One moment, blazing certainty; the next, bafflement. Pritchett writes later in the same paragraph:
“I used to feel, as young people do, older than my years. I had (I thought) seen too much. The trap was that I had not experienced it. I saw people as trapped in their own natures and divided into those who go for power and dominance and those who do anything to keep the peace and make secrecy their defense. There is a theory among psychologists which is less flattering: that an eldest child (and I was that creature) finds himself isolated, leaps at his freedom, becomes even adventurous and self-sufficient—but, untrained by conflict, breaks in a crisis, disperses himself and goes to pieces. I have certainly had to deal with that.”
So have I, though I’m reluctant to turn anyone’s life, even mine, into a schematic diagram. We’re slipperier than that, pooling like mercury and dripping through the cracks. Among fiction writers, only Chekhov, Pritchett’s master, chronicled the human muddle, the unhappy comedy of dailiness, with comparable acuity. No scheme, they know, can deliver us from folly, and without folly there's little room for art. Like Pritchett I had moments in youth of feeling old beyond my years – a pleasant experience, like safely trying on another’s life, a fair description of the writer’s task. Earlier in Midnight Oil, after quoting an overwritten passage from an early story, Pritchett writes:
“One must grant the passion for words in themselves: I am not ashamed of that. But what a bombardment! What is the cause of all this show of strength and affectation? Well, youth is the period of assumed personalities and disguises. It is the time of the sincerely insincere."