For four years in his twenties (and the twentieth century’s), V.S. Pritchett lived away from England, in France, Spain and Ireland, places he later called, collectively, “my university,” just as Ishmael and his creator said “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” That’s where he started writing, in 1923, for the Christian Science Monitor. Pritchett’s first book was Marching Spain (1928), based on his three-hundred-mile walk across that country. More than twenty years later he returned to Spain, and in 1954 published The Spanish Temper. This most English of twentieth-century writers came alive as a writer elsewhere. He had a reporter’s hearty appetite for gossip, landscape, history and conversation, coupled with a non-cloistered bookishness. I’ve known reporters who adopt Homage to Catalonia (1938) as their journalistic bible, but Orwell is necessarily sidetracked by politics and that hobbles the book. Pritchett’s is the volume I would hand to a young writer and urge him to read if he wished to learn about Spain or how to write about an alien place with sympathy tempered by skepticism. Here is Pritchett describing a walk in Madrid:
“It was on our way to the Prado that I saw an old man kneeling before the crucified Christ in one of the Jesuit churches., a figure splashed by blood specks and with raw wounds, gaping as they would upon the mortuary slab, the face torn by physical pain, the muscles and tendons stretched. One imagined that the sculptor must have copied a crucified model to be so inflexible an anatomist and that the thought of imagining the agony of Christ had been beyond him.”
Here we witness, in nonfiction, the fiction writer’s gift for imaginative projection into another. Pritchett dependably animates scenes that might otherwise be flat and static. On the following page, and in a slightly different key, he digresses into autobiography, and then into art, and then Spanish art -- Velázquez, El Greco, Goya-- and eventually into an anatomy of the Spanish temper – all without having yet entered the Prado. He begins:
“I am not an art critic, but since I live chiefly by the eye, I get more pleasure out of painting and sculpture than any other arts. I have a purely literary point of view; that is to say, when I see a picture I find myself turning it into writing about human nature, habits of mind, the delight of the senses—all that is meant to me by `pride of life.’”
More than a mere self-indulgent confession, this serves as Pritchett’s natural transition into the genius of Spanish painting. Its masters, he says, “are not copyists from a still model [recall the sculpture and “crucified model” Pritchett imagined outside]; they are readers of nature.” On first acquaintance, we look at Velázquez’s portraits from the court of Philip IV, including the sublime Las Meninas (c. 1656), and we see “the infinitely patient copyist who never conveys more than the visual scene before him.” But with time,
“. . . we observe [Velázquez] is a painter of light, a critic of reflections. We see that he has caught the trance of human watchfulness, as if he had caught a few hard grains of time itself. Life is something pinned down by light and time. He has frozen a moment, yet we shall feel that it is a moment at its extreme point; that is, on the point of becoming another moment [a fiction writer’s gift]. If he is the most minute observer in the world, notice how his subjects are caught, themselves also minutely watching the world, with all the concentration the hard human ego is capable of. This is what living is to the human animal: it is to look. To look is to be.”
I last read The Spanish Temper about thirty-five years ago, but had no memory of this passage. Its profundity took me by surprise. One moment I’m reading what amounts to an exceptional travelogue, and the next I’m reading an essay in aesthetics and applied epistemology, and the author’s apologia for his life as a writer.
With Kipling, Pritchett is England’s foremost story writer, author of at least one masterpiece of a novel (Mr. Beluncle, 1951), and probably its finest critic of the last century. Of Goya he writes: “Once again: psychological realism is not psychological analysis or speculation after the event, but the observation of the event in the tremor and heat of occurrence.”