“I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive. I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”
Any guesses as to the identity of the speaker? A rare character, surely. No gender or nationality clues apparent. Kvetching, not celebrating, is all the fashion, and only two sorts of writers speak or write this way: Those who work for greeting-card companies and those who are strong, gifted and confident. In this case, the latter, and spoken by a man in his mid-eighties. V.S. Pritchett loved being a writer, and often reminds us that we too should love the privilege.
On my shelves are five Pritchett volumes. Three are modest in bulk: His best novel, Mr. Beluncle (1951); The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev, (1977); Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (1988). The other two are behemoths of industriousness: Complete Collected Stories (1990) and Complete Collected Essays (1991) – more than 2,500 pages of a life’s work. Among English writers, only Kipling wrote a greater number of great stories, though not by many. Of Kipling, Pritchett writes self-revealingly:
“Kipling is not one of those short-story writers who settle on a mere aspect of a subject, a mood, an emotion or a life. He takes the whole subject and reduces it, in form, to the dramatic skeleton.”
Pritchett is especially good on writers of short stories, a species distinct in most cases from novelists, closer to poets. Read his essays on Leskov, Kipling, Chekhov, Babel, Sholom Aleichem and Flannery O’Connor. Here he is on Maupassant, another prolific writer who, I suspect, goes largely unread today:
“When, as a young man, Maupassant sat in the talkative company of writers and was asked why he was silent, he used to say, `I am learning my trade’; and that is what the hostile criticism of his work comes down to in the end. That he learned, and some better writers never have. He is one of the dead-sure geniuses, a hunter without a blank in his magazine.”
His prose is vivid and flecked with unexpected metaphors and word choices, but without the exhibitionism of lesser, more pretentious writers. In his fiction, he is the anti-Updike. He makes the throwaway memorable, without tarting it up. This is from a 1967 story, “A Debt of Honor”: “He had been a bland little dark-haired pastry-fed fellow from the North when they had first gone off together, her fur coat sticking to the frost inside the window of the night train. What a winter that was!”
Has any writer in the history of the language ever described a character as “pastry-fed”? And don’t we know precisely what Pritchett means?
V.S. Pritchett died twenty years ago today, on March 20, 1997, at the age of ninety-six.