Friday, February 07, 2014

`The Rough Wine of Life'

A model for anyone wishing to write about books, which, as you’ll see, also means writing about life: 

“We saw literature growing out of life and the common experience. I had fortunately read such books when I was a youth. I had also earned my living in trades that brought me close to people more diverse than the literary. I was not a product of Eng.Lit. I had never been taught and, even now, I am shocked to hear that literature is `taught.’ I found myself less a critic than an imaginative traveler or explorer – a slow reader too – moving from sentence to sentence, pausing to see the view and the writer arriving at the clinching detail. I had a double contact with human nature, first as a writer crossing frontiers in Ireland, France, Spain and the Americas and as a traveler in the use of writing in these countries. I was travelling in literature.” 

Seasoned readers will recognize the multinational itinerary, the non-politicized working-class origins, the snubbing of academia, the ranking of writing above criticism, the muscular sentences – this is V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997). The passage comes from the brief preface Pritchett wrote for A Man of Letters: Selected Essays (Chatto & Windus, 1985), published six years before his 1,319-page Complete Collected Essays. The earlier volume is a severely winnowed selection from more than forty years’ worth of reviews. For once, “essays” is appropriate, not a marketing attempt to gussy up product. Pritchett reliably provides multiple contexts, including the reviewee’s body of work and his place in history, literary and otherwise. He’s a master of deploying aphoristic, one-sentence summing-ups, without derailing the engine: 

“Every detail tells; the very pedantry of it is pedantry washed down by the rough wine of life.” [on Sir Walter Scott writing a crowd scene] 

“Sterne has a genius for mosaic; for being any self he has decided to be; for living in the effervescence of his nature.” 

“The one or two English humorists I have met have been sad men, anxious of eye, hag-ridden by efficiency of mind, mechanically ulcerated and teetering on the edge of religious conversion or the hospital.” [from an essay on S.J. Perelman] 

“As a brilliant human being he was self-dispersing, moving from one hallucination to another, dumping his luggage in the hotel room of two or three cultures; he reassembled himself, for a while, in words and stories and in them he believed with an industrious and short-lived intensity.” [on Ford Madox Ford] 

Pritchett is one of those rare critics who, in describing a novel or story, revivifies it and makes you want to go out and buy a copy if it isn’t already on your shelf.  One of his winning qualities is the assumption that life and literature are separated by the most permeable of membranes. An experience of dedicated living, of paying attention to the swelter without drowning in it, is suitable preparation for reading books, and vice versa. Pritchett encouraged my early suspicion that literature is neither a hothouse nor a hyperactive wallow in experience. Earlier in the preface he writes: 

“We do not lay down the law, but we do make a stand for the reflective values of a humane culture…And we know that literature is rooted in the daily life of any society but that it also springs out of literature itself.”

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