Wednesday, September 17, 2014

`They Never Stop Working'

I happened on “Spare Time,” an essay by V.S. Pritchett previously unknown to me. He wrote it in 1978 for The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, founded in England in 1884 as a sort of trade union for professional writers. Tennyson was its first president and among its early members were Shaw, Hardy, Masefield, Galsworthy and Wells. Pritchett’s essay is collected in Author! Author! (Faber and Faber, 1984), an anthology of selections from The Author edited by Richard Findlater. Pritchett begins with a conventional and not very promising theme, writers and money, and quietly turns it into a meditation on the importance of time, “the one necessity of their lives, not simply for high jinks—everyone has that—but time for their particular work.” He distinguishes two sorts of time important to writers: “…the clock time of his prose factory and the vitally necessary unending time of reflection; without the latter his work that clocks in will be dead and automatic.” 

Writing has a long gestation because the writer never knows what might prove useful. If he is, as Henry James suggests he ought to be, “one of those on whom nothing is lost,” he has no spare time, no “down time,” no time to kill. A hastily written pen-for-hire piece of journalism may have decades-old origins unknown even to the writer. Every thought, every experience, every book read, might come in handy. Pritchett alludes to Keats’ notion of “negative capability” and adds: “A writer must have the capacity to become passive and lost in doubt in order to be open to new suggestion. He must alternate between clocking in and clocking out.” With Kipling, Pritchett is the greatest of English story writers, and his observations have obvious relevance for those writing fiction, but also for poets, essayists, critics and even bloggers. The alternating and even simultaneous spells of passivity and rigor sound very familiar. Much of the rest of Pritchett’s essay is given over to anecdotes about how the greats – Balzac, James, Kipling – budgeted their time. In the final paragraphs he turns autobiographical: 

“I find that reading Russian novelists, mainly of the nineteenth century, is good for my `negative capability’ – a state, incidentally, that means a state of vagary, doubt and indecision as well as self-annulment. I get pleasure for its own sake out of Gibbon on an idle Sunday evening; also from classic works of travel. If I work hard it is partly to offset a lazy mind. Painters taught me to love landscape. In London or if I chance to stay in the country I stand staring out of the window at the trees or garden. Gardening is good for writers: pruning and weeding are like proof-correcting. I like sleeping an hour or so in the afternoons. I like doing the local shopping in Camden Town: one hears such strange remarks.” 

Pritchett’s prose, seldom flashy or attention-seeking, is Dickensian but with brains. His sentences can be aphoristic without being sententious. He notices things and makes them pertinent. He has an ear. In his words is a marvelous absence of self-consciousness that doesn't lapse into a faux-naïve impression of naturalness. Pritchett has a gift for using unexpected words. Oddly, the passage just quoted has at least one thing in common with Emerson’s prose: Not one sentence follows inevitably from the proceeding sentence. Whereas in Emerson the effect is of shiny, tawdry little bits arranged in patterns like costume jewelry, in Pritchett the reader is buoyed along by the current of the writer’s gusto for the world and its inhabitants. “I have a lot to say,” Pritchett suggests, “so please pay attention and try to keep up with me.” He was seventy-eight when he wrote “Spare Time” and was still writing stories and reviewing books. In “Gibbon and the Home Guard,” the first piece collected in the 1,139-page Complete Essays (1991), Pritchett writes: 

“Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

Pritchett's line about never stopping working brings to mind a passage from Lafcadio Hearn's letters that I happened upon this morning. The key moment is midway through, but I think you might enjoy the whole paragraph:

"You write me delightful letters, which, alas! I can't answer. Well, they are not answerable in themselves. They are thinking. I can only say this about one point: the isolation ought--unless you are physically tired by the day's work--to prove of value. All the best work is done the way ants do things--by tiny but tireless and regular additions. I wouldn't recommend introspection--except in commentary. You -must- see interesting life. Of course only in flashes and patches. But preserve in writing the memory of these. In a year you will be astounded to find them self-arranging, kaleidoscopally, into something symmetrical--and trying to live. Then play God, and breathe into the nostrils, and be astonished and pleased."
--Lafcadio Hearn, letter to Elwood Hendrick, 1892