Saturday, July 01, 2017

`A Half-Buried Sense for Poetry'

Never underestimate the pleasures and power of charm, a quality we readily recognize without being quite able to define it. “Pleasing” is close, but says more about the charmed than the charmer. “Gracious”? “Endearing”? “Agreeable”? All feeble, all lacking in the etymological hint of something magical. The quality is perhaps even rarer among writers than the general population. Willa Cather had it. Theodore Dreiser did not. Make your own list but ranked high in mine is V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997), whose first memoir, A Cab at the Door (1968), I’m reading again. Because he is so enviably well-read, his charm is often bookish in nature. At age eleven, Pritchett makes a momentous decision:

“At Rosendale Road School I decided to become a writer. The decision did not drop out of the sky and was not the result of intellectual effort. It began in the classroom and was settled in the school lavatory. It came, of course, because of a personal influence: the influence of a schoolmaster called Bartlett.”

His classmates consisted of “working class and lower middles, with a few foreigners and colonials.” Here is Pritchett’s portrait of his schoolmaster:

“Mr. Bartlett was a stumpy, heavy-shouldered young man with a broad, swarthy face, large brown eyes and a lock of black hair wagging romantically over his forehead. He looked like a boxer, lazy in his movements, and his right arm hung back as he walked to the blackboard, as though he was going to swing a blow at it. He wore a loose tweed jacket with baggy pockets in which he stuck books, chalks and pencils, and by some magnetism he could silence a class almost without a word. He never used the cane.”

This might have been lifted from one of Pritchett’s short stories. He learned much from Dickens, but moved on. Mr. Bartlett introduces the young Pritchett to Ford Madox Ford’s English Review. Pritchett describes the effect on the scruffy, working-class, proto-writer who would become the foremost literary critic of the century:

“For myself, the sugar-bag blue cover of the English Review was decisive. One had thought literature was in books written by dead people who had been oppressively overeducated. Here was writing by people who were alive and probably writing at this moment. They were as alive as Barlow Woods. The author was not remote; he was almost with us. He lived as we did; he was often poor.”

Best of all, and right out of Dickens, is Pritchett’s Uncle Arthur, who taught himself to read as an adult, relying on a highly unlikely text:

“A passion for education seized him. He took to learning for its own sake, and not in order to rise in the world. He belonged – I now see – to the dying race of craftsmen. So he looked for a book that was suited to his energetic, yet melancholy and quasi-scientific temperament. At last he found it: he taught himself to read by using [Robert] Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. This rambling and eccentric compendium of the illnesses of the brain and heart was exactly suited to his curious mind. He reveled in it. `Look it up in Burton, lad,’ he’d say when I was older. `What’s old Burton say?’ He would quote it all round the house. Burton came into every argument. And he would add, from his own experience, a favorite sentence: `Circumstances alter cases.’”

Pritchett’s friend Gerald Brenan was a Hispanist, translator of St. John of the Cross and author of South from Granada: Seven Years in an Andalusian Village (1957). Like Pritchett, he was a gifted portraitist. In his autobiography, Personal Record (1975), Brenan devotes two pages to his friend, describing him as “the best company imaginable – alive to his fingertips, amusing, sagacious, always in good spirits and of course very intelligent.” He writes of Pritchett:

“To meet he is the most friendly and genial of men. Though highly strung, one cannot imagine him ever being angry or impatient. No one has ever been snubbed by him, no one brushed off in a review. He is completely without bad feelings or malice. Then his conversation is very stimulating - witty and full of fantasy yet also balanced and judicious. The hard struggle he had to survive in his early years caused him to mature early and it also rubbed off the rough corners so that he has no eccentricities, but is always sanity itself. One can sum him up as a man who keeps down to earth, a man without false hopes or illusions, an accepter and recorder of things as they are. Yet the imagery in his writings often betrays a half-buried sense for poetry.”

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