Wednesday, March 20, 2019

'I Might at Least Blunder Into Glory'

Every writer undergoes at least one apprenticeship, formal or otherwise. Some of us remain apprentices for life. One’s masters need not be Shakespeare or Proust. Humbler talents are probably advisable. After all, nothing is so discouraging as genius. I apprenticed under three masters, all of whom worked at least occasionally as journalists – Whitney Balliett, A.J. Liebling and V.S. Pritchett. All were brilliant, yet each made brilliance seem approachable. The styles of Balliett and Liebling were easiest to imitate, and I did. When young and writing about jazz I virtually plagiarized Balliett.

Most elusive, from a writer’s perspective, is Pritchett, master of essay and story (and one novel, Mr. Beluncle). His style is vigorous and subtly musical. He’s learned but not pedantic or vain, often very funny, and his approach is somehow masculine, without the self-parodying silliness of Hemingway or Mailer. He writes like late-period Dickens, if Dickens had been less instinctual and more disciplined a writer and knew when to take his foot off the gas. Few writers of fiction are more metaphorical and less “poetic” than Pritchett.

Pritchett published his first book, Marching Spain, in 1928. At age twenty-six, in the spring of 1927, he had walked three-hundred miles across Spain, from Badajoz to Vigo. Several years earlier, he had been sent to Spain to report on the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. That’s when he learned the language and first read contemporary Spanish literature – Azorin, Pio Baroja, Perez de Ayala, Unamuno. In an introduction he wrote for a new edition of Marching Spain in 1988, Pritchett tells us: “Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life became my Bible.” The comparison is not idle. Pritchett’s father, a feckless despot, was a dedicated follower of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. Pritchett tells his story in his first volume of memoirs, A Cab at the Door (1968), and fictionally in Mr. Beluncle. He was a secular man with a strong interest in, but no attachment to, organized religion.

During his long walk across Spain, Pritchett made a pilgrimage to Salamanca, where Unamuno worked as rector of the University of Salamanca from 1900 to 1924, and 1930 to 1936:

“I felt that in Salamanca I should in some unexplained way breathe of the spirit of Unamuno, who in these days was exiled from Spain by the unutterably stupid dictatorship. The crassest of all pilgrimages this, walking two hundred miles to find a man who had been forced out of his country because he happened to prefer liberty to generals. ‘God give thee not peace, but glory,’ he writes at the end of The Tragic Sense of Life. One is always one’s own hero; if I did not find peace I might at least blunder into glory.”

You will notice Pritchett’s prose is still apprentice work – a little overdramatized and emphatic, and too liable to turn lyrical. And directly autobiographical: “I do not want a religion in which I send my soul like a shirt to be washed at a reasonable charge and with the minimum of damage from all modernist improvements. I do not want a religion that will pad my jaws with optimism and complacency . . . And in the end I come back to Unamuno’s hombres de carne y hueso – man of flesh and bone – to the man who has the kingdom of heaven within him where mind, soul, and body are one.”

Pritchett died on this date, March 20, in 1997 at the age of ninety-six.

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