Thursday, March 14, 2019

'Some Facts Are More Equal Than Others'

In 1983, in his review of two recently published volumes of Samuel Pepys’ diaries, V.S. Pritchett notes that Pepys owned a microscope, still a novelty among scientific instruments in the latter half of the seventeenth century. That much the reviewer could have gleaned from the diary’s scholarly apparatus. What distinguishes Pritchett as a critic is what he does with the information: “He was a man for the wonder and delight of the eye.” That sentence, twelve commonplace words, is itself a wonder and delight. Note the irregular march of iambs, the pleasing and Irish-sounding expression “a man for,” and the sentence concluding on a vowel sound, like a line in a song. “Eye” might even be a pun. Pritchett resumes his thought in the next paragraph:

“The beauty of the microscope is that it enlarges and reveals the mysterious intense life in small things. The one impression we have of the diary is that it is a written microscope revealing his own and London’s life; so that a casual reference to the way his French wife leaves her clothes lying about on the floor, or to seeing a mouse run across his desk and shutting it under one of the shelves ‘till tomorrow,’ or how people dissemble at auctions, becomes an event.”

Can you think of another book critic we read in order to learn how to write? Or one who pays attention so closely to small things and large? Or who thinks metaphorically without getting woolly or florid? Or who seems to have read every book any respectable critic ought to have read? I thought of Pritchett and his review because I’ve been following Pepys’ diary online. Take this excerpt from his March 14, 1664 entry:

“Thence to White Hall; and in the Duke’s chamber, while he was dressing, two persons of quality that were there did tell his Royal Highness how the other night, in Holborne, about midnight, being at cards, a link-boy come by and run into the house, and told the people the house was a-falling. Upon this the whole family was frighted, concluding that the boy had said that the house was a-fire: so they deft their cards above, and one would have got out of the balcone [sic], but it was not open; the other went up to fetch down his children, that were in bed; so all got clear out of the house. And no sooner so, but the house fell down indeed, from top to bottom. It seems my Lord Southampton’s canaille did come too near their foundation, and so weakened the house, and down it came; which, in every respect, is a most extraordinary passage.”

Pritchett can’t get enough of lived life, the texture of dailiness. He revels in the comedy. The same is true of his fiction, especially the stories and his best novel, Mr. Beluncle. Pepys is commonly knocked for not being a Romantic, not being sufficiently dashing or exciting, with the same going for his prose. Pritchett will have none of it. He loves Pepys for his dutiful normality:
“The simple monotone hums with preoccupations. The archaic sentences—and his eccentric spellings—may amuse us, but they are really the voice of real, lived-through days, indeed of time itself. Fact fetishist? Yes, but some facts are more equal than others. The Diary has the inconsequent surprises of the inner life, mixing the twinges of conscience, the resolutions to reform, the dissemblings, the brief appeals for forgiveness, with the zest of rebellion.”

No comments: