V. S. Pritchett
Attending to the Little People
There is a kindness to V. S. Pritchett's work that some might link to the writer's own life but we can see it still more as an approach to storytelling. When Pritchett talks about his early years it is interesting how often kindness appears, which might make us wonder whether Pritchett was especially lucky to receive it or whether this is the writer at work and seeing in his life acts of kindness and isolating them. After all, not all the examples he gives are only from his own immediate experience, as he mentions his grandfather, who "had a good voice and spoke with precision and eloquence. Some lady in the neighborhood sent him to theological college for a year at her own expense, and he became a Congregationalist minister." (Paris Review) As for his own life, he talks about working for the Christian Science Monitor in the US, a publication with a very wide circulation but when the founder died there was a dispute amongst the successor and they weren't paying the contributors. Pritchett was living in Paris at the time and relying on the paper to get by. "I nearly starved, and would have if my landlady had not noticed that I never ate, didn't go out in the evenings, and was getting skinny. She gave me some money to go back to London, which I did..." (Paris Review) Sometimes, the kindness was professional as Pritchett explains how back in London he went to the British editor of the Christian Science Monitor, announced his dire situation, and the editor then sent him off to become the paper's Irish correspondent. This was during the early twenties and he got to meet Sean O'Casey, Yeats, James Stephens and George William Russell, who would give generously of their time even if on occasion they happened to be less generous with their money. Eventually, Russell published a story of Pritchett's but never got round to paying him.
We offer these anecdotal details of Pritchett's life less to examine it biographically than find in his narration of it similarities to his approach to storytelling, which he sees itself as somehow about kindness. Again, in Paris Review, the interviewers, Shusha Guppy and Anthony Weller, discuss how Pritchett was happy to see himself as a humanist but what matters is how that plays out in the fiction. Pritchett says, of characters in his stories, "I think they should all be treated fairly." "In the story I wrote about the secondhand trade, 'The Camberwell Beauty', there's a very wide range of characters. The minor ones are observed, I think, as closely as they need to be, never more." Pritchett adds, "Also, one must never regard a character as totally disposable. He may somehow have to reappear at some moment. In fact, it makes the others truer to life if he suddenly crops up later on. But you've then got to make him feel that he's got a right to do that - that he's on some other business. He's carrying on his life, as well as the larger characters carrying on theirs. I think in that story the minor characters work very well. They keep coming back, but in another way." (Paris Review) A fictional humanist is someone who sees that there may be major and minor characters but that doesn't mean a minor character ever quite becomes a function in a story; they also have a role at least in their own lives.
We will say a little more in a moment about Pritchett's capacity for kindness in his own work but will look first at several remarks he makes about other writers he admires. In his fine collection of essays, The Living Novel, Pritchett looks at Scott, Dickens, George Elliot, Conrad, Lawrence, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and numerous others, but often finds in their work the humanism that exists in his own, a humanism that he sees finding a balance between life and art. Dostoevsky is "one of the great comic writers because, however satirically he may begin, he always grows into humour, and the humour is not imposed on life but grows out of it." "There is no novel in English literature" Pritchett says of Sons and Lovers, which comes so closely to the skin of life of working-class people, for it records their feelings in their own terms." "The surprises of life", he says of Turgenev, "the sudden shudders of its skin are fresher and more astonishing than the imposed surprises of literary convention or their teacher's lesson." In such statements resides the humanist who sees literature as a means by which to knock life into shape, to give it a focus that needn't be a direct imitation of life, of course, but certainly isn't too far removed from it. If a character merely has a function in the story rather than a role in their own existence within the story, then the story won't, on Pritchett's terms, come to life.
We needn't agree or disagree with Pritchett on this point - one only wants to see such a claim in the context of Pritchett's own work, to look at how important it is for him to pursue such an idea, and why it might nevertheless not be inconsistent with a low-key surrealism that can sometimes be found in the fiction. In 'The Landlord', Mrs Seugar and her husband drive past a lovely semi-detached house called East Wind adjoined to West Wind and she decides she wants her husband to buy it. Visiting the owner who invites them in for tea, the titular character says he owns both houses and that the one next door is empty. Mrs Seugar reckons he can move into the empty one and they can give them his, since the one he is living in is the one she wants. He agrees to sell it but as the Seugars move in, he never quite moves out. One night, during a visit, instead of going home, he goes upstairs to bed before rushing out of the house and back to West Wind. The following night, though, Mr Seugar goes upstairs to get some matches and finds the landlord asleep in the Seugars' bed. Now as the story makes clear, Mr Seugar is a very obliging man: he "lived in a deep, damp-eyed shade of shame, the shame of always obliging someone," and so he continues obliging his wife when she ousts him from the bedroom and starts sleeping with the former owner. Mr Seugar lies on "the living room sofa listening to the varying notes of the springs." One day on the stairs of East Wind he asks the former owner if he has seen his wife. "Your wife" the landlord says, and all Mr Seugar can offer in return is an "Oh", which was the screaming of his soul but wasn't at all audible. Mr Seugar may have bought the house for his wife, but the other man didn't need to move out, he only needed to usurp Mr Seugar. The best Mr Seugar can do is now replace the former owner as he later goes round to the other man's house, lets himself in, passes the landlord going out, goes up the stairs, takes a bath and then sits there in front of the fireplace. "Then, in order to annoy them next door, poked the fire." Earlier in the story, it was about the only noise Mr and Mrs Seugar heard the landlord make next door.
It is a fine story of pushiness and weakness, of that English idea of everything in its place and a place for everything, and that nobody should make too much trouble. Yet finally what this means is that there are some who can make all the trouble they like as long as others make no trouble at all. Such an approach keeps things simple from one point of view and despairing from another. From the perspective of society all is well in a don't make a fuss sort of way, but from another angle, the individual can be left completely broken. Mrs Seugar is no doubt a snob as we might wonder if Pritchett really can claim he doesn't like to judge his characters, evident when Guppy and Weller say, "so characters in stories may judge each other, but the writer should never give the impression of judging them" and Pritchett replies "That's right. Let them do it to each other." (Paris Review) In this story, it might be the other way round: that Pritchett judges Mrs Seugar rather more than Mr Seugar, but others might insist it is Mrs Seugar who at least condemns herself with words from her own mouth. "Snobby district. I like it snobby, refined, a bit of class" she says, but the narrator also says "she felt at ease having someone to look down on straight away." But if, finally, Pritchett is a writer who judges like anyone else, the question then becomes what is this judgement serving. A non-judgmental style might be nothing of the sort; it might nevertheless be sympathetic judgement - one that always has an eye for the weak, down-trodden and the underdog. Mr Seugar is one such example and Pritchett places him in a story that could be called the snobbish surreal, a tale that wonders to what lengths a man will go to please his socially demanding wife. Pritchett isn't interested here in social realism but social surrealism, where a demanding woman will get what she wants no matter the absurdity of the premise. The Seugars really do just turn up on someone's doorstep and purchase a house the wife absolutely must have.
Such a story would seem to counter Pritchett being viewed as an objective writer who doesn't judge his characters, but one way of looking at his work is suggested by Chris Power: "to borrow from drama, Pritchett should be seen, not as a director with a signature style, but as an actor with the ability to lose himself entirely in whatever role he is playing. His stories situate the reader in direct relation to their characters, with little or no authorial filter between them." (Guardian) It isn't so much that he doesn't judge his characters, then, but instead identifies with them, finding the means by which to indicate the characteristics of the figures he creates - quite distinct from a writer who gets inside his characters' heads. In Pritchett's stories there often isn't much of a sense of the character as interior at all - they are social beings even if they are capable of private thoughts but it is as if the private thought is only the social idea kept to itself. Mr Seugar at best internalises the social without quite achieving anything we might call subjectivity. When the narrator says, "unfairness was what he hated", or that "he dreamed that thieves had removed the ham-and-bacon counter from his shop", we have access to his thoughts but not really to his mind.
To explain further, we can also notice this for example in 'The Two Brothers' and 'The Upright Man'. In the former, a couple of Irish brothers stay in Ballady for six months while the robust healthy brother who fought in the war looks after the weak, sickly one who did not. But in time the healthy Micky moves away, and Charlie is left alone. Though the story is predicated on Charlie's mental well being, Pritchett accesses his thoughts through the specificity of his actions. "Micky buys Charlie a black retriever and "Charlie redoubled his efforts to win the whole allegiance of the dog. Power was renewing itself in him. And so he taught the dog a trick. He called it over the rocks, slipping and yelping, to the sea's edge." By the end of the story, Charlie will take his own life, but the story is not at all an examination of that process internally. What we witness is isolation and instability, and that is enough for Pritchett to indicate this is a young man who will kill himself. In 'The Upright Man', Pritchett indirectly tells the story of a young man fighting in WWI with no direct reference to the war but a few allusions instead. The narrator describes this young office clerk Calvert as an "upright man. Soldierly in duty, remembering his mother, scrupulous in poverty, when others laughed only smiling, saying two words while others spoke ten, eating sparingly alone, secret in life and parsimonious of himself." While all around were bent over: "the carpenter bends over his bench, the cobbler over his shoe, the mechanic over his machine, the priest over his desk, the clerk over his desk" Calvert had his back straight. But then war comes, and men were "made to stand in rows in trenches as the yard sat in rows at desks, but the pens they now used required two arms to lift." Throughout the story, we remain at one remove from Calvert as a person with Pritchett narrating the story in a manner suggesting individuality is only a retreat from sociability, and that the social at its most pronounced (fighting a war for one's country) shows the superficiality of that selfhood for what it is. There are great writers of society (like Proust and Scott Fitzgerald) who nevertheless indicate the breadth of interiority that takes place alongside the roles people play in the social sphere. If in Proust it is an ocean, and in Fitzgerald more than a lake, in Pritchett it is a puddle.
We see this in even one of Pritchett's best and longest stories, 'Handsome is as Handsome Does'. What we have is a judgemental story indeed as the word ugly is repeated over and over again to describe the central couple. "He was a thickset, ugly man; they were an ugly pair. Surly, blunt-speaking, big-boned, with stiff short fair hair that seemed to be struggling and alight in the sun, he sat frowning and glaring almost wistfully and tediously from his round blue eyes." She was "a short thin woman, ugly yet attractive." It is as though we can't get close to this couple because the narrator insists we view them at a distance. Their ugliness is such a defining trait they might as well be living through their reflections in the mirror. But what finally interests Pritchett is the ways in which characters are caught in more than just their physiognomy. We discover that Mr and Mrs Coram are originally from very different social backgrounds, with Mrs Coram from the landed gentry and Mr Tom Coram the son of someone with a boot-repairing business in Leicester who studied hard, gained a scholarship and became a chemist in big commercial firms. She hoped he would have done research but there he was stuck in grinding work that paid well enough but left him neither one thing nor another. "He did not belong to her class. He did not belong to the class of the comfortable professional people he now met. He did not belong anywhere. He was lost, rough, unfinished, ugly, unshaped by the wise and harmonious hand of a good environment." But neither of them are products of their own agency and cannot easily see agency in others, however admiring Mrs Coram happens to be of a young Jewish man they befriend during their holiday. While at least Mrs Coram can admire him for his youthful good looks and skill with languages, Mr Coram sees nothing more than a "JewBoy. That's all."
But where do such judgements lie, within the characters, within the narrator, with the author himself? When Pritchett sees himself as a non-judgmental writer is that the same as saying he is a non-judgemental narrator? Does he not have the knack of inserting between the space of the author and the characters a low-key ironic distance that asks us to see that what the characters think isn't quite what the author believes, yet where the authorial belief must retreat nevertheless. Who is observing the ugliness of the Corams? Pritchett might reply: "people" as in "people always came and spoke to her and were amused by her conversation. They were startled by her ugly face and her shabbiness..." They are people rather than a person. Unlike Proust and Fitzgerald, Pritchett narrates on the side of the people, on the general impression over the individual response, even when he offers a story in the first person, evident in 'Sense of Humour'. Here a young man, Arthur, seduces someone away from her boyfriend Colin, but the ex keeps following them wherever they go, speeding around on his motorbike, and eventually comes to a terrible end when he dies in a crash near where the new couple have been staying. Narrated by Arthur, the story often reveals his exasperation rather than Colin's despair even if he allows himself the odd moment of compassion. "I felt sorry for that fellow. He knew it was hopeless, but he loved her. I suppose he couldn't help himself. Well, it takes all sorts to make a world, as my old mother used to say. If we were all alike it wouldn't do." Yet in Arthur's phrasing, he indicates people are all alike and in this sense Pritchett explores people rather than persons - he indicates well an interiorised plurality.
We might see this in Pricthett's use of simile, before concluding how we nevertheless see Pritchett as the kind writer we initially suggested he happened to be. Pritchett is the master of what we might call the colloquial simile, one that registers very well the characters' thoughts on the world without quite imposing on those thoughts the literary that a more sophisticated simile would indicate. "The future watching them like an eagle on a rock" ('The Two Brothers') "He looked like a man walking in his thoughts." "Her legs fell open like a pair of doors" ('The Landlord') "The shadow of shame came down like a dark shop-blind..." ('The Landlord') "...Shrewdness in one blue eye as sharp as a pellet..." ('Passing the Ball') They are the similes we might expect the characters themselves to offer in a moment of inspiration, finding the means by which to escape into the possibilities of language without quite aspiring to the condition of literature. Fitzgerald similes like "the rain cooled about half-past three to a damp mist through which occasional thin drops swam like dew" or "then the cow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk" (both from The Great Gatsby) are not colloquial. They aren't only literary, they also reveal a thought that indicates an aloof distance from the events and a high degree of subjectivity in the observation. When we suggested that Pritchett isn't a 'subjective' writer, it lies in seeing events from just behind the character's eyes rather than from the depth of their minds. When in 'Sense of Humour' Arthur says he felt sorrow for the fellow, we have a man who is giving something a moment's thought; Fitzgerald and Proust indicate someone giving a thought weeks, months, sometimes years. Even if a character in Pritchett's stories does suggest time contained within their thinking, it nevertheless manifests itself from the narrative point of view as a surprise, as though as in 'Handsome is as Handsome Does', Mrs Coram will lie to protect her husband's honour because her sense of self is so caught up in his. When she says to others that it was her husband (who hadn't wished to risk his life) and not the Jewish boy who saved the pension owner from drowning (in a rare moment of complicity with her husband), it is a lie that takes even her by surprise, an impulsive gesture of affection that she wouldn't have expected to offer. "The Corams against the world" ends the story: a couple of ugly people who at least, or at most, have each other.
The story could have been cynical and cruel and the constant reference to their ugliness might lead us to expect it to be, and husband Tom's casual racism and obvious cowardice doesn't indicate that the story will end on the couple's complicity but it does nevertheless. Pritchett isn't remotely condoning Tom's racism, nor is he at all admiring Tom's capacity to look after himself as if heroism is just a form of foolishness and cowardice the sensible approach. Yet one reason we might believe Pritchett is a kind writer rests on his willingness to indicate a quality of humanity in figures who viewed from another angle might be deemed to lack it. However, his interest in people, rather than souls or persons, shows a writer who wants to look just behind the surface of a person's personality and see the good in them, and hence his self-confessed humanism. Speaking of Conrad, Pritchett reckoned: "What is a prophetic novelist? He is hard to define, but I should say he is one to whom human beings are timeless; they are souls and not persons and good and evil and fate fight for the possession of their future...on the whole, in England we reject the prophets" and we might add because people are often seen as more important than persons, and souls are rare indeed. Pritchett was always a small-scale writer seeking tiny truths, as if acknowledging a parochial aspect to Englishness much more than the breadth of his reading. Though he wrote very well on Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Balzac and others, he is most at home fictionally with what might uncondescendingly be called, in common parlance, the little people.
© Tony McKibbin