As an undergraduate, I gave up trying to write fiction (my only completed story bore the decidedly unpromising title “Growing Marijuana”) and realized I wanted to write literary criticism instead. Troubled by the cavernous gaps in my reading, I sent a fan letter to James Wood, whom I didn’t know personally but whom I admired deeply, and asked him what he thought an aspiring young critic ought to read. He generously recommended the Complete Collected Essays of V. S. Pritchett. “Try to find this big book,” he wrote, “it has hundreds of essays in it, covering essentially the history of the novel. I learned a lot from it.”
Without online retailers, however, finding the book would not have been easy. Though published as recently as 1991, when its author was ninety-one, the Complete Collected Essays has since gone out of print, and seems unlikely now to be reissued. It’s a massive tome, over thirteen hundred pages, and weighs about the same as a cast-iron skillet. It is impossible to bring anywhere. It is also, admittedly, a rather hideous object: my Random House edition, with its faded teal and lilac hues, suggests not so much a literary work as an elaborate cookbook.
When I was an undergraduate, a cursory glance at the table of contents filled me with despair—I hadn’t read even a third of the writers Pritchett reviewed—and so for months the book gathered dust on a groaning and increasingly concave shelf above my desk. When I eventually had to remove it for safety reasons, I opened the book to an essay on Samuel Beckett, whose novels I was then pretending to understand:
[Beckett’s novels] are lawsuits that never end, vexations, litigations joined with the tedium, the greyness, the grief, the fear, the rage, the clownishness, the physical miseries of old age where life is on the ebb, and nature stands by smiling idiotically. Why was I born, get me out of this, let me live on less and less, get me to the grave, the womb, the last door, dragging this ludicrous, feeble, windy broken old bag of pipes with me.
This was not just a radical departure from the standard Beckett criticism I was then reading (which usually went something like, “One of the constitutive elements of the text is its enumeration of the instruments deployed to escape signification”). It was a sweeping redescription of Beckett’s entire literary endeavor. In a single paragraph, without analyzing or interpreting or even commenting on the novels, Pritchett had somehow managed to capture their essence. And he did it not with the skeptical distance of a scholar but with the messy proximity of the fellow practitioner.
Though he is remembered primarily for being one of the most prodigious and best-loved short-story writers of the twentieth century, Pritchett was a tireless book critic, contributing frequently to the pages of The New Statesman, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. His literary essays were once cherished by writers on both sides of the Atlantic, including Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Anthony Burgess. Susan Sontag discovered Pritchett’s reviews when she was a graduate student at Harvard, and later described the encounter as “a revelation”: “I didn’t know you could write about literature in such a way, that you could be lyrical and precise and not carry a huge burden of judgment.” Gore Vidal called Pritchett “our greatest English-language critic.”
The Complete Collected Essays amounts to a history of literature, not by design but by gradual accumulation: there are 203 essays in total, ranging from Cervantes, Rabelais, and Richardson to Borges, Rushdie, and Nabokov. Almost every major French, English, Spanish, and Russian novelist is accounted for, as are various Italian, Brazilian, Portuguese, and American writers. One of the pleasures of reading these essays is to share in Pritchett’s discovery of newly translated writers: Robert Musil, Machado de Assis, and Giovanni Verga, among others. Surely he had a hand in helping to shape their English-language reputation, just as he was always generously receptive to younger talent. Pritchett’s review of Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie (1936) gave the Indian novelist “enough happiness to requite me for all the pain and torment that had been wrung out of me by the passion of that book.”
Like his near contemporary Virginia Woolf, Pritchett had no formal education. He left school at fifteen and entered the leather trade as an apprentice. In the 1920s he worked as a shop assistant in Paris and later as a newspaper correspondent in Ireland and Spain, before eventually returning to England, where he wrung out a living as a family man, fiction writer, and professional critic.
In his memoir Midnight Oil (1971), Pritchett wrote of his chaotic reading as a young man in Paris, skipping meals to pay for volumes of Anatole France or Guy de Maupassant, greedily and hastily devoured. “How far did my understanding reach?” he wondered. “Not far at all, but I did seize the nature of these writers in some of their pages.”
In a way, that is all Pritchett ever did: he became the master of seizing the natures of other writers, just as he was a master of seizing the nature of people in his fiction. Jeremy Treglown, Pritchett’s biographer, felt that other people were Pritchett’s sole religion. He “approached books as he approached people: with sympathetic and respectful curiosity, and with undoctrinaire discrimination.” Like Woolf, Pritchett was impatient with prevailing conventions of literary character, preferring the freedom of the great Russians, who did not look down on their characters or prod them about in an obstacle course of plot. In Russian literature, characters were allowed to inhabit their private silences, their anonymous days. Chekhov, for instance, “caught people in their solitude … at the point of idleness and inertia in their undramatic moment when time is passing through them and the inner life exposes itself unguardedly in speech.” Similarly, Pritchett admired Ivan Turgenev for his ability to “unself himself” and become his characters.
Pritchett wrote that fictional characters could be measured for height, and he felt that too many novelists were content to write miniatures they could look down on from their panoptic desks. The same can be said of certain literary critics and theorists, many of whom are eager to serve as watchful judges, sternly banging their gavels. Pritchett, on the other hand, wrote metaphorically, imaginatively, about the writers under review—almost as if they were characters themselves. Thus Robert Browning “cannot describe an emotion or sensation without putting a hat and coat on it”; Balzac “strikes one as being the gifted talker whose mind congests when he sits down to write what he has just spoken”; and Cyril Connolly is like “a phenomenal baby in a pram, his hands reaching out greedily for what he saw, especially when it was far beyond him.” Another celebrated example, rightly admired by the novelist Ian McEwan, comes from an essay on Ford Madox Ford: “Ford is obstructed less by his defects than by his effusiveness of total ability … he never sank into the determined stupor out of which greater novelists work.”
Pritchett is supremely literary. His language pulses with artistic effect: “determined stupor,” “phenomenal baby,” a mind that “congests”—like a nose, or a throat. I’m reminded of a line from his great story “The Fall,” which is set during an annual dinner of chartered accountants in a provincial English hotel. The guests, dressed in black tie, gather in a large, mirrored assembly room, where they “[take] their drinks under the chandeliers that seemed to weep above their heads.” (In another story, “The Marvelous Girl,” Pritchett describes a chandelier as looking “sugary.”)
Eudora Welty, a close friend of Pritchett’s, once said that his stories are “alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire.” So are his essays: they sparkle with impression, metaphor, and aphorism. Written in an age when freelance critics were increasingly beleaguered by economic pressures and the institutionalization of literary study, they are an apologia for their existence. “Mr. Cockshut has read the whole of Trollope and I have not,” Pritchett is happy to admit in a review of a study of Trollope’s novels. The fact is irrelevant, he seems to suggest: the completist holds no inherent advantage over the partialist. On the contrary, the advantage of the freelance critic is the ability to speak generally, to avoid the strictures of specialization. In an essay on Flaubert, Pritchett gently reproves the critic Victor Brombert for indulging in academic jargon: “The duty of the critic is to literature, not to its surrogates.”
But perhaps, as James Wood has suggested, Pritchett’s humility and levelheaded temperament were also a limitation. He was never as great or influential a writer-critic as Virginia Woolf because he lacked her fierceness, her polemical strain. (“My real delight in reviewing is to say nasty things,” she once told a friend.) As an aspiring young writer in Paris, Pritchett felt he had nothing to say except “I am alive.” Then, one day, he overhead a joke. He noted it down and submitted to a contest in a newspaper. The next day it was published, with his name and address printed beneath it. “It taught me one thing,” he said. “If one had nothing to say one could at any rate write what other people said.”
Pritchett always began with other people. In his fiction, he listened to the voices of clerks, bakers, shopkeepers, tired salesmen taking their pints. In his essays, he showed that he cared about what other people wrote. His openness is unmatched. It is his genius. What he once wrote about George Eliot was equally true of himself: “She is most intimately sympathetic to human beings and is never sloppy about them.”
Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen.