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A Man of Letters: Selected Essays by V. S. Pritchett (Random House: $19.95; 302 pp.)

June 29, 1986|Ronald Gottesman | Gottesman teaches literature at USC. and

Titles are important. "A Man of Letters" has the same kind of faintly antique resonance within literary circles that "general practitioner" has within the medical profession. Both designations recall less specialized, more humane times, before the pressure of modern conditions led both doctors and writers to want more and to do less--at least for most people. But the problem with this kind of nostalgia is that if we indulge it even for an instant, the potential pleasure of the present moment turns instead into regret. We must be attentive: Forever is composed of Nows.

Authors are important, too. V. S. Pritchett, the English fictionist, biographer, autobiographer, travel writer and critic, has been writing attentively for 65 years. (It's true: He started publishing before "The Waste Land" saw print.) But the reviews and essays gathered in this collection are drawn "only" from the last 45. These more than two-score pieces are devoted to British, American and European authors (and to the artists George Cruickshank, Goya and Camille Pissarro) and range from Henry Fielding to Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain to S. J. Perelman, Balzac to Vladimir Nabokov, with the heaviest emphasis falling on such "major and minor masters" as Walter Scott and George Eliot, Henry James and William Faulkner, Dostoevsky and Alessandro Manzoni.

These essays look back, then, in a double sense--to Pritchett's own life-long career as a reviewer-essayist making "a stand for the reflective values of a humane culture," and to a group of writers who flourished between the 18th and middle 20th centuries--writers who in marvelously various ways gave voice to the often paradoxical truths of the human spirit under inner and outer pressures.

Because the 20th-Century man of letters works under severe constraints of space, as Pritchett observes in his brief preface, economies of thought and expression are required for survival; quick starts, rapid acceleration and finishing kick are the necessary strengths of those who compete in modern literary track meets (where a thousand words is middle distance).

Here is Pritchett coming out of the blocks on Anthony Trollope: "The comfort we get from Trollope's novels is the sedative of gossip. It is not cynical gossip, for Trollope himself is the honest check on the self-deceptions of his characters, on their malicious lies or interested half-truths about each other. It is he, a workaday surrogate of God, sincere, sturdy, shrewd and unhopeful, who has the key. Trollope does not go with us into the dangerous region that lies just outside our affairs and from which we draw our will to live; rather, he settles lazily into that part of our lives that is a substitute, the part that avoids loneliness by living vicariously in other people."

Halfway through his essay on Joseph Conrad, he picks up the pace: "The 'gloom' of Conrad was not the broad, passive gloom of the Russians which seems to arise from the dull excess of space; he disliked being called a Slav. He was a Westerner who despised the Dostoevskian Russian. Conrad's 'gloom'--as his biographer says--began with his early schooling in sorrow. It grew, later on, into something hard and sardonic. It is the bitter irony of the active man of strong imagination who sees, with personal indignation, the relativeness of experience. The exile has the illusion of moral freedom and becomes a connoisseur of the ironies of his situation."

And, finally, here is Pritchett straining for the tape in his penetrating piece on Edith Wharton: "Mrs. Wharton always believed in the sterner condition; but her brain resented it. Not even snobbery and respect for 'factitious authority' could get her into the Catholic Church at the end of her life. The old Puritan worldling stood out firmly for patching, for facing unpleasantness, making the second best of things, refusing accommodations. Worry, culture and character were the thing. One imagines God wondering if he dared leave a card. The strange thing is that we mistrust her at once when, late in life, she becomes benign."

As I hope these brief samples will suggest, Pritchett belongs with the great champions of Anglo-American practical criticism, that imposing relay that runs from Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold in England to Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling in our own time and place. These men of letters--all of them fictionists or poets as well as critics--were independent, flexible, liberal, morally serious in the practice of discrimination and judgment--the chief marks of criticism before Literary Theory banished authors, vaporized texts, and called readership into doubt.

What distinguishes Pritchett even among his distinguished peers, I believe, is that he somehow avoids the occupational hazard of men of letters: intellectual and spiritual (or at least moral) dyspepsia, sometimes expressed as indignation or anger, sometimes as sadness or even despair. Pritchett is not only original, good-tempered and fair-minded, he writes without condescension, smugness or rancor. He never imposes his ego between his subject and his audience. He gives his whole attention to his work, none to himself. He is a Mensch of Letters as well as a Man of Letters. May his elbows and knees remain strong for another 65 years.

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