Friday, March 10, 2006

V. S. Pritchett

Reading the stories collected in V. S. Pritchett’s Essential Stories, I couldn’t quite figure out how to describe them. There are some commonalities among the stories. They tend to be about long-cherished illusions being lost, or revealed, or replaced. Each is written in a flowing, descriptive language that has been polished to near perfection, but without being a distraction, or distancing the reader from the story. But each story is at the same time so different from its fellows in topic and tone, with a different feel and outlook, appropriate to its characters and milieu. Pritchett fully inhabits the character at the heart of each story as if he’s slipped into a well-tailored suit of clothes and wandered out to live that person’s life for a while

Finally, I decided that the way to get across what’s great about these stories is simply to give you the opening paragraphs of a few of them.
From “The Evils of Spain”
We took our seats at the table. There were seven of us.

It was at one of those taverns in Madrid. The moment we sat down Juliano, the little, hen-headed, red-lipped consumptive who was paying for the dinner and who laughed not with his mouth by buy crinkling the skin round his eyes into scores of scratchy lines and showing his bony teeth—Juliano got up and said, “We are all badly placed.”

From “You Make Your Own Life”
Upstairs from the street a sign in electric light said “Gent’s Saloon.” I went up. There was a small hot back room full of sunlight, with hair clipping on the floor, towels hanging form a peg and newspapers on the chairs. “Take a seat. Just finishing,” said the barber. It was a lie. He wasn’t anywhere near finishing. He had in fact just begun a shave .The customer was having everything.

From “The Saint”
When I was seventeen years old I lost my religious faith. It had been unsteady for some time and then, very suddenly, it went as the result of an incident in a punt on the river outside the town where we lived. My uncle, with whom I was obliged to stay for long periods of my life, had started a small furniture-making business in the town. He was always in difficulties about money, but he was convinced that in some way God would help him. And this happened.

From “Our Oldest Friend”
“Look out!” someone said. “Here comes Saxon.”

It was too late. Moving off the dance floor and pausing at the door with the blatant long sight of the stalker, Saxon saw us all in our quiet corner of the lounge and came over. He stopped and stood with his hands on his hips and his legs apart, like a goalkeeper. Then he came forward.

Each story seems to open on its own terms, completely different from the one that preceded it, plunging you right into a point of view, a place, a situation, a voice. Pritchett mimics impressively while never losing control of his careful, vivid language. Here’s a troubled man thinking of his brother: “Deep in the piety of his fear he saw in Micky a man who had never worshipped at its icy alters. He must be made to know.”
And later, “He remained in the house all day, and when the night came a misted moonlight gleamed on the cold roof and the sea was as quiet as the licking of a cat’s tongue.”

I tend to prefer novels to short stories for the common reasons. I usually find short stories a bit forced, trying too hard to both develop a character and portray an incident in a short span. And not every story here succeeds. But most often, Pritchett’s characters seem fully developed from the opening paragraphs, and the best stories here seem just right as stories, leaving little left to be said.

Note to Bob: You in particular would like a pair of these stories: “The Saint,” which, like Philip Roth’s wonderful “The Conversion of the Jews,” is about a rigid theology brought down through contact with a child, and “The Evils of Spain,” which is about, well, nothing, because around a dinner table with friends in Spain, one gets distracted and things move with a pleasant, crowded slowness.

No comments:

Post a Comment