Wednesday, April 11, 2007

V. S. Pritchett on London

I'll be busy and distracted for about a week, so blogging will take a slightly different, lighter form than usual. I'll start with a brief piece from a book I recently ordered from the United Kingdom, V. S. Pritchett's London Perceived (1962). It pairs a meditation by Pritchett with striking black-and-white photos by Evelyn Hofer. The photos--a mix of architectural shots and snapshots of Londoners, usually pensive--are the perfect complement to Pritchett's prose, the words and images supporting, expanding, and inflecting each other. Pritchett's prose, as always, is sterling; he cares deeply for the sound and rhythm of words and sentences, but always in service of specificity and the clarity of meaning that such care can bring. Pritchett's fiercely attentive eye for detail and character, on which the wide variety of characters and voices in his fiction are built, in London Perceived brings us a harvest of overheard conversations, hidden dramas, and idiosyncrasies of buildings and streets, past and present..
This weight of the city and its name have other associations, mainly with the sense of authority,javascript:void(0) quiet self-consequence--known among us as modesty--unbounded worry, ineluctable usage, and natural muddle. These are aspects of a general London frame of mind. If Paris suggests intelligence, if Rome suggests the world, if New York suggests activity, the word for London is experience. This points to the awful fact that London has been the most powerful and richest capital in the world for several centuries. It has been, until a mere fifteen years ago, the capital of hte largest world empire since the Roman and, even now, is the focal point of a vague Commonwealth. It is the capital source of a language now dominant in the world. Great Britain invented this language; London printed it and made it presentable. At the back of their minds--and the London mind has more back than front to it--Londoners are very aware of these things and are weighed down by them rather than elated. The familiar tone of the London voice is quick, flat-voweled, and concerned. The speaker is staving off the thought that hope is circumscribed and that every gift horse is to be looked at long in the mouth. He is--he complains--through no fault of his own--a citizen of the world.

London, like New York, is the subject of many a wonderful book. London Perceived resides near the top of the list.

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