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Almost every major French, English, Spanish, and Russian novelist is accounted for, as are various Italian, Brazilian, Portuguese, and American writers.
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 Mc Ewan, 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 .
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. 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.
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.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. “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.He generously recommended the 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 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.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.” Theamounts 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.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.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.