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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.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.
In his memoir (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. 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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.