I’d like to recommend V.S. Pritchett

book cover pritchettVictor Sawden Pritchett (or VSP, as he preferred to be known) was a prolific British writer,born in 1900, he died in 1997.  For fifty years of the twentieth century he produced stories, and he was popular.

Yes but, you might say, he’s writing about life an awfully long while ago. Why bother? There are lots of modern stories to choose from.

Well, it’s useful to see how things have changed, or not changed, in lived lives, and the way words are used.  VSP once said:

“I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.  I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”

Of all the advice given out by writers, one of the few things they agree on is that writers should read.  Many list VSP amongst their favourite authors.  To find out why, you could look at critical discussions explaining what he did, and even how, but before you do that, track down one of his stories and see if the magic touches you.

You might start with, ‘The Voice’. It’s set during the London blitz, and begins:

A message came from the rescue party, who straightened up and leant on their spades in the rubble. The policeman said to the crowd: ‘Everyone keep quiet for five minutes. No talking, please.  They’re trying to hear where he is.’

The silent crowd raised their faces and looked across the ropes to the church which, now it was destroyed, broke the line of the street like a decayed tooth.

Soon singing is heard, from below the rubble.

‘That’s Mr Morgan all right,’ the warden said. ‘He could sing.  He got silver medals for it.’

The Reverend Frank Lewis frowned.

‘Gold, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said Mr Lewis dryly.  Now he knew Morgan was alive, he said: ‘What the devil’s he doing in there? How did he get in? I locked up at eight o’clock last night myself.’

Lewis was a wiry, middle-aged man, but the white dust on his hair and his eyelashes, and the way he kept licking the dust off his dry lips, moving his jaws all the time, gave him the monkeyish, testy and suspicious air of an old man.  He had been up all night on rescue work in the raid and he was tired out.  The last straw was to find the church had gone and that Morgan, the so-called Reverend Morgan, was buried under it.

It’s not the last straw though, this is only the beginning.  Eudora Welty said:

‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’

It’s as good a definition as any I’ve seen.

The scandal of it, Lewis was thinking.  Must he sing so loud, must he advertise himself?  I locked up myself last night.  How the devil did he get in? And he really meant: How did the devil get in?

More to the point, will he get out, and what will happen along the way?

Thinking about an unconventional romance by Elizabeth Bowen.

BowenscourtI found two Elizabeth Bowen novels in the bargain box at the Oxfam shop this week. Both from the 1950s.  If her short stories were to go by, I was in for a treat.

I opened A World of Love as soon as I got home.  It begins: ‘The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.’  Hmm, I thought, does that make sense?  It’s a poetic way to describe a heat-wave.

I read on.  ‘There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river.’ I read slowly, not sure if I liked this, still niggling at that first sentence.

There were three long paragraphs of description, and it was in the same mannered style.  Wallow with me, Bowen seemed to demand. Love the idea of this place as I do.

‘This light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.  The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late awakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast.’

A flirtation with the mystical was all very well, but where were the characters? Neither the writing nor the story had hooked me yet and I was on page two.

In her short stories, Bowen’s style was clear and concise.  I hunted down The House in Paris, a novel she published more than twenty years before this one, and found the same clear prose.  A World of Love, then, was the work of a mature writer, someone with a literary reputation, who knew what she was doing.

I decided to persevere.  The main setting, Montefort, was a crumbling manor-house on the edge of a cliff, that may or may not be metaphorical, and was so central to events that it might have been intended as the real focus of the story.

The three principle characters, Jane, the beautiful young daughter of the house, Lilia, her mother, and Antonia, Jane’s aunt, seem to carry equal weight.  The power structure that has existed for all of Jane’s life is about to be challenged, by Jane’s discovery of some letters, written before she was born.

Nothing is explained, but gradually, things are said.  As one character interacted with another, usually acrimoniously, I became aware of hidden depths.  The writing that I found so obstructive forced me to read slowly, and therefore to think, to revise my initial judgements. Could that convoluted syntax be a deliberate ploy? Maybe she intended a resistant reader.

There were lively moments in the dialogue:

Once more Lilia was rallied by that thought.  ‘Well, I don’t mind – but that there’s no place I care to have ices in.  Also, spoiling our dinners.’

‘Mother, one can’t spoil rhubarb.’

But I continued to get annoyed with the deliberate oddities.  Why, ‘Pyramidal the flowers were upon the piano…’?  At one point, Peregrine ‘…vacillated over the rugs and parquet till he stood behind her..‘ I think I understand what she’s trying to convey about his manner of walking, but I would rather she hadn’t.

The rediscovered letters were cleverly played.  As character after character takes control of them, each reveals a fragment of their history and content, and taking temporary ownership brings unlooked for consequences, too.

As usual, I didn’t take proper note of the epigraph before I began reading.  Part of the line Bowen quotes is, ‘There is in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be…’   Wikipedia says that the author, fifteenth century poet-clergyman, Thomas Traherne, meditated on, ‘philosophy, happiness, desire and childhood’.  Yes, I see now that what she created was something fleeting and clever. It was a story of quiet actions, but deep resonances.

Bowen writes of one character, getting off a passenger plane:

His glance ran over the thin crowd, as he slowed down past it, not so much expectantly as with a readiness to be expected, an eagerness to smile could he find the cause.

I think that embodies my experience of this novel.

*Photograph from Bill Hammond, ‘Remembering Elizabeth Bowen at Farahy’

Empire building.

Graves 1934 - I ClaudiusThis week I finished reading I Claudius, by Robert Graves. I’ve been chipping away at the pages for more than seven days, content to take it slowly.  This is a hefty read.  I’m not talking about page numbers here.  I mean it has a big cast, and covers a lot of history.  I’ve had to concentrate, or become lost in the labyrinth of names and connections, even after I discovered the handy family tree at the back.

No wonder the book has been waiting on my shelf for more years than I care to number.  It might have stayed there longer if Jean Lee hadn’t nudged me, when discussing my Elizabeth & Mary post. On her recommendation I dusted off Graves and stepped in.

It’s AD 41, and Claudius is writing ‘this strange history of my life’.  To explain himself, though, he must also explain his parents, and grandparents, who have all been prominent Romans.

Claudius skips back and forth through time, referring to various key events in the decline of the Republic and the establishment of his Grand-uncle, Augustus, as Emperor.  Characters, Graves demonstrates, are formed by their pasts.

In this story that premise is somewhat simplified.  It’s focus is the Claudian family.

…one of the most ancient of Rome…There is a popular ballad…of which the refrain is that the Claudian tree bears two sorts of fruit, the sweet apple and the crab, but that the crabs out-number the apples.

I don’t think I’m giving much away if I say that ‘good’ Claudians are largely defined by their desire to re-establish the Republic, and work for the greater good.  ‘Bad’ Claudians long for power, and believe me, when they are bad, they are very, very bad.

I liked the reticence of Claudius.  Dark deeds are explained, but not in graphic detail, and the darkest ones of all are hinted at.  Graves doesn’t hang about.  He creates a scene with a few telling details, then moves on. Even the fight scenes, which he seemed to enjoy, were not dwelled upon.

So thanks Jean.  You were quite right, I did find it a rewarding read.  I didn’t expect to, I’m not sure I wanted to, but I became involved.  Look at this opening sentence:

 I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, or ‘That Claudius’, or ‘Claudius the Stammerer’, or Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.

You have to applaud, don’t you? Clause follows clause yet doesn’t lose me along the way. It establishes a character I am inclined to empathise with.  Here’s a modest chap, it says, despite my great name: and what about these other names I endured for forty-three years?

Claudius has been a treat to look forward to.  I’ve needed only a chapter, maybe two, each day, until I got to the last fifty pages or so.  Then I had to sit down and race to the end.

This book is an epic, and should satisfy readers on that level.  What raises it above many others in the epic-style, for me, were the moments when I emerged from the text with a shiver of recognition.  It was published, in 1934, and was read then, by many, as an allegory for the situation in Europe.  I suppose, by their natures, good allegories can continue to seem relevant.

Only connect.

Harriet phoned.  ‘I’m afraid we’re losing one of the group.  She said she’d read three of the stories, and they were just too depressing.  Are there any cheery ones in the anthology?’

K. by Lajos Csaki‘Well,’ said Vickie.  ‘It depends what you mean by cheery. There are several comedies.’

‘She says she doesn’t like P.G.Woodhouse.’

‘Okay,’ said Vickie.  ‘Has she tried…hmm, what sort of thing do you think she’s looking for?’

‘I don’t really… something up-beat, I suppose. I had a quick look through myself, but, well, I see what she means, in a way.  They’re not what I expected.  Are there any happy endings?’

‘Ah, I see what you mean now.  One or two, certainly.  Maybe more, depending on your point-of-view.  They’re not exactly about the endings, though… Hello, Harriet?  Are you there?’

telephone girl‘Yes, yes, still here.  Surely the ending’s important?’

‘Oh yes.  It’s important, very important.  But so is the beginning, and the middle… and mostly, the bit that comes after you’ve read it and thought about it for a while.  That might be the most important part of all.’


‘Definitely.  After that happens you might decide to go back and read it again.’

‘Might I?’

‘I hope so.’

‘But will I like it?’

‘Good question.’


*Top photograph: K. by Lajos Csáki