Simon Mason is the author of three novels for adults, five novels for younger readers (including the Quigleys books and Moon Pie) and The Rough Guide to Classic Novels. He lives in Oxford with his wife and two children. Here Simon writes about the short stories of V.S. Pritchett.
Simon Mason on three collections of stories by V.S. Pritchett
Pritchett's collected short stories are perhaps the most impressive (certainly the most overlooked) body of fiction produced by an Englishman in the 20th century. The Pritchett tone – quietly sensuous, gently humorous, solidly dependable – may have been drowned out by noisier talents, but no other writer of his generation produced such subtly imagined dramas of human nature. People were his great subject, and from the 1920s to the 1980s, he examined them with more wit, insight and tolerance than anyone else.
When My Girl Comes Home. Pritchett wrote comedy, the complicated, tolerant comedy of Dickens and Shakespeare, and no book shows this more clearly than this, his best individual collection. The first three stories – 'The Wheelbarrow', 'The Fall' and the novella-length 'When My Girl Comes Home' – are all masterpieces in the Pritchett style, funny, unstraightforward tales of the collisions (and collusions) between private fantasies and public realities.
In the title story (Pritchett's personal favourite) Hilda Draper, caught by the war in Japan, comes home to Hincham Street in South London, where her family and neighbours have long campaigned for her release from a 'Japanese torture camp'. But they have got it wrong. Hilda spent the war as the wife of a Japanese officer. She is well-groomed and self-possessed, and – to cap it all – there is a wealthy American admirer who wants to make a film of her life. 'Her life! Here was a woman who had, on top of everything else, a life.' As in so many of Pritchett's stories, the characters learn about other people as a way of learning about themselves.
'Falling,' said Peacock. 'The stage fall.' He looked at them with dignity, then he let the expression die on his face. He fell quietly full length to the floor. Before they could speak he was up on his feet.
Though they may occasionally appear vulnerable, Pritchett's women are a feisty lot, with sex appeal and bags of personality. His men, on the other hand, are often bewildered, thwarted by the women until they learn to be as subtle and self-determined. In 'The Necklace', a window cleaner is astonished to discover that his young wife has fabricated the story of her life. In 'The Wheelbarrow', practical Miss Freshwater's niece has the last word in dealing with a Welshman whose thoughts are fixed on God. In both stories, characters struggle to impose their private fantasies on each other; they yearn for something different. Pritchett is the great celebrant of human hope in all its mad forms, and his characters' mental vividness give them deep life.
It May Never Happen. Pritchett's Englishness – the dependable Englishness of shabby, bumptious businessmen, shy wives, puritanical suburbanites and vinegar-tongued grandmothers – often came out in surprising ways. Though comfortably set in the dirty brick factories south of the river or the dreary commuter villages on the outskirts of London, a story will show a Russian sense of passing time or a French pertness, glow poetically like a Bruno Schulz, or wound with the terrible detail of a Danilo Kis. The innate knowledge of the insider is registered with the outsider's shocked vividness.
The 14 stories of It May Never Happen – five of which are unmistakable classics – show Pritchett's distinctive mastery. A fearful sailor falls into temptation ashore. An evangelist of the Church of the Last Purification arrives in a provincial town to demonstrate the non-existence of evil. A party of cyclists mistakes a private house for a pub. Two business partners fall out over money and a typist called Miss Croft with a 'small waist' and 'big red fingers'. And Aunt Gertrude breaks a mirror and remembers her girlhood.
'I bin ill,' she said. Her story came irresistibly to her lips.
All Pritchett's characters long to tell the stories of their lives; they blurt them out without warning. But they show themselves in other ways too, especially in their private dreams – the dream of Puritanism, for instance, with its temptations and revelations, in which so many of them dramatize themselves. In 'The Lion's Den' a man refuses to leave his home in the Blitz because, having prayed, he believes he will be saved. But he is also guarding dubiously acquired valuables. 'Some call it faith,' his wife says. 'I call it property.' Pritchett had the gift of summary: from a few details his characters spring almost fully formed, like Grandma Carter, who 'carried a string bag with her for wherever she went she seemed always to travel with a few groceries, some sewing and a bottle of stout.' But his greatest gift was in the revelation of their inner lives – the drift and changeability of their emotions.
The Camberwell Beauty. The stories in The Camberwell Beauty ought to be 'Late Pritchett' – he was 74 when the collection appeared – but they show no signs of age. On the contrary, they are as curious, fearless and sharp as his youthful work, and contain, in the title story, a clear masterpiece.
August's lust for 'the ivories' gave to his horse-racing mind a private oriental side; he dreamed of rajas, sultans, harems and lavish gamblers which, in a man as vulgar as he was, came out, in sad reality, as a taste for country girls and the company of bookies. Illusions lead to furtiveness in everyday life and to sudden temptations.
Everything about people intrigues Pritchett. He is fascinated by where they live, the ways in which these places participate in their lives. Stories like 'Did You Invite Me?', 'The Camberwell Beauty' and 'The Diver' depend for their distinctive qualities on the smart villas of Regent's Park, the dingy shops of South London and the leather warehouses of the Isle de la Cité in Paris, respectively. He is fascinated too by what people do to make a living, whether it is in the antiques trade, the movie business, construction engineering, municipal libraries, newspaper offices or a local council.
But it is the personality which excites Pritchett's greatest interest. He is a surprising connoisseur of sexual connections and disconnections of all sorts. In 'The Diver', a young Englishman in Paris loses his virginity to an alarmingly worldly French lady unexpectedly familiarized into 'a soft ordinary decent woman' by the story of a murder. 'The Marvellous Girl' is an utterly persuasive description of the urgent rush towards consummation ('her hands were as wild as his'). More importantly, his characters are natural fantasists, like the antiques dealers dreaming of the perfect collection or the lady from Guatemala worshipping a newspaper editor as the 'beacon of civilisation', and in this state they are ripe for rude awakenings but also ready to make extraordinary revelations. Suddenly, unexpectedly, they show – and see – themselves in all their reckless individuality.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]