For nearly all of his very long life and career, VS Pritchett, the novelist, short-story writer and critic, was a man in the middle. Like Charles Dickens and HG Wells before him, he came from the English lower middle class -- "my country," he once called it -- and found his best material there. In politics, he took a humane position somewhere to the right of the left and to the left of the right. In his personal life, he was a devoted but not very faithful husband. He was too famous to be a cult writer, but never popular enough to escape the constant drudgery of reviewing, travel writing and other miscellaneous literary journalism.
Drudgery, however, suited Victor Sawdon Pritchett, or VSP, for short. He thrived on it, as Jeremy Treglown makes clear in his concise, rather dutiful biography, appropriately subtitled A Working Life. Deadline and
financial pressures simply reinforced Sir Victor's ferocious work ethic and drew the best from his quicksilver sensibility.
"I get a curious masochistic and nonconformist pleasure out of excessive work and especially out of work of the wrong kind," he told his friend Gerald Brenan. "I get a cussed kick out of earning my living; and the artist in me is in perpetual harangue with the tradesman."
Passionately intuitive, with an extraordinary emotional and intellectual range, he gravitated naturally to the short story and literary essay, turning out one little masterpiece after another, seemingly without effort. In his early days as a literary journalist, he routinely turned in reviews dealing with a half-dozen or more books at a time. The novel, by contrast, daunted him, although he wrote five. Too slow. Too boring. "People say a bank clerk's life is monotonous," he once wrote, "but it is nothing to compare with a novelist's."
Pritchett's "working life" presents problems for the biographer. For decades at a time, not a lot happens. By the time Pritchett reached his 30s, he had settled into a hugely productive routine that he stuck to for the remaining 60 years of his life. (He died in 1997 at age 96.) As his enormous output suggests, he spent most of his time sitting down, writing. Even worse for Treglown, he told the story of his own life in two sparkling memoirs, A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil.
That leaves Treglown with the mostly curatorial duty of arranging the novels, stories and essays in chronological order and annotating them with a few biographical details and snippets from contemporary reviews.
This approach quickly becomes tedious, especially when Treglown takes on a professorial tone in explicating the fictional work. Pritchett's last and best novel, Mr Beluncle, we are told, "maps a crucial phase of lower-middle-class English patriarchy." (The novel has just been reissued in paperback by Modern Library, which has also published Essential Stories, edited by Treglown.)
Treglown does make the most of his limited opportunities, however. He does an excellent job separating fact and myth in Pritchett's somewhat Dickensian account of his family life, dominated by his feckless, Micawberish father. The straits were not as dire, the family atmosphere not as turbulent, as Pritchett liked to think. He did leave school at 16 to work sorting skins on the London docks (an episode that provided material for his first novel, "Nothing Like Leather"), but lack of formal education, Treglown notes, may have been a blessing in disguise. For one thing, as Pritchett himself later admitted, it probably saved him from a career as a schoolteacher.