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“V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life”

by Jeremy Treglown

Random House, 334 pp., $25.95

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The best reading I’ve enjoyed over the past year, bar none, has been a 1997 Modern Library anthology titled “The Pritchett Century: A Selection of the Best of V.S. Pritchett,” a 700-page cornucopia of essays, short stories and memoir excerpts, spanning more than half a century. (The British writer lived from 1900 to 1997.)

Whether evoking people, places or books he loved, Pritchett wrote a springy, antic prose in which image fitted phrase and cadence played with content perfectly.

Take, for instance, this portrait of a character from Pritchett’s story “When My Girl Comes Home”: “Mrs Fulmino had a low voice and the sound of it often sank to the floor of any room she was in, travelling under chairs and tables, curling round your feet and filling the place from the bottom as if it were a cistern.”

It’s a great pleasure, then, to turn to Jeremy Treglown’s shapely, informative biography of Sir Victor Pritchett (he was knighted in 1975), and get some sense of where all this wonderful stuff came from. Treglown has written lives of British writers Roald Dahl and Henry Green, and he’s as adept at the biographer’s art as his three well-chosen subjects were at turning a sentence.

“V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life” tells at least three distinct, dramatic stories. The first, chronicled by Pritchett himself in his hilarious memoirs, “A Cab at the Door” (1968) and “Midnight Oil” (1970), concerns Pritchett’s home background, in particular his charismatic, manipulative Christian Scientist father, a pipe-dreaming businessman with a history of repeated bankruptcies that he assumed God would fix.

Pritchett is such a magnificent raconteur that one naturally wonders if there’s some exaggeration behind the memoirs’ storytelling zest. But Treglown corroborates Pritchett’s accounts, while throwing in new details and perspective of his own.

Because of his family’s turmoil, young Pritchett dropped out of school at 16 to go work in the leather-export trade. Tiring of that, he made his way to Paris, worked odd jobs and eventually transformed himself into an overseas correspondent, reporting from France, Spain and Ireland. The Christian Science Monitor gave him his first big opportunities — an irony, given Pritchett’s contempt for his father’s religion.

The second dramatic story that Treglown unearths concerns Pritchett’s married life — a first failed marriage to an actress (Pritchett not only disavowed the marriage but suppressed almost all the work he did as a writer during it), followed by a 60-year marriage that was bawdily blissful at its start and serenely happy at its end but hellishly bumpy in its middle years. The Pritchetts, in their early sexual ardor (D.H. Lawrence was an influence), bought into notions of sexual freedom but found infidelity, in practice, to be tricky going. Wife Dorothy also had some serious alcohol problems but managed to overcome them — no easy task while part of London’s booze-heavy literary scene.

The third dramatic story is how a mere newspaper stringer with no university education rose to become perhaps the finest writer-critic to appear on the British scene since Virginia Woolf, according to some of his contemporaries. In England, Pritchett wrote reviews of work by Graham Greene, Paul Theroux and Salman Rushdie (among others) that proved turning points in their careers.

It took Pritchett a long time to realize his fiction-writing gifts lay more with the short story than the novel. By the 1960s, he enjoyed a reputation akin to Alice Munro’s today. (In 1964 his editor at The New Yorker, Roger Angell, called him “one of the top two or three short story writers in the world.”) Yet fiction alone couldn’t pay the bills. Treglown stresses what went into Pritchett’s seven-day workweek (with Sunday afternoons off) as he churned out travel pieces and reviews, squeezing in fiction as best he could.

Along with the facts of Pritchett’s life, Treglown addresses the work itself, noting the highly narrative nature of Pritchett’s criticism, and highlighting Pritchett’s own insightful comments on his fiction (“The satire is meant to be festive, an amplification of life”).

Another gift that Treglown gives Pritchett fans is a sense of what’s missing from the work that Pritchett kept in print. “The Complete Collected Stories” (at 1,220 pages) and “The Complete Collected Essays” (at 1,319 pages), for instance, are anything but complete. Treglown’s search through archives has turned up uncollected gems that he quotes and evokes to persuasive effect.

As for the work we can easily get hold of, Treglown whets your appetite for it and steers you toward it on every page of “V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life.”


Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.