V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life
By Jeremy Treglown
Random House, 334 pp., illustrated, $25.95
It comes near the start of his acute and humane biography of V. S. Pritchett: essayist, short-story writer, novelist, and, after Virginia Woolf, perhaps the most eminent all-round British man -- well, personage -- of letters in the 20th century. Jeremy Treglown extracts a characteristic physical gesture from the short figure with a long head, owly eyes, genial nature, and quietly urgent appetite.
Pritchett would tuck his chin ''wryly and a little sideways into the folds of his neck. It was a sign which combined affability, reassurance, and mild self-skepticism." Treglown goes on: ''And the movement had the effect of emphasizing his lips: what they were saying, how they were saying it, even what they didn't say (Pritchett sometimes seemed to use his mouth for listening)."
Treglown has written literary biographies of Henry Green and Roald Dahl. They are distinctive for wit, for managing with surprising brevity a half-dozen layers of excavation, for a tough dialectical sympathy with his subjects, and for their mimetic quality. The Green book makes a run at reproducing his personal as well as literary presence, and the Dahl book, at Dahl's. The head-tucking just quoted could be in any of Pritchett's own literary essays. He wrote them as though they were stories.
Take a passage from an essay about the 17th-century Puritan writer George Fox: ''He was English. One sees him, the big man from a dull flat country, a peasant shrewd and, yet, in a massive way, naif; sober yet obstinate; gentle yet immovably blunt; a man who has made his mind up, who has the inordinate pride and yet the inordinate humility of the saints."
Pritchett's paired distinctions are not pedantic but thrilling; they are the essence of his gift, as interstices are the essence of lace. He enters the life of his writers and moves us in as well -- for the sake not of their biography but their writing. To consider apples he found it necessary to consider apple trees.
Dying in 1997 at 97 (he was born when Tolstoy had 10 years to live; toward the end he was writing of Ian McEwan and Bruce Chatwin), Pritchett had kept company with his writers for three-quarters of a century. In his essays, a critic wrote, ''he wasn't talking about literature; he was talking about family."
Treglown is rich in such citations, and in research that extends to an interview with Pritchett's nonagenarian brother, who greeted him singing extensively from their mother's music-hall repertoire. The biographer has assembled a finely written narrative that perhaps favors the work over the life, though in Pritchett's case -- as in his practice -- they were inseparable. He'd always found it difficult to confront his life directly; some of his 100 short stories were, Treglown observes, rough drafts for two books of memoirs: a startling reverse of the usual course.
Victor Sawdon Pritchett was born into the lower middle class, his father a blowhard jack of many failed trades and multiple bankruptcies. The son worked in the leather trade for a few years, moved to Paris, and, through his father's religious connections, began to write for the Christian Science Monitor.
He traveled to Ireland, the United States, and Spain, writing color pieces and portraits, largely of the extraordinary qualities he found in ordinary people (his short stories were to do much the same thing). His Spanish travels, just before the Civil War, produced two of his best-known books.
Back in London, with Spain a cause célèbre among the intelligentsia, his writing made him a celebrity, one who, like Orwell, resisted the left's romantic generalizing of the conflict. People's particularities were what interested him; everywhere he went he stopped and chatted and listened. As a London lion he was a democrat. He practiced, that is, the same tolerant openness with literary and society snobs as with dock workers and clerks.
Treglown does exhaustive year-by-year treatment of the novels (not much read, though he likes them), short stories (widely admired), essays, and other writing. The New Statesman and later The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books used Pritchett regularly. He was a prodigious worker and earned well, though never enough to make him feel secure. A touch of Grub Street panic remained -- and humanized him.
There is a desolate account of a first, mismatched marriage. It was followed by a 40-year perfect storm of a marriage, a mix of passion and great pain, to Dorothy Roberts. He was susceptible, unfaithful, and compulsively absorbed in his work; she felt abandoned and turned heavily to drink. Then, following the storm, and almost inexplicable, a final 20 years of peaceable cherishing.
Richly sourced with correspondence and family interviews, the book is written by Treglown as an astonishing, Pritchett-like story. Dorothy, who died in her 80s, slept a lot during her four widowed years. It was for the sake of dreams -- sexy ones, she implied to him -- about the earlier days.
Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.