Fiction As History A Review Essay

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Why was I born, get me out of this, let me live on less and less, get me to the grave, the womb, the last door, dragging this ludicrous, feeble, windy broken old bag of pipes with me.

This was not just a radical departure from the standard Beckett criticism I was then reading (which usually went something like, “One of the constitutive elements of the text is its enumeration of the instruments deployed to escape signification”).

His literary essays were once cherished by writers on both sides of the Atlantic, including Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Anthony Burgess.

Susan Sontag discovered Pritchett’s reviews when she was a graduate student at Harvard, and later described the encounter as “a revelation”: “I didn’t know you could write about literature in such a way, that you could be lyrical and precise and not carry a huge burden of judgment.” Gore Vidal called Pritchett “our greatest English-language critic.” Theamounts to a history of literature, not by design but by gradual accumulation: there are 203 essays in total, ranging from Cervantes, Rabelais, and Richardson to Borges, Rushdie, and Nabokov.

As an undergraduate, I gave up trying to write fiction (my only completed story bore the decidedly unpromising title “Growing Marijuana”) and realized I wanted to write literary criticism instead.

Troubled by the cavernous gaps in my reading, I sent a fan letter to James Wood, whom I didn’t know personally but whom I admired deeply, and asked him what he thought an aspiring young critic ought to read.Surely he had a hand in helping to shape their English-language reputation, just as he was always generously receptive to younger talent.Pritchett’s review of Mulk Raj Anand’s (1936) gave the Indian novelist “enough happiness to requite me for all the pain and torment that had been wrung out of me by the passion of that book.” Like his near contemporary Virginia Woolf, Pritchett had no formal education.In his memoir (1971), Pritchett wrote of his chaotic reading as a young man in Paris, skipping meals to pay for volumes of Anatole France or Guy de Maupassant, greedily and hastily devoured. Jeremy Treglown, Pritchett’s biographer, felt that other people were Pritchett’s sole religion.He “approached books as he approached people: with sympathetic and respectful curiosity, and with undoctrinaire discrimination.” Like Woolf, Pritchett was impatient with prevailing conventions of literary character, preferring the freedom of the great Russians, who did not look down on their characters or prod them about in an obstacle course of plot.Thus Robert Browning “cannot describe an emotion or sensation without putting a hat and coat on it”; Balzac “strikes one as being the gifted talker whose mind congests when he sits down to write what he has just spoken”; and Cyril Connolly is like “a phenomenal baby in a pram, his hands reaching out greedily for what he saw, especially when it was far beyond him.” Another celebrated example, rightly admired by the novelist Ian Mc Ewan, comes from an essay on Ford Madox Ford: “Ford is obstructed less by his defects than by his effusiveness of total ability …he never sank into the determined stupor out of which greater novelists work.” Pritchett is supremely .In an essay on Flaubert, Pritchett gently reproves the critic Victor Brombert for indulging in academic jargon: “The duty of the critic is to literature, not to its surrogates.” But perhaps, as James Wood has suggested, Pritchett’s humility and levelheaded temperament were also a limitation.He was never as great or influential a writer-critic as Virginia Woolf because he lacked her fierceness, her polemical strain.In Russian literature, characters were allowed to inhabit their private silences, their anonymous days.Chekhov, for instance, “caught people in their solitude …


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