A man of letters is getting as hard to find as a poet starving in a garret. Garrets go for $800 a month, poets grow fat in university workshops, and well-rounded literary criticism has been dislodged by leaden theories that enable professors with nothing to say about literature to say it at great length. Not much to be done, I suppose, except to form a Society for the Preservation of V.S. Pritchett. Other men and women of letters survive on both sides of the Atlantic, but no one has been at it longer or better than the greatest living level-headed, pipe-smoking literary Englishman. Now 90, Pritchett was writing when Hemingway and Faulkner, Woolf and Waugh were still unknown. He has been a major short-story writer, novelist, biographer, autobiographer, travel writer, and, as this volume reminds us, one of our best critics: clear, brisk, unpretentious, curious, and tolerant — a postmodernist’s nightmare, in other words.
The essays in Lasting Impressions, many of them originally published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, include shrewd assessments of Browning, Flaubert and Turgenev, Malraux and Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Rebecca West, John Updike, and Salman Rushdie that waste no time in going to the heart of the matter. These are character studies as much as literary criticisms. Pritchett on Orwell: ”Tall and bony, the face lined with pain, eyes that stared out of their caves, he looked far away over one’s head as if seeking more comfort and new indignations…He seemed more at home than we were in the bleak no-man’s-land that war creates in the mind and in life in general.”
Pritchett is more penetrating than a regiment of psychiatrists on George Bernard Shaw’s puritanism and Thomas Mann’s dutifully repressed sensuality and anxiety. He brings to vigorous, scandalous life a medieval French village in a review of the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. In fact, he brings to life every writer and book he touches. He tells us why P.G. Wodehouse is funny: ”The strength of Wodehouse lies not in his almost incomprehensibly intricate plots…but in his prose style and there, above all, in his command of mind-splitting metaphor. To describe a girl as ‘the sand in civilisation’s spinach’ enlarges and decorates the imagination.” At a time when most books of criticism are inquisitorial machines designed to torture language and literature alike, it’s good to have one that is a pleasure to read as often as it is an illumination. A