VS Pritchett has written a splendid two-volume autobiography, which covers his childhood through his initiation as a writer. It is beautifully written and hilariously funny in places. His early life was rather chaotic, both as a Christian Scientist and because of the ups and downs of his father's business, which meant they were frequently poor and the the children farmed out to grandparents. What is remarkable is his rise, from voracious reader to first-rate literary talent. Blocked from admission to university because he was put on a "craft" track in the leather trade, he gave it up and went abroad, the next best thing to a degree. In Paris as a semi-bohemian, he started writing, which led to jobs and a career. His descriptions are so marvelous that I have remembered some of them for over 20 years. While a child writing for public-library event, he said he wrote the words so that they would "burn into the table" (if memory serves!); the essay was so good that the teacher thought he was really a professional writer. Nothing spectacular, but a first-rate story of coming of age. I recommend it for any aspiring writer who wants to feel that some order might emerge from his/her chaos of early hopes. ALso for the literarati, it is the emergence of an unusual mind.
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A wonderful single volume Modern Library edition of Pritchett's two volumes of memiors, Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil. Cab at the Door covers Pritchett's life from before birth to age 18. It is by turns: engaging, enlightening and laugh out loud funny. A good picture of post Victorian/Edwardian England. Pritchett's easy, self-depricating style keeps this poverty coming of age story from becoming another Mein Kampf (my struggle).
Midnight Oil is even better and was rightly called "A little Rolls Royce of a book." by Wilfred Sheed when it came out in 1972. The best and probably most realistic portrait of Paris in the 20's I've read. Very readable and important to anyone that wants to understand how a writer came to be. The pages fly by. I highly reccomend this Modern Library edition.
Here in the States, Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett is one of the lesser-known of the great men of English letters of the twentieth century. (Born in 1900 and died in 1997, he was nearly coterminous with the century.) Perhaps surprising for a man of his literary achievements, V. S. Pritchett was not from the upper classes, nor did he attend university or a public school. His parents were lower-middle-class and had been born into the working class, and Pritchett was, essentially, an autodidact. Yet he made himself a great writer, so much so that before his death Irving Howe said of him, "No one alive writes a better English sentence."
This volume contains two 200-page memoirs, written when Pritchett was about seventy, in which he tells of his origins, his youth, and the somewhat rocky road to becoming a distinguished writer. The title of the first memoir, A CAB AT THE DOOR, refers to the many times as a boy that he was awakened to find "a cabby and his horse * * * coughing together outside the house and the next thing we knew we were driving to an underground station and to a new house in a new part of London, to the smell of new paint [and] new mice dirts". Given the vicissitudes of his father's business endeavors and his efforts to dodge his creditors, by the time Pritchett was twelve the family had had eighteen different addresses. Pritchett started school in industrial South London at the age of eight, and at fifteen he left school to work in the leather trade. His four years with the leather factors essentially coincided with World War I and the bombing of London by Zeppelins. After Pritchett recovered from an extended illness first brought on by influenza, he resolved to escape the constant family upheaval and pursue his destiny in Paris.Read more ›
These two autobiographical narratives are written with such a tripping tongue and Pritchett's life itself is such a jaunty narrative: part immense travelogue (Paris, Andalusia, Ireland, the Appalachian hills in America) but, mostly, the continuous inward struggle with becoming a writer, that it's hard to imagine anyone disliking these convivial, self-deprecatory narratives, especially struggling writers and literati of all stripes.
But I had my doubts at first. In fact, if I were only reviewing A Cab At The Door, this would indeed be a very different sort of review. It is an account, with wry bits of Yorkshire humour, of Pritchett's youth in lower middle Class Edwardian England and the influence of a Christian Scientist father and disbelieving mother. I realise - after reading Midnight Oil - how essential it is to have this background in coming to an understanding of Pritchett. But, for all Pritchett's stiff upper lip concerning his disadvantages, it makes for a rather depressing read.
But then Pritchett departs from kith and kin, taking off for Paris in Midnight Oil. It must be said that, aside from a few jokes which you must know French to understand, Paris is not too much fun to read about either, but at least here we have the faint glimmerings of an independent spirit beginning to take flight. As he leaves Paris, Pritchett asks himself what he has learned, and answers himself: "I had learned to be absurd, was willing to see what happened to me."
And so he does when he goes to write about Ireland. This first trip to Ireland, where he meets Yeats - "He was the only man I have known whose natural speech sounded like verse.Read more ›
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